In late July, thousands took to the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to protest the deaths of two students who had been run over by a bus. In a country where nearly 20 people are killed in vehicular accidents every day, this was a tipping point. For weeks, the capital was at a standstill as people cried for safer roads.
On August 5, Shahidul Alam, an award-winning photographer, appeared on Al Jazeera English to comment on the chaos. He told an anchor that the road safety protests reflected the frustration of ordinary Bangladeshis. He called the government illegitimate and corrupt, drawing attention to its human rights abuses. “It’s an unelected government,” he said of Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and her administration. “So they really didn’t have a mandate to rule but they have been clinging on by brute force.”
That night, he went on Facebook and posted live videos saying more about the protests, condemning the government’s handling of the demonstrations. (The government had tried to quell the crowds by firing rubber bullets and spraying tear gas; raging mobs backed by Hasina’s party—and joined by police—beat up demonstrators.) A few hours later, after the Al Jazeera interview was broadcast, about 20 plain clothes police officers appeared at the doorstep of Alam’s apartment and whisked him away to jail.
ICYMI: Social media censorship in Bangladesh hints at long-term problems for publishers
Sofia Karim, a niece of Alam’s who lives in London, heard the news from her father, who was visiting the family in Dhaka. It’s common, she knew, for law enforcement in Bangladesh to appear at someone’s doorstep and make an arrest on unknown charges, without a warrant. Often, families never hear word again. “My first thought was, I hope he doesn’t disappear,” she recalls.
The next day, Alam was dragged from police custody to appear in court, barefoot and limping. He screamed that he was being “tortured” and that, before his court appearance, his tunic, having been stained with blood, had to be washed.
Karim saw him on television and called her family in Bangladesh. “It was extremely distressing to see him like that,” she says. “We were immediately contacting as many news organizations as possible and telling them straight away that he was being tortured.”A lawyer friend requested that he be moved to a hospital and be examined for signs of torture incurred behind bars—even before his arrest, the lawyer said, he hadn’t been in good health. The police obliged, Karim says, but the hospital quickly returned him to custody, concluding that he did not require hospitalization.
The case sent a shock wave across Bangladeshi media, as journalists—already in a precarious position, as Hasina has aimed to stifle dissent—feared the hostile reach of government. “If they could jail a prominent figure like Shahidul Alam, then anything can happen with lesser known people like us,” Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University and a longtime columnist at Prothom Alo, a national newspaper, says.
Alam was one of the most high-profile people to have been charged under section 57 of the Information and Technology Act. Established in 2006, its aim is to monitor and regulate digital communication, and in particular curb obscene material on social media. But it has been used broadly to muzzle dissent. In 2013, the law was amended to incorporate harsh penalties, such as lengthy jail time (between seven and 14 years) with no bail, and to eliminate the need for an arrest warrant. “Persecution of journalists, torturing them, and imprisoning journalists is nothing new as other parties also did it,” Tasneem Khalil, an independent Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist, says. “What this government has successfully done is taken the models from previous governments and perfected the techniques on how to scare the journalists into silence.”
In recent years, any criticism of Hasina—or the Awami League, her political party—has been likely to result in an arrest. In April, Human Rights Watch released a 89-page report, “No Place for Criticism,” describing the threats to freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Since 2013, researchers found, nearly 1,271 cases related to section 57 had been filed to the Cyber Tribunal, a department set up specifically to handle ICT cases. The real risk to reporters arose from the law’s vague language: under its provision, almost anyone could wage a complaint on grounds of defamation or offending one’s religious views, and those complaints would inevitably lead to arrest.
As a result, journalists in Bangladesh have been operating under a cloud of fear. At least 19 reporters were arrested and charged under section 57 in 2017, according to the police. In one case, a journalist was arrested in July 2017 because he shared a story on Facebook about a minister giving a villager a goat as relief aid that died within a day.
Alam’s arrest, which comes against the backdrop of elections slated for December 30, has many journalists thinking that reporting in present day Bangladesh is simply not worth the risk. Alam, who grew up in Dhaka and fell in love with photography while in London as a graduate student of chemistry, is known for taking pictures that show an unglamorous, previously unseen side of Bangladesh. His photographs have covered everything from the women’s communist movement to natural disasters to extrajudicial killings. He also managed to set up one of the first schools of photography in South Asia and a photo festival, Chobi Mela, that brings together photography talent from the region.
The sentiments he expressed on air were shared by other journalists too afraid to speak out. “I almost could not believe that he said that on live television,” Nazrul says. “We were shocked.” Alam has long been known as someone willing to confront injustice, but Karim believes that he did not expect to be arrested. “If he had felt the risk, he would have gone into hiding,” she says.
CJR interviewed nine journalists to understand the risks they face reporting in Bangladesh. All of them agreed that self-censorship is on the rise and many requested anonymity due to fears of retaliation. This year, conditions have grown worse. Hasina ran uncontested during the last national elections, in 2014—at the time, party workers and local politicians of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party were arrested and tortured by the Awami League. This time, she will face a challenger, Kamal Hossain. To maintain her hold on parliament, Hasina has taken steps to improve her image while continuing to impose strict control on the media.
In January, her administration announced that it would repeal section 57 and replace it with something called the Digital Security Act. In April, the bill was submitted to parliament for review. Upon reading it, journalists and activists working in the country observed that the new law would be even harsher than the last. “The government of Bangladesh acknowledges that the current section 57 of the ICT Act is draconian, and needs to go,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release at the time. “But the new law being proposed is hardly an improvement, creating a series of new offences that will undoubtedly be used for years to come against government critics in the country’s highly politicized criminal justice system.”
The Digital Security Act passed—but not before Alam was charged under 57, meaning that the old law will still be applied to his case.
Nazrul tells CJR: “Every independent thinker and opinion leader is living with fear.” Nazrul—who, in the past six years, has been charged with sedition, contempt of court, defamation, and violating section 57 for his writing in Prothom Alo and his comments on TV—says he has reduced his television appearances from three or four times a week to approximately two in the past six months. His encounters with law enforcement have made him wary. The TV channels that used to invite him on, he adds, have been threatened by the government and asked to not to engage with him. And, after 18 years writing for Prothom Alo, he has recently faced unprecedented censorship. In the past two years, three of his pieces—ones related to human rights abuses and bad governance—were not published. “The editors told me that it is in the best interest of both the paper and me if we stay away from anything that can come across as critical of the government,” Nazrul says. He adds, “I no longer write the way I used to before.”
During the protests this summer, authorities temporarily shut down the internet to stop people from publishing or sharing stories encouraging dissent on social media. Caught in the chaos was Shaer Reaz, a reporter at the The Daily Star, a national newspaper, who was on the streets to cover the action. He recalls filming discreetly as pro-government mobs attacked anyone holding a camera. In the afternoon, as the crowd grew in number, police officers responded by beating people. Reaz was kicked and punched; his phone was smashed. Later, he was taken to a police station for interrogation. “When they were hitting me, I kept telling that I am from the press,” Reaz tells CJR. “But they took away my badge and threw it.”
More than a dozen journalists were attacked and injured during the protests. At the police station, Reaz was subjected to more beatings. After nearly four hours, when his newspaper staff came looking for him, he was released. But a week later, police showed up at his house and asked his mother about his whereabouts and other details related to his work. Since then, he has tried to keep a low profile.
There are dozens of TV stations and newspapers in Bangladesh. That might give the impression of a healthy media ecosystem. But reporters who have tried exposing corruption, human rights abuses, and the army’s unsavory role in governance have been reminded that there are red lines. Many have been forced to flee Bangladesh and seek asylum in other countries.
Tasneem Khalil, who reported on extrajudicial killings, Islamic extremism, and the army’s abusive practices for The Daily Star and as a stringer for CNN, was kidnapped by security forces in 2007. He was tortured in detention before being released thanks to immense international pressure. Shortly after, he fled to Sweden with his wife. Today, he continues reporting on the situation back home.
Khalil was one of the first journalists to report on Alam’s arrest, based on a tip he received from someone in the Bangladeshi security forces. He regularly receives information from journalists inside the country who are unable to publish anti-government stories, he says, because media companies are entirely or at least partially owned by the state or businessmen with ties to the ruling party. There are very few independent media outlets, he explains. The ones that exist “end up losing ad revenues or face baseless allegations if the government disagrees with their reporting,” Khalil says.
In 2015, Shahed Alam, a familiar face on Channel 24 reporting on the 2014 elections, left Bangladesh and moved to New York City. During that election, Alam had said on live television that the elections were rigged and that polling stations were empty. A few hours later, he received a call from his producer and was asked to go off the air. He was reassigned to a different department, where he worked mostly behind the scenes; a few months later, he was asked to leave his job altogether. “There is a lot of pressure from the government on the media and I think they were left with no choice,” he says. Before he fled, he continued to report on the government and radical groups; in response, armed men assaulted him on the street. “The problem is,” he says, “you don’t know who is going to stab you, whether it is the government or the Islamists.”
Alam, now 37, speaks to me in the one-room office he keeps in Jackson Heights, Queens—also known as “Little Bengal” because of the large population of Bangladeshis living there. Outside, the streets are lined with ethnic grocery stores and restaurants selling Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi delicacies. In shop windows, passersby can see signs in Bangla explaining the cheapest methods of sending money home.
Alam, looking laid-back, wears a button-down and has a plaid jacket hanging behind the door. His office has tripods set up in every corner. Because of the censorship he has faced—even while working for Bengali outlets in New York, he says—he is now fully independent, running a YouTube channel with nearly 350,000 subscribers and more than 100,000 followers on Facebook. “I have people tuning in from Bangladesh to listen to my reports,” he says.
As the elections draw close, he is publishing at least two reports a day. He talks about poor voter turnout in last elections, corruption, and possible violence at polling sites. “I am encouraging people to go out and vote and helping them realize their potential,” he says.
He has also been following Shahidul Alam’s case. Since August, the world has rallied behind his release: several Nobel laureates wrote letters to the Bangladeshi government; human rights organizations arranged protests. Finally, after spending nearly 100 days in jail, his bail was approved. “If Awami League wins the election again, I think the first thing they will do is restrict the media even more and critical voices like Shahidul will continue to be harrassed,” Shahed Alam says.
In Queens, Alam, free of the pressures of self-censorship and threats to his life, has not been afraid to weigh in on the happenings in Bangladesh. But he has no plans to return. “I miss my country each day and leaving was not a choice I wanted to make,” he says. “I can’t go back because you never know what they would do to me.”
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This piece has been updated to clarify the nature of Shahidul Alam’s injuries prior to his court appearance.Zainab Sultan is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.