Shahidul Alam, photographer, journalist, and activist, is currently being detained for commenting about the student protests in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He was charged August 6, 2018 under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, a restrictive law regulating online speech that “tends to deprave or corrupt,” or opposes the state’s ideology. If convicted, he could face up to 14 years in prison. Alam is currently awaiting a decision regarding his bail application. In the meantime, he remains in police custody.
Alam is facing possible charges for “online speech that hurts the image of the nation.” While covering student protests, he took photographs and provided commentary on live Facebook videos. That same day, he also participated in an interview with the news outlet, Al Jazeera. Many critics observe that Alam’s arrest is part of the broader trend toward increasing authoritarianism and crackdowns on free expression in Bangladesh.
The student protests covered by Alam had been occurring over the past several weeks after a speeding bus plowed into a crowd and killed two students in Dhaka on July 29. Students, angered by the incident and the overall lack of road safety in the country, organized protests. The government responded to the demonstrations by inciting attacks on student protesters as well as journalists covering the protests.
Alam did not hesitate to voice his criticisms of the government’s response to student protest. In the interview with Al Jazeera, he remarked that police have sought out “help from armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads.” He added that the government was making a mistake by responding to the protests in this manner: “It thought that fear and repression would be enough, but you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.” After his arrest, it was reported that he was being interrogated for “giving false information to different media and for provocative comments.”
Prior to his arrest, Alam had established himself as an internationally acclaimed photographer and social activist. He has received numerous awards for his photography, which focuses on overcoming prevailing stereotypes about Bangladesh, a country typically associated by Westerners with poverty and natural disasters. He is also the founder of the Drik Picture Library and Majority World agencies, which provide platforms for photographers from the Global South to promote their works. Further, he is well-known for establishing the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, one of the best photography schools in the world.
September 4, 2018: Following a delay, the High Court hears Alam’s bail petition and calls it “embarrassing,” forwarding it to the chief justice for a decision.
August 28, 2018: The photographer’s lawyers file a bail petition. They refer to Alam’s physical illness and guarantee that if bail is granted, Alam would not leave the country and will face the trial proceedings.
August 22, 2018: Alam’s partner visits him in prison and reports that his health is deteriorating.
August 12, 2018: Shahidul appears before the Dhaka Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court with no lawyer present. The judge orders him to jail until his next court appearance.
August 7, 2018: Alam’s partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, submits a petition requesting that he be granted access to medical treatment for injuries sustained during his arrest and police custody. The High Court rules that Alam should be released from police custody and delivered to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) Hospital for the treatment of his injuries. Afterwards, he is taken back into custody.
August 6, 2018: Alam appears in a Dhaka lower court the day after his arrest. He walks in barefoot and limping, and shouts that he has been tortured under police custody. Observers note that he showed signs of physical and psychological abuse. He is charged under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act for “giving false information to the media.”
August 5, 2018: Thirty policemen in plain clothes force their way into Alam’s apartment in Dhaka, destroy the building’s video surveillance, and arrest him. This incident occurs just hours after he has spoken in an interview with Al Jazeera and posted live videos on social media about student protests in Dhaka. In addition to condemning the brutal suppression of student protests, he also criticized government corruption, extrajudicial tortures and killings, and general suppression of dissent. Police cite Alam’s “provocative comments” made in his social media posts and interviews as justification for the arrest.
Free Expression in Bangladesh
Shahidul Alam’s arrest is part of larger pattern of free speech violations in Bangladesh by both state and non-state actors. According to local and international groups, mistreatment of political opponents and other critical voices by security forces remain a serious concern, with dozens of cases reported each year. In addition, the Bangladeshi government has a patchy record of investigating increasing threats to and murders of secular writers and publishers, gay rights activists, and religious minorities. PEN America has previously condemned the brutal killings of Bangladeshi writers, professors, and activists such as Xulhaz Mannan and Avijit Roy, among others. Meanwhile, speech is increasingly constrained by a restrictive legal environment, including the draconian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, under which dozens of cases have been filed in the past several years; official attempts to undermine independent media; blocks on social media and other communications applications; and a lack of governmental support for the principle of freedom of expression.
In Their Words
You can raise awareness for the case and join us in the support of Shahidul Alam by sharing the hashtags #freeshahidulalam and #ArtIsNotACrime on social media. Also, you can follow the FreeShahidul Facebook page and sign the petition. If you wish to send appeals, you can address them to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, as well as to the Minister of Home Affairs, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, or the Inspector General of Police, Mohammad Javed Patwary.