The death of democracy

On 5 August, Bangladeshi artist, writer and organiser Shahidul Alam was interviewed on Al Jazeera about student protests triggered by the deaths of schoolchildren run over by a public bus.

Alam said that the anger of the protesting youth were not just with the transportation sector but the dire situation of the country as a whole. He outlined a litany of everything that was wrong in Bangladesh: “The looting of banks, the gagging of the media, the extra-judicial killings, the disappearances, the need to give protection money at all levels, bribery at all levels, corruption in education.”

That very day, security personnel in plainclothes arrived at Alam’s Dhaka home in the middle of the night and took him away without any explanation or warrant. When he was presented before court a few days later, he was limping and had to be held up as he walked.

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He had obviously been tortured in custody. Soon after, he was charged with Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communications Technology Act (ICT) for ‘spreading propaganda and false information against the government’. Alam was denied bail. If convicted, he could face a seven-year sentence.

The blatantly unjust and politically motivated arrest of Shahidul Alam has been widely condemned and there have been petitions for his release from all parts of the world. The attention this case has received partially has to do with Alam’s extraordinary achievements and his international fame.

As a photojournalist, he has received widespread acclaim for revealing that the marginalised are active agents rather than victims and his visceral depictions of state brutality. But Alam is equally known as an institution builder and a mentor for younger photojournalists. He founded the Drik Picture Library photo agency, the ChobiMela, one of South Asia’s most prestigious photo festivals, and the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute which has trained hundreds of photographers, including from Nepal.

But the case has far-reaching implications that go beyond Shahidul Alam as an individual, and even beyond Bangladesh. The arrest has to be seen in light of worrisome trends that have begun to afflict large sections of the world, including many countries in the South Asian region.

Broadly speaking, this has to do with the attack by the state upon what is often called ‘freedom of expression’.In recent months, governments in South Asia have tried to criminalise all criticism of the government, both by publicly prominent personalities and by private citizens expressing themselves on social media.

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In Bangladesh, several people have been arrested for posting or sharing comments critical of the government on Facebook. The government there is planning to replace the notorious ICT act with even more draconian legislation. In Myanmar, journalists reporting on the Rohingya crisis have been arrested and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act.

In the past week, several high profile activists and intellectuals have been arrested in India in what is clearly a vendetta on the part of the government. And in Nepal too, the government has passed legislation that would prevent journalists from reporting on state activity.

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Governments have claimed that such measures are necessary to preserve national security. In order to maintain their power, rulers in the region have tried to instigate nationalist sentiments among the population. Organisations campaigning for greater justice have been vilified as tools of foreign countries.

The intention behind these efforts is clear. Governments want to establish their own interpretation of history and current events as the only legitimate one. They want to be left free to bulldoze decisions without having to confront independent civil society groups. And in the process, they are trying to create populations that are fearful, inward looking and xenophobic.

The campaign for the release of Shahidul Alam is not just about an individual who has been unjustly persecuted. More broadly, it is a campaign to resist the steady encroachment upon democratic space across the region. It is a campaign against a narrow-minded nationalism and the arbitrary use of power. A campaign that stands for tolerance, the rule of law and the rights of the most marginalised people.

During her visit to Kathmandu for the BIMSTEC conference, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would do well to realise that her government has only lost international legitimacy by arresting Shahidul Alam. His immediate release will be an important first step towards restoring the Bangladesh government’s credibility.

Other heads of government visiting Nepal should similarly recognise that attacks on journalists and members of civil society only serve to increase hostility and anger towards the ruling authorities. Dismantling legislation that impedes the right to free expression will be necessary if states are to regain the trust of their populations.