Fighting for a Free Press | Sojourners

Fighting for a Free Press

What photographer Shahidul Alam's arrest shows about the horrifying conditions for journalists in South Asia

Hours after Bangladeshi photojournalist, humanitarian, and writer Shahidul Alam wrapped up his Skype interview with Al Jazeera, criticizing Bangladeshi authorities for their brutal response to the road safety protests in Bangladesh, he was picked up from his Dhaka residence by 20 plain-clothed police officers.

A day later he was charged under Section 57 of the Information Communications Technology Act, a law which authorizes the prosecution of any individual who electronically broadcasts content that is defamatory. The day after that, Alam was taken to his court hearing when he cried out to tell the public that he was being tortured in prison.

“I asked for a lawyer, wasn’t given one. I’ve been assaulted. My bloodstained shirt was washed and put back on me and I was threatened that if I didn’t testify as they directed, I would be further …” Alam proclaimed, as was escorted away.

Within hours of Alam's arrest, social media was rife with outrage from activists, Bangladeshi and Indian nationals, photographers, and journalists from all over the world demanding his release.

But Alam still remains in custody today.

When journalists speak out 

This is not the first time a South Asian activist has been punished for speaking out against the government. Southeast Asia has some of the largest democracies in the world, and yet under the current climate, every voice of defiance is pegged as a coup, or a smear campaign. There have been countless activists, journalists, and others who speak up that have been relentlessly targeted.

Roughly a year ago, on Sept. 5 last year, Indian journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was killed outside her residence in Karnataka, India. Lankesh was known for her critical views on the country’s rising right-wing extremism and had also fought against caste-based discrimination, which remains a huge issue in India.

“They  think they shot dead Gauri a year ago but I don't think so. Those who wanted to kill Gauri killed a body and not her legacy. Her teachings and ideology are being carried ahead by thousands of Gauris including myself,” student activist Umar Khalid, who considered Lankesh a mentor, said on the anniversary of her death this year.

Khalid himself escaped an assassination attempt on Aug. 13 right outside New Delhi’s Constitution Club, where he was attending an event titled ‘Khauff Se Azaadi’, or freedom from fear.

On Aug. 28, police in the Indian state of Maharashtra raided the houses of activists like Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bhardwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, and Gautam Navlakha, and arrested them because their alleged Maoist connections and charges of conspiracy.

Their arrest was hailed as an attack on democratic and civil rights, and yet, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention.

Man Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy believes the attack on ideology is a sign of a government in panic, especially considering the fast approaching elections in India.

“Everyone who disagrees with a particular ideology is being criminalized, incarcerated or, assassinated by shadowy right-wing killers,” Roy said.

Interestingly, the politically motivated war against activists, intellectuals, and journalists in Southeast Asia is gathering momentum as the media itself is being robbed of its privileges.

India ranks 138th when it comes to media freedom. Just a few days before the survey was released, the Indian government rolled out a circular which announced that journalists can have their accreditations revoked if found to be spreading fake news.

In March, Vice India had to reportedly drop a story about a gay member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP, a right-wing student organization, which often works together with the youth wing of the government. The managing editor and a staff writer for Vice stepped down.

Later in June, Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of the Kashmir Rising newspaper, was shot in the streets of Srinagar. Bukhari was the 48th journalist to have been killed in the country since 1992, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists

Three steps back 

The most significant steps which Southeast Asia took toward freedom of press in the last 30 years are being undone, as the media currently answers to a form of governance fueled by extremism. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been trying to ‘regulate’ digital media, in a way which might end up controlling content directly.

“As the control of traditional media becomes more pervasive and social media is the one outlet that’s accessible, governments are figuring out ways to clamp down on that as well,” said Matthew Bugher, head of Asia program for Article 19, an NGO that strives to protect freedom of information.

This is no country for impassioned op-eds, or international Skype calls which can let the world know of how cramped the democracy is with hate speech, social media propaganda, and open threats. 

The situation in Southeast Asia is much closer to an actual witch hunt, a word which Donald Trump loves to use, because in India there were actual beheading warnings made on live national television.

Alam has been one of the most emphatic critics of his government, and has often held up the brutal contradictions of his own country and its people.

Alam’s pictures are demanding and tense, throbbing with nervous energy — something that makes its audience uncomfortable. As Shahidul was quite literally being dragged away from the courthouse, his mouth covered by police, it made for the most unforgiving picture of the silenced press. And the silencing continues — on Sept. 11, he was denied bail yet again by the Bangladeshi officials.

The outrage will never tire, and yet there is nothing to do except wait.

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