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'Bangladeshi authorities tried to scare me into submission'

December 3, 2018

In an exclusive interview with DW, renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam said that the government tried all means to intimidate him during his incarceration. He also slammed curbs on the freedom of expression.

Bangladesch Shahidul Alam
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Shahidul Alam: 'Arrogant government has nothing on me'

Shahidul Alam, a 63-year-old award-winning photographer and social activist, was released on bail in November following intense domestic and international pressure. He had been arrested at his home in Dhaka in August shortly after giving an interview to television channel Al Jazeera. He was arrested on propaganda charges after he accused Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government of extrajudicial killings and corruption. His release on bail comes ahead of general elections in Bangladesh at the end of this month. 

DW: How did the authorities treat you during your detention? 

Shahidul Alam: Initially, they interrogated and tortured me. Then I was remanded for seven days. And then there was a period of incarceration for over 100 days.

Read more: Why the EU isn't sending election observers to Bangladesh

The three phases were not similar; the first was terrifying in a way, and I was scared that something could go wrong. In the second phase, they tried to extract information from me and attempted to implicate me. But they had nothing on me. They needed to find something, but they couldn't. The third phase was the longest — in relative terms — when I was in jail. They tried different strategies in all three stages.

Initially, the authorities tried to scare me into submission. Later, they told me that they would let me free without charges if I agreed to stay silent. But when this strategy didn't work, they remanded me. During that time, they tried to find material with which they could incriminate me. They used all means at their disposal but failed. In the last phase, they gave me "a chance" to repent, apologize and say that I was sorry.

However, none of the tactics worked. The pressure — both from within the country and from outside — was intense. I think they realized they had made a mistake.

Die Premierministerin von Bangladesch Minister Sheikh Hasina
Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina is seeking a third consecutive term amid opposition accusations that she is becoming increasingly authoritarianImage: Reuters/A. Alfiky

What message did the Bangladeshi government try to send by arresting you? 

I think there were two messages: one, that they're very powerful; two, they tried to convey that it doesn't really matter who you are and how much support you have, they can still put you behind bars. And also that it doesn't matter whether someone is guilty or not, they can put anyone in jail. Their audacity and arrogance were part of the message. They wanted to demonstrate that they don't care about anything.

How do you view the current state of press freedom in Bangladesh?

It's worrying. For a long time, Bangladesh only had state media. Then came private televisions and newspapers. There are many media houses and publications in the country right now. 

We thought this trend would lead to a greater freedom of expression, but it has not been the case. Private media has taken over the role of state media in Bangladesh. There are many private media outlets that are essentially propaganda machines, as they toe the government's line.

A culture of fear and a lack of press freedom have created an intimidating environment for journalists. They face physical threats. Journalists are no longer practicing journalism. It's easier to toe the government's line, to be honest.

How will the situation impact the December 30 general elections?

The upcoming elections are very important and must be free, fair and participatory. But the present situation indicates that it won't be the case. That is why journalists need to be alert.

The election commission has already put several rules in place that will make it difficult for journalists to do their job. Will they be able to take photographs? Will they be able to report freely? All this is very questionable right now. Bangladeshi journalists need to be not only vigilant and brave but also creative in dealing with this situation.

Shahidul Alam is an award-winning Bangladeshi photographer and social activist. 

The interview was conducted by DW's Dhaka correspondent Harun-Ur-Rashid. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.