Elections are happening in an environment of fear: Shahidul Alam on political accountability in Bangladesh

29 December 2018

On 20 November, the award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam was released on bail after more than 100 days of detention at the Dhaka Central Jail in Bangladesh. A vocal critic of the government in Bangladesh, he was arrested in August after he spoke about student protests in Dhaka in an interview with Al-Jazeera English. During the interview, he said the protests were the result of pent-up anger at corruption and an “unelected government … clinging on by brute force.” He also posted videos on Facebook condemning the government’s heavy-handed response.

Alam was charged under Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology Act, accused of spreading “propaganda through social media” and “hurting the image of the nation.” His arrest triggered international protest, with human-rights groups, UN officials, and eminent intellectuals such as the scholar Noam Chomsky and the writer Arundhati Roy calling for his release.

Alam is the founder and managing director of Drik Picture Library, and his work is known for holding power to account. His images have depicted human-rights abuses and extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh. In an interview in Dhaka, the independent journalist Aaquib Khan spoke to Alam about the current political and civil-rights situation in the country and the national elections, which are scheduled for 30 December. “Should there be a free and fair election, this government would be threatened,” Alam said.

Aaquib Khan: In what environment are the elections in Bangladesh taking place?
Shahidul Alam: There’s a culture of a fear; it’s not just for the elections, but for Bangladesh itself. For a very long time, people have constantly been watchful and wary of what they do, what they say and how they are perceived. That has led to people being very careful about pretty much anything they do. That’s the environment within which we find these elections.

But I think there is a historical element as well—the fact that it was a virtually a voter-less election in 2014, it means that a large number of people haven’t had the chance to vote. I didn’t have the chance to vote. More significantly, many will be voting for the first time. They want to vote. They are scared and certainly, they have shown they have a point of view, they have a particular belief, they want to see a Bangladesh that is free and democratic. They have taken to the streets to express their own opinions. They want to do so through the elections themselves. They want to vote with their hearts and their minds. When they will be able to do so is something that all of us are worried about.

Aaquib Khan is a Mumbai-based media professional. He tweets as @kaqibb.

Keywords: Bangladesh Shahidul Alam Sheikh Hasina Bangladesh Elections photography