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.

AK: What does your case signify for human rights and freedom of speech in Bangladesh?
SA: A culture where dissent and any form of criticism is not tolerated is evidence of the heavy-handedness of the state. Having said that, all governments profess a love for freedom and democracy and actively repress it in practice, it’s the levels that differ. Here, [in Bangladesh], there is no scope, no space at all for anyone who is outside the immediate coterie of the government to be able to speak his or her mind, and that’s scary not just for those people, but scary for the nation, and scary for our future.

AK: Outside of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has a humanitarian image, as somebody accepting refugees from Myanmar, for example. Yet, when it comes to citizens in her own country, the picture looks different.
SA: Perceptions are created by public-relations people, and public-relations people have special skills. It’s important to recognise that we owe a lot to India, because we were sheltered in 1971. We were persecuted in the same way and the lives of millions of people saved because a neighboring country gave us shelter. It’s only fair and reasonable that we would respond in the same way. This response has not been uniform.

There was a time when the Rohingyas were sent back. They are being received today and it is correct and fair that the government be appreciated for the role they have taken, but we cannot cherry-pick on what we appreciate. The fact that there is extreme repression within the country itself is something that needs to be highlighted, talked about and addressed. I am concerned by this selective view that you talk about. I am concerned that there are governments who, on the face of it, support freedom and democracy, yet choose to ignore what is happening inside. I suspect that has to do with the politics of convenience. There are nations who find it far more useful to have a suppliant dictator than a messy democracy, particularly when the messy democracy doesn’t always align with their material interests.

AK: Would you qualify the Bangladesh government as an autocracy?
SA: If autocracy refers to one person’s rule then I think the definition is fairly obvious, even within our political parties. That’s true of all political parties, sadly, in Bangladesh. We have never practiced democracy internally. The universities have not had elections for years. We’ve had people running major political parties for years and dissent within the parties is very harshly quashed. Today, the institutions of the state which are meant to be independent of the government are no longer independent—so the election commission, the judiciary, the police and the bureaucracy in general have not had a chance to play their role because they have to toe the government line. It doesn’t bode well for Bangladesh, but it doesn’t bode well for the world either.

The role that foreign governments have played is shortsighted. If you generally believe in democracy, you cannot be selective about which democracies you support. I am concerned, for instance, that there are foreign governments that provide the surveillance equipment that we have, the arms that are used for our suppression, and in some cases provide the training that the police and security forces have, which are used against us on the streets. So those double standards are very worrying. It is in our own interests that we take on board the very values we all talk about. The fact that human rights are important worldwide, freedom and democracy are to be cherished, they need to be cherished everywhere.

AK: Coming to your case, who are the principle targets of the Digital Security Act? Is it dissidents, critical thinkers like yourself or is it mainly the opposition?
SA: In the current definition, anyone who is not a lapdog of the government is a dissident and those are the people it tries to deal with. But very specifically, if we read between the lines, media is something that is being curbed. The Digital Security Act is clearly designed to curb freedom of expression in the media. [The Digital Security Act passed in September 2018 expands the ICT Act under which Alam was arrested. It includes punishment for publishing information that “ruins communal harmony or creates instability and disorder.”] It is meant to inculcate fear, to send out a very clear signal to toe the line or else.

AK: And yet, you still speak out?
SA: It’s not just me who speaks out. There are a lot of people speaking out despite this. This nation became independent because so many people took those risks. So many people stood against a powerful army, and we are free today as a nation, because those people took the risk they did. That we are not free today internally is because not enough people are doing what I am trying to do.

That’s not to say, there are not people. There are a few media outlets that have taken huge risks to do what they do. Our students have come to the streets. The fact that our jails are full of people who are dissidents effectively is evidence that they have spoken regardless, and that you cannot tame a nation by force. That’s the message that somehow autocrats have not gotten to their heads. And there is a rage bubbling inside. There is a bubble, that’s about to be burst, and I think unless they recognise this very soon, and take precautions, it’s going to blow in their face.

AK: Often, these laws also induce self-censorship. The media becomes more silent, and people are afraid of speaking.
SA: Self-censorship is pervasive, of course. The media which is meant to be there for greater public good has decided in a large number of cases to make themselves spokespeople for the government. The government [-run] media has always been propaganda, that’s never changed. But private media, one would assume, would try and have a line closer to a neutral position, a fair position. That sadly is not the case. Today, you see the mainstream media effectively toeing the government line, spouting government propaganda. It is hugely worrying, but the fact that there are independent voices despite that is also a sign of hope.

AK: From listening to you, it seems the Bangladesh of today is completely the opposite of its spirit of independence. In many people’s views, Bangladeshi history is the Awami League. But the AL is now just going against that spirit.
SA: The Awami League certainly did play a very important role in 1971, and there is no reason to doubt that or question it. The problem is, it is that linkage which remains the only credible source of validity for this government. It has to cling onto the past to demonstrate some semblance of its right to govern.

Today, the people being governed have no say in the process of governance. The average person is not part of the equation when it comes to the policies made by the government. And certainly, in terms of track record, not just for democracy and freedom, but in terms of addressing income disparity, this government’s role is abominable. So what does it do? It digs up that old hat and waves it in front of us, expecting us to forget what happens in reality, what happens today.

AK: It is easier to sell nationalism?
SA: I think politics is about PR [public relations] and they have found that the [1971] war of independence is the only legitimacy this government can cling on to. Therefore, it has to find some way to milk that. I do not actually think that this PR campaign is working. The things they could talk about in terms of delivering on the basic needs of Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi people would have made a difference. The average person is intelligent. I find that all governments seem to think that the public is stupid. They are not.

Without a doubt, should there be a free and fair election, this government would be threatened. Therefore, it cannot afford a free and fair election. If a government did what it is meant to do, there would have been no need for suppression of dissent.

I take on board some of the developments that have taken place, and I feel that it could have played a much more intelligent role. Had the AL really delivered on its election promises, had even a modicum of the gains that have been made been shared with the public, had the profits not only gone to the elite and the government and its coterie, had the benefits of development been shared amongst the people at large, it would never have needed to do any of these.

AK: This is not the only government under which human-rights abuses have happened, the previous governments too had a similar track record.
SA: Absolutely right, human-rights violations have happened through out Bangladesh’s history and before Bangladesh’s history. And precisely what we are talking about is not specific to this government. I’ve had a loaded gun pointed to my head during the [Husain Muhammad] Ershad regime. This [pointing to his right hand] is one of eight knife wounds I have received during the BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] regime, and I was put in jail by the AL. They all think I am opposition. I am pro-people, and essentially what we have to talk against is authoritarianism.

As far is this election is concerned, I have no qualms about who wins the election, I just want to ensure the will of the people is reflected in the electoral process. Should there be fair and free election and the AL comes in, good luck to it and it will have our support. But it cannot force its way into government, go against the will of the people. No government should hold its public in this manner and be as repressive as it is. So, what we are trying to change is not necessarily the government, but the process through which governments are elected and selected.

AK: How will you do that?
SA: I think a fair and free election is the beginning of that process. The fact that there will be accountability is something that is a built in check and balance that all governments should have. Part of the reason it can get away with what it’s doing is because it feels it doesn’t have any accountability. It is because they continue to feel that they are above the law themselves that we are in the situation we are.

AK: Do you think it is also because there are no other alternatives?
SA: Certainly the fact that the two major parties [the AL and the BNP] have largely behaved in the same way is part of the problem, but there are alternatives. There are very strong voices who are playing a good role, who are close to the people. The problem today is that the political system we have requires money and muscle to survive. And the people outside who do not have the money and the muscle cannot rise to the surface. I think that process is what needs to be changed.

AK: Why did you choose to talk to the media after your release? Are you not worried that you may be targeted again?
SA: I will be targeted; it’s an occupational hazard for journalists. I spoke the truth then, and I will speak the truth now. They had no right to arrest me then and they have no right to arrest me now. But I am a hugely privileged person in a country like Bangladesh. The fact I do not have to worry about whether I will have food in my belly tomorrow makes me a privileged person. The onus is upon me and the many others like me to take this position.

This country has prospered largely because of our farmers, our garment workers, our migrant workers. It’s their earnings that we thrive upon, yet the way we treat those people is despicable. I think if there is the slightest of gratitude that we as a community need to have, it is [towards] the subaltern of the nation. If we have failed them, then we have failed ourselves.

AK: Sheikh Hasina says that they did a lot of things for farmers, for the ready-made garments sector, and some indicators show that Bangladesh is doing better than India and other Asian countries.
SA: I will go back to those earlier parameters. If development is measured in terms of GDP [gross domestic product], in terms of economic growth, in terms of infrastructural growth, yes, this country has done well. I measure development in terms of people’s lives, people’s aspiration, people’s ability to talk freely, people’s quality of life and when I say people I talk about the general public, not merely the super wealthy. It’s true that Bangladesh today has the fastest growing wealthy people in the world. That is development for those people. I am talking about the rest. And the rest are suffering, and it is their suffering that concerns me.

What I am talking about has nothing to do with which government is in power. I questioned this government because of its acts, not because who it is. Over a period of time, we have moved away from the basic tenants of what this nation is about. Our original constitution was a fine constitution, the values of secularism and democracy that this nation was built upon are values we should all believe and aspire to. It’s a fact that the AL has moved away from the very principle on which it was formed and on which Bangladesh was liberated. That concerns me. I would like the AL to return to those values, to take on board the tenants of this constitution. I speak as I do because my constitution allows me the right to speak as I do, and as long as that is the case I will continue to exercise my rights.

This interview has been edited and condensed.