The writer highlights the issue of Press Freedom and Forced Disappearance of journalists and rights activists in Bangladesh
By Nazarul Islam
‘It seemed so easy to do it’. All those who fell from power and grace, ended up with these thoughts! In order to escape accountability for crimes, perpetrators of political agendas, will do everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrators’ first line of defense. If secrecy fails, they attack the credibility of their victim. If he (or she) cannot be silenced absolutely, they try to make sure that no one listens.
To this end, they have marshaled an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity, one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrators, the greater are his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely shall the arguments prevail.
This is the undeniable truth. Did we really choose a leader who would make their citizens proud? One who was expected to stir the hearts of the people, so that the sons and daughters of the nation strived to emulate their leader’s greatness? We can hope to be truly great, when a leader inspires and produces citizens worthy of becoming future leaders, honorable decision makers and peacemakers. And in these times, a great leader must be extremely brave. And, leadership must be steered only by their conscience, not a ‘bribe’. Saying something that is ‘politically correct’ is often a way of dismissing the voices of the oppressed.
I share the story of grief-stricken Bengalis, who have been caught in a different kind of ‘war’ of liberation. Power has corrupted and struck the weakest, among the voices of dissent. Atrocities committed to quell an enemy of the state—or a prisoner of conscience, have trickled down in small bits into limelight. In Bangladesh, Shafiqul Islam Kajal is a prisoner of conscience.
His disappearance is symbolic of Bangladesh’s ongoing crackdown on free speech under a draconian “fake news” law called the Digital Security Act. Since Kajol’s disappearance, four other editors and journalists have been charged with various offenses under the act.
In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index released Tuesday by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh was placed at 151 out of 180 countries, which is one point below last year’s ranking. In the index, RSF said it had noted a “disturbing increase in press freedom violations, including violence by political activists against reporters in the field, the arbitrary blocking of news websites, and arbitrary arrests of journalists.”
Kajol had remained an outspoken critic of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party. The day before he went missing, he was charged under the act, having been targeted for a report linking lawmaker to a Dhaka ‘escort’ service.
The editor was last seen in CCTV footage released by Amnesty International showing him leaving his office in Dhaka on the evening of March 10. The footage also showed people tampering with Kajol’s motorcycle while he was in the office and running behind him after he rides off.
While experts consider it as strong video evidence that could be used to trace what happened to Kajol, the police have reportedly downplayed it. “We have sent the video footage to the police to find my father last month. But the investigative officer later told me that they hadn’t found anything suspicious in the footage,” Kajol’s son, Monorom Polok, told DW.
“All I can say confidently is that my father has been abducted. And, we want police to find and return him to us.”
When contacted by reporters, the lead investigator of Kajol’s case had said that he has not received any updates about the missing journalist. However, the official told local media that Kajol’s mobile phone was briefly switched on in Benapole, a Bangladeshi town near the border with India on April 9, but police did not conduct an operation in the area due to lack of time and resources.
Meanwhile, an online campaign using the twitter hashtag #WhereIsKajol has been launched by journalists and activists to put pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities to find Kajol. Many people have posted pictures on social media with placards like “Where is Kajol?” printed on them.
“I strongly demand Kajol’s safe return,” Dil Afrose Jahan, an investigative journalist based in Dhaka, told DW. “The online campaign is not only for him, but it’s also for all of us who are in this profession. We have to fight to protect ourselves, and we have to give ourselves a voice first.”
Sofia Karim, an activist based in London, has been campaigning online to find Kajol since his disappearance. She said that the reluctance of police to find Kajol indicates that he might be another victim of forced disappearances in Bangladesh.
“Bangladesh has a track record of forced disappearances, and this case is disturbing and sinister,” Karim told foreign newspaper correspondent. “I feel for Kajol’s family. This is unjust. It is our duty to speak out. We are talking about someone’s life,” she added.
Bangladeshi authorities have a history of being involved in arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances. Enforced disappearances have mushroomed in the country since Shiekh Hasina took power in 2009, according to rights groups.
The country’s security forces have forcibly disappeared over 550 people over the past decade, according to local human rights organization Odhikar. This number includes many rights activists suspected to have been abducted by security agencies.
Meanwhile, four editors and journalists were charged on Saturday after a complaint filed by a ruling party leader under the Digital Security Act. They had been reporting on alleged embezzlement of aid for coronavirus victims from a district in Bangladesh.
Online newspaper editors Toufique Imrose Khalidi, and Mohiuddin Sarker, as well as local journalists Tanvir Hasan, and Rahim Shubho, had also been charged with the “publishing of offensive, false, defamatory, or fear-inducing data or information.” Khalidi runs Bangladesh’s most popular online news website.
Hasan had claimed that the lawsuit was filed to muzzle journalists so that they avoid reporting on corruption committed by ruling party politicians. “Police have acted swiftly in taking on the case. It’s an attempt to stop us from writing about corruption,” he told reporters
Human rights experts have said the Digital Security Act is draconian and demanded that the law be abolished since it was enacted in 2018. They confided that the measure can be used to systematically muzzle journalists and rights activists.
“When journalists are accused of criminal charges for performing their professional duties, this means that the state is defining a boundary beyond which no one is eligible to exercise their right to freedom of expression,” said rights activist Saad Hammadi.
“Some of the provisions of the Digital Security Act are vague, highly repressive because of the harsh punishment they entail, and in violation of international human rights law.”
Bernhard Hertlein, is a German journalist and rights activist, and had expressed his dismay that the “draconian” law targets everyone from journalists to ordinary citizens. “Even doctors who write about the danger of the coronavirus on Facebook face charges.
Perhaps this is why I abhor media. It gives a voice to people who don’t deserve one. Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it. Should the law and demeaning practices be abolished? In Bangladesh, as elsewhere, the most arduous war of liberation began with a single step, in the right direction.
A vibrant society in Bangladesh need not be afraid to raise voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.
Without debate, without criticism no administration and neither country, nor the state can succeed—nor the republic can survive! It is time we learned our fundamental truths.
(The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist and lives in USA. He regularly writes for Sindh Courier, and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America)