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Free speech under threat in Bangladesh

Free speech under threat in Bangladesh

On March 10, 2020, Shafiqul Islam Kajol—an editor and photographer of Pakkhakal magazine in Bangladesh—started off nervously from office after yet another busy day at work.

The already worried family kept waiting but Kajol didn't reach home for dinner.

This was a day after the ruling party had filed a criminal defamation case against the journalist and 31 others under the Digital Security Act (DSA), 2018.

Apparently, some high-profile men in the government weren't happy with his social media posts on a sex-trafficking racket being run from a Dhaka hotel.

A human rights organization later released a video footage showing some men allegedly tampering with his motorbike and then following Kajol as he had left office.

For the next few weeks, 'Kajol' appeared only in social media hashtags like #WhereIsKajol #FreeKajol.

<img class="wp-image-1851" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Kajol-with-his-wife-son-an.jpg" alt="" width="648" height="365" /> In happy times: Kajol with his wife, son and daughter

"Free him from suspected enforced disappearance," went out the message from his family, colleagues and a few thousand more.

All this while, everyone was hoping he's still very much alive.

Earlier this week, exactly 53 days later, Kajol appeared, finally, about 250 km away from the spot he went missing in March.

Under the DSA, he was charged with allegedly publishing "false, offensive, illegally obtained and defamatory" content on Facebook that "could deteriorate law and order."

He was also slapped with a fourth case under the Bangladesh Passport Order, 1973, accusing him of "trespassing" into his own country on May 3 when the Benapole Police took him into custody, allegedly bound and blindfolded, in the no-man’s land between Bangladesh and India.

"My father is alive but it breaks my heart to see he is now in chains. He is in jail. Help me," tweeted Kajol's son Monorom Polok.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet">
<p dir="ltr" lang="en">Please read this. My father is alive but it breaks my heart to see he is now in chains. He is in jail. Help me. Please read retweet and reach out. <a href="https://t.co/J7FzNEKNTH">https://t.co/J7FzNEKNTH</a></p>
— Monorom Polok (@MonoromPolok) <a href="https://twitter.com/MonoromPolok/status/1258567557872746498?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">May 8, 2020</a></blockquote>
<script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

His long disappearance, and now detention, has triggered protests from human rights and media organizations across the world.

"Bangladesh police must immediately put an end to the long ordeal of journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, missing for 53 days, and release him from custody. Kajol is a victim not a criminal. It’s an abuse of authority to subject Kajol to detention and interrogation,” said Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The CPJ has previously reported on journalist disappearances in Bangladesh, and the atmosphere of fear those disappearances create for members of the press.

"Access to reliable and fact-based information provided by free and independent media is vital to protecting public health everywhere. Amid the C-19 crisis, it is essential that freedom of expression is upheld and that the voices of journalists are not restrained," tweeted Earl Robert Miller, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh.

He was perhaps indirectly referring to the curious case of Kajol. It was unusual for a seasoned American diplomat to do that.

"While it is an immense relief that Shafiqul Kajol has been found safe and sound, his arrest is extremely shocking,” said Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"We call on the Bangladeshi prosecutor’s office to order this journalist’s immediate release and to appoint a serious team of investigators to establish how he came to be abducted all this time, which is very mysterious."

Bangladesh is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, one place lower than in 2019.

The RSF has repeatedly opposed the Bangladeshi government's controversial DSA as "it poses a grave threat to freedom of expression and information."

<img class="alignnone size-full wp-image-1852" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/security-jeep.jpg" alt="" />

The 2018 Act replaced the notorious and controversial Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006 but RSF said that "Sheikh Hasina’s government missed an opportunity to remedy the ICT Act’s biggest flaws, including Section 57, which criminalizes online content regarded as defamatory or blasphemous."

Under the DSA, espionage is also broadly defined to include “secretly recording any kind of information” about “government, semi-government and autonomous institutions” and is punishable by 14 years in prison and/or a fine of 2 million Taka ($ 25,000).

"We are concerned by reports of new arrests in #Bangladesh under the Digital Security Act &amp; call on the gov't to ensure individuals can exercise freedom of expression and opinion. #PressFreedom is the foundation of democracy &amp; can save lives in a pandemic," tweeted Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary (PDAS) of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.

The Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs deals with US foreign policy and US relations with the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Besides Kajol, several other journalists, activists, writers and even cartoonists are facing charges for posting content which 'tarnished the image' of Bangladesh.

Clearly, the ruling government has to quickly amend the draconian digital act, unless they want to be criticized severely by the rest of the world..