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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Bangladesh frees photographer facing charges of propaganda

Shahidul Alam said he expected Bangladesh to be a country where people can 'speak freely'

Renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam walks out of jail in Dhaka, Bangladesh EPA
Renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam walks out of jail in Dhaka, Bangladesh EPA

An acclaimed photographer has been released on bail from a Bangladesh jail 107 days after he was arrested on charges of spreading false information about a street protest and of making propaganda against the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Shahidul Alam was released released on bail on Tuesday and said he wanted to see free speech in Bangladesh. "We expect that in independent Bangladesh, people will be able to speak freely," he said.

Mr Alam founded Drik Gallery and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, which trained many Bangladeshi photographers now working at home and abroad. His work has been published worldwide in a career lasting more than 40 years.

After two students were killed in a road accident in Bangladesh's capital, protests by thousands of young people blocked roads for a week, paralysing the city of more than 10 million people.

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Read more:

Bangladesh's Minister of Cultural Affairs: imprisonment of photojournalist Shahidul Alam will 'be resolved' soon

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The protest became an embarrassment to Ms Hasina's government, which faces a general election on December 30.

Many protesters used Facebook Live to stream information about the demonstrations. The authorities said Mr Alam used digital platforms to spread false information that fuelled the chaos and tarnished the country's image.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others demanded Mr Alam's release after his arrest in August, criticising Ms Hasina for cracking down on free speech.

After being granted bail last week, his release was delayed. He still faces charges, which rights groups insist are spurious.

"He shouldn't have spent one day in jail," said the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York based non-profit.

In response to his release, Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s Regional Campaigner for South Asia said on Tuesday: "Shahidul Alam is a bold representation of Bangladesh through his lens. He should not have been detained at the first place for peacefully sharing his opinion.

"Bangladesh authorities must immediately drop charges against Shahidul Alam and uphold its international commitments to protect the right to freedom of expression.”

Mr Alam's detention plays into a global trend of governments attempting to muzzle a free press.

"The arrest of Shahidul Alam is part of a pattern seen in Bangladesh and many other countries of taking legal actions against journalists who criticize governments by claiming 'fake news' or vague threats to national interests," said CPJ's Asia Program Coordinator, Steven Butler.

According to the CPJ, of 262 journalists it documented in prison over the past year, 21 were arrested because their governments accused them of peddling "fake news."

The term was first popularised by US President Donald Trump, who also refers to members of the press as "enemies of the people." Since then the epithet has proved popular with authoritarian-minded leaders worldwide from the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad told Yahoo news last year: “We are living in a fake news era.”

In Myanmar, where the government has carried out a genocidal campaign against the country's Rohingya minority, an officer in the Rakhine state security ministry told the New York Times in December: “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news.”

In August, Malaysia repealed an anti-fake news law introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak April after it was widely condemned for stifling free speech.