Tasneem Khalil remembers one of his first associations with photojournalist Shahidul Alam, which goes way back to the early 2000s. “He was the person who, when I was arrested, stood by me, and when I was detained. He was the one who wrote about me during my arrest.” The Bangladeshi journalist, who has been living in Orebro, Sweden, since 2007, pauses for a few seconds to order an espresso and a croissant from a coffee shop. “We are not very close friends,” he continues, “but we are in the same line of work and we shared notes. This was when there were human rights in Bangladesh. I was a print journalist but I worked very closely with a lot of photographers also. We had a very large number of photographers who were sort of the intellectual offsprings of our long fight. We had many things that we shared between ourselves.”
This year, the arrest, torture and the recent release of 63-year-old Alam has become the epicentre of discussions on media freedom in Bangladesh. A cursory conversation with journalists and photographers in the country is enough to inform you that this form of intimidation, be it physical or through oppressive laws, by the state is commonplace, and fear for their lives and those of their loved ones, even more so. “In 2017, at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under the Information and Communication Technology Act, which penalises online content that is regarded as defamatory or blasphemous. Instead of amending this law, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government proposed a new digital security law in early 2018 with vaguely-worded provisions that would allow the authorities to clamp down even more on dissent,” says a report by international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders.
“I never wanted to be a journalist”
Born to journalist parents, 38-year-old Khalil grew up in Sylhet and started his career as a feature writer in 2000 with a small English newspaper in Dhaka. He swiftly went on to specialise in human rights as his beat, and started focussing on police and security forces abuse. The University of Dhaka-graduate, who even dabbled in writing on Art for a while, confesses to have never been a “model employee”. “In fact, I never wanted to be a journalist in the first place,” he says. “I actually wanted to be a computer programmer and then when I was hired as a feature writer, I found the journalism field very exciting.”
He remembers an incident that drove him to investigative journalism. “I was in my first job and I saw the army raiding a hotel as part of a special operation. The hotel looked like an illegal place and all the women were being brought out and tortured. Suddenly, I saw one girl who was trying to escape by climbing down the window—the building had nine storeys. That was so surreal for me, and shocking how helpless these people are when you are faced with the most repressive force of the state. That was the day, in my early twenties, that I decided I wanted to do more as a journalist.”
“Many journalists did not have the opportunity I got back then”
Khalil is not the first journalist to be illegally taken by the state forces or security agencies and tortured, neither is he the last. “But I am pretty much the only one who has spoken up against it,” he says. His Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, he claims, was the first detailed testimony of torture in the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) custody. “Many journalists did not have the opportunity I got back then. Right now, I live a very sheltered life in Sweden and I am protected by the government. I am free to say whatever. I can even crack jokes about the [Swedish] king.”
Before his arrest, Khalil had worked with local English-language newspaper The Daily Star, on projects for Human Rights Watch and as the Bangladesh news representative for CNN. He was known for his “outspoken criticism of the military’s role in extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses,” according to the Human Rights Watch report, which also details his 22-hour torture. “There were no official allegations against me. There were warrant letters but no case. They [the state] were extremely irritated and offended by my arrogance—how dare I, a journalist who doesn't come from a family with connections, talk uncensored, about what [the state] does to the common people, to the citizens of the country,” he says.
While torture is a familiar and brutal strategy used by the Bangladeshi police—an aspect that surfaced during Alam’s arrest this year as well—to pursue criminal investigations, Khalil’s arrest also falls in the context of the imposition of the 2007 Emergency, during which the state had the power to quell demonstrations and deprive people of legal protection and due process rights. “Although exact figures are unavailable, tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily arrested under emergency rule,” according to the Human Rights Watch report. Khalil adds, “It was absolutely an illegal detention but, it was a state of Emergency. Of course, Indians have experienced this during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.”
“After the first half hour of being beaten up, the fear wore off”
On May 11, 2007, at 12.50 AM, Khalil was playing with his six-month-old son in his Dhaka apartment, when he heard his building complex security guard call out his name from outside the main door. When he opened the door, four or five men emerged, identified themselves as the “joint forces” (which, under Emergency, means the police and army), blindfolded and handcuffed him, and took him to a torture cell “specially designed” for the purpose. “I was detained, questioned, beaten up, all of this while blindfolded. Later, when my blindfold was taken off, I could see the sticks that were used on me. One of the top directors of DGFI used something to poke me under my navel and lower abdomen. That moment is undescribable; the pain was excruciating,” he says, “But, you know, after the first half hour of being blindfolded and beaten, the fear wore off. I started focussing on how to get out of there. I was also sort of very curious about what is going on and how it is out there. I am a journalist! I was noting down as to what goes down when they torture, which I wrote about in the HRW report.
He was dropped off close to The Daily Star office 22 hours later, after which he went into hiding with his wife and son. On June 6, 2007, due to a “well-negotiated” arrangement between different international actors and with the assurance provided by DGFI, Khalil was provided safe passage from the Zia International Airport. “The Swedish political security at that time was kind enough to escort me and my son out of the airport till we reached the gate; two colleagues of HRW were in the plane with us,” he says.
“Support for Alam is a message to Bangladeshi journalists that they are not alone”
He was 26 when he moved to Sweden, and has no inclination to come back even after 11 years. “This is pretty much my country now; my son is growing up here and my parents are safe back home in Bangladesh,” he says. “I also don’t want to end up in a torture chamber or a prison cell like Shahidul. I don't trust the government, I don't think they are willing to protect journalists.”
The current regime, says the journalist, is democratic, but things have gotten worse. During the time of our conversation, Alam was still in the prison. “All he did was some basic ground reporting. Even that is not allowed and journalists are actually really scared about writing anything,” says Khalil. "I know some journalists who have fled the country and even they don't want to talk about it much because they have family back home and could face harassment. Things have gotten really ugly under the current regime. The DGFI have become more powerful than ever.”
Blackmail, threats and torture abound, and every “dirty trick” is used to ensure reporting that sticks to the interests of the regime, the military and the ruling party. Despite his experience though, Khalil indulges in a little joke before we end the conversation, about sharing a “love-hate” relationship with the DGFI at this stage of his career. “I have my sources who talk to me freely; some of them actually like me!” he laughs.
Alam’s case disheartens Khalil, but he is also hopeful with the kind of support he has got. “There’s a very interesting thing he used to say: “What goes around, comes around.” He has stood up for others when he could. Now, everyone across the globe is standing up for him. That is a beautiful thing to see and sends a message to the other journalists in Bangladesh that they are not alone,” Khalil concludes.
Interviewees are solely responsible for their statements and do not reflect the views of VICE India.
This is Part I of the four-part deep dive. Read the introductory overview here.
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