The jailing of Samsuzzaman Shams

The circumstances of the Prothom Alo journalist’s arrest suggests the last vestiges of democratic culture in Bangladesh are slipping away.

The jailing of Samsuzzaman Shams
Prothom Alo journalist Samsuzzaman Shams with police at Dhaka magistrate court where he was remanded to jail. Picture: Image taken from The Daily Star, YouTube video.

Has the Bangladesh government become an ultra-nationalistic, repressive, censorious police state with no rule of law?

The recent arrest of the Prothom Alo journalist Samsuzzaman Shams from his home at 4 am by 16 police officers after he published an article on Bangladesh's independence day which quoted a day labourer saying, “What will I do with independence if I can’t afford food? I sweat it out in the kitchen market. We need independence of rice, fish and meat,” certainly suggests that this is the case.

Ultra-nationalistic because a quote of a poor person on the country’s independence day suggesting that his life has not improved through the country’s independence due to high food prices is deemed beyond the pale by the powers-that-be and their entourage; a repressive police state because the quote resulted in the arrest of a journalist from his home at 4 am by 16 police officers; no rule of law as the arrest then resulted in the decision by the court to send him to prison; and censorious as the state has decided to criminalise the harmless words of a poor worker which will result in even greater silencing of the media. And all this with the apparent support of the home minister.

All those who follow Bangladesh politics will not be surprised at this incident. There have been many similar examples of each of these, but there is something particularly shocking that a harmless news report of this kind quoting a day labourer could result in the kind of police action that we have observed.

The concern is not just that there is a law on the statute books, the Digital Security Act, which contains offences that allows any criticism of the state to be criminalised. It is also because the government, the police and the courts are in unison willing to enforce it for their very narrow political aims.

Electoral democracy in Bangladesh died in 2018. And now - following in short order the police attack on journalists in the supreme court premises and the violent assault of the brother of a Bangladeshi Al Jazeera investigative journalist — the jailing of Samsuzzaman suggests the very last vestiges of any democratic culture in Bangladesh are slipping away.