Last year, after an almost 30-year career as a photojournalist and editor, Shafiqul Islam Kajol has been charged under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act for social media posts that are critical of his government. The price he has paid to reveal the truth is staggering.
The CCTV footage shows Shafiqul Kajol, a Bangladeshi photojournalist, pulling up to his newspaper office in Dhaka and parking his motorbike. It was early afternoon on March 10, 2020. As the time stamp rolls, a number of unidentified men approach the motorbike and appear to tamper with it. At the end of the video, Kajol appears from his office, and at 6:51PM drives off.
Then for 53 days there was no trace of him.
On May 3, 2020, Shafiqul Islam Kajol surfaced. He was found by Bangladeshi border guards along the country’s border with India near the town of Benapole, just over 200 kilometers from where he had last been seen. He was handed over to the police by the border guards and then taken quickly to court. At his court appearance the judge ruled he be detained and he was placed in jail.
Shafiqul Islam Kajol disappeared the day after an investigation began for his allegedly publishing “false, offensive and defamatory” information. The charges stemmed from Kajol’s posting on Facebook about the names of people associated with a sex-trafficking ring run out of an upscale Dhaka hotel by members of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League.
The three charges Shafiqul Islam Kajol faced after his court appearance all fall under Bangladesh’s Digital Securities Act. This law was passed in 2018 and is seen by both working journalists and rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as a tool used by politicians and others in power to hobble the press, stifle free speech, and silence dissenters in Bangladesh.
The Digital Security Act itself is vaguely worded but also contains harsh penalties for those found to violate it. When the text of the law is examined, it works to make it a crime to publish or disseminate any information that the government perceives as a lie, can be construed as an insult against the government, goes against the official government stance on a topic, or is perceived as dissent against the government.
For Shafiqul Islam Kajol, this was not the first time he has crossed the government. “I used to be a political activist during the 1990’s movement. My daily routine would be joining protests one after another against the dictator of that time followed by lots of seminars and symposiums.” But this protest activity is also what led him to become a photographer. “During that period, I became close to many dedicated photojournalists ... I used to look at the way they would work. A well-crafted photograph always became a synonym for those protests. I took up photography during that time and started covering all these protests.”
Shafiqul Islam Kajol began taking photography classes at the Alliance Francaise De Dhaka, a French cultural institution to improve his craft. But even today he still thinks that he is still learning. He says he has learned a lot since he first began, but that there is more to learn. “There isn’t any end to learning.”
His first job was working for the weekly magazine Saptahik Ekota, where to start he was paid 50 Bangladeshi Taka, or roughly 60 US cents, per photograph. He went on to photograph for other outlets in Bangladesh including Holiday, New Age, Daily Samakal, Bonik Barta, and Drik News. Eventually he went on to start his own magazine named Pokkhokal and worked as its editor.
His largest body of work has been his photographs of political events and protest, particularly those that happened before the rise of the now ruling Awami League political party in 2009. Though the change in governments did not slow his work. Kajol’s work as a frontline photographer has also resulted in his being injured several times during protests. Once he was hit on the head so hard while working that he was knocked unconscious.
But Kajol has also covered many other subjects as well during his career. This includes the destruction waged by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 and then Cyclone Aila in 2009 along with various other natural. He also covered man-made disasters like the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 where a commercial building housing five garment factories collapsed after numerous early warning signs that the building was in trouble were ignored. The collapse killed over 1000 people and injured more than 2000.
Shafiqul Islam Kajol has always strived to bring out the story of the people whose lives were torn apart by the disasters. His goal being to share the stories of those affected through his work, and use the photographs to not just raise awareness of what was happening but to hopefully inspire people to help the victims. Perhaps even to take steps to try and correct what caused the destruction in the first place in the hopes of stopping it from happening again.
Now at age 53, Shafiqul Islam Kajol is looking back at a career as a photojournalist that may also be ending. After his arrest in May of 2020, he spent nine months in jail before finally being granted bail in December. Because of the poor conditions in Bangladeshi prisons and the lack of proper medical care, his health is suffering from his time behind bars. And his family worries that if he is returned to jail, he will not survive the experience.
Kajol compared photography as a career to being a racehorse. “A racehorse is only usable when it can run with full force. The moment he loses momentum he’s done.” Because of his current health problems, he is not able to work. The magazine he started has also lost all of its ad revenue because of his arrest, putting it on the verge of shutting down permanently. With the fear of Kajol being returned to jail at any moment for any infraction, real or perceived, he and his family also cannot relax even with his being home.
In early March 2021, a charge sheet was officially filed in the courts by the police in one of the cases against Shafiqul Islam Kajol. A trial date was to be in April, but the increasing Covid-19 case rate and resulting lockdown in Bangladesh have put that on hold for the moment. He faces up to 3 years in prison if found guilty.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) there are currently 416 journalists and media professionals imprisoned around the world. So far in 2021, 6 journalists and 4 media assistants have been killed. This after 2020 saw the killings of 54 journalists and media assistants.
Every one of those numbers is a person, a life and a story that goes along with it. Shafiqul Islam Kajol’s tale is just one of their stories.
Bangladesh itself currently ranks 152nd out of 180 countries in the world in the Press Freedom Index.
“All I want is to be a free man, free out of these three digital cases and live with my family peacefully. The economic constraint that we are facing as a family because of these draconian laws goes against the government commitment of development progress. How could I have progressed if I have to spend over nine months in imprisonment away from family? This law destroys the nation’s narrative of development and it ruins the country’s prestige around press freedom. This law needs to be abolished as soon as possible.”
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.