Overwhelmed by grief when a bus struck and killed two high schoolers, students took the streets in Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka last month to demand improved road safety. The government heard the students and responded with a resounding “yes.” It promised to bolster enforcement of traffic laws and increase the penalty for reckless driving. The protests, in short, succeeded.
But leaders of the country’s main opposition party saw a chance to exploit the moment for political gain. Members of the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) infiltrated student groups, sometimes donning student uniforms, and stirred things up. Peaceful protests quickly turned violent. Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam was among those responsible for this terrible turn. He was arrested for inciting violence, which, because of his celebrity and despite the facts, led to an international outcry on his behalf.
Bangladesh has seen this kind of political exploitation — and violence — before. The BNP has repeatedly used disruptive tactics to bully and intimidate voters. Instead of contesting the national elections in 2014, it instigated nationwide strikes. BNP leaders and their collaborators also set fire to thousands of homes, cars, buildings, and businesses. They ransacked and demolished power stations, killed 20 law enforcement officers, and torched government buildings. On election day, they firebombed polling booths. In all, the BNP-backed attacks killed 231 people and injured 1,180 others.
During the recent student protests, the BNP’s instigation didn’t go that far, but it did lead to multiple injuries that could have been avoided. Mr. Alam chose to play along with the BNP and was appropriately arrested. He used both social and traditional media outlets to spread false claims about students’ deaths. That, in turn, initiated violence and an attack on the governing party’s headquarters. Numerous people were injured because of his false and provocative assertions. One member of the governing Awami League was permanently blinded in the attack.
For more than a decade, Mr. Alam has freely voiced his political dissent. At times, he has expressed support for Bangladesh’s government; at other times, he has been a harsh critic. But in every case, the government has protected his right to free speech, a right that all Bangladeshis have. The nation is also proud to have a free press. It has 300 newspapers, 30 privately owned news networks and 220 independently run news websites, many of which offer pointed criticisms of the government.
Police arrested Mr. Alam not because he held a contrary view but because his latest pronouncements caused real harm. Mr. Alam’s words helped transformed a peaceful protest into lawless violence. For reasons of his own, Mr. Alam directed protesters to lash out, and some did, bringing Dhaka to a standstill.
The government acted in the interest of public safety when it arrested Mr. Alam. Indeed, the government’s actions were necessary. Mr. Alam isn’t a victim. His actions harmed a lot of people
In the U.S., it is illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Mr. Alam did the equivalent in Bangladesh and was correctly charged with a crime.
This is a national election year in Bangladesh. So, no one should be surprised that the opposition wants to divert attention from the government’s accomplishments, including lifting 30 million people out of poverty and doubling the country’s per capita income. Nor is it surprising that the BNP again resorted to violence. But both are unacceptable. No one — not a political party, a celebrity photographer, or anyone else — can be permitted to harm other people.
Hijacking a protest by young students and endangering their lives, along with many other Bangladeshis, is not politics, it’s terrorism. Media outlets should not fall for the BNP’s charade of victimhood. Bangladesh was not censoring political opponents. It was protecting innocent lives.