Two students were struck and killed by a speeding bus this summer in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. Their tragic deaths sparked a moment of national reflection. Students, most of them high schoolers, began to protest for improved infrastructure and the government listened.
Soon after the protests began, the Bangladesh government agreed to all student demands. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the government to start implementing the changes and urged students to go home because their movement had succeeded.
Unfortunately, leaders of opposition parties, especially the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), pressed the protesters to continue and actively urged them to turn violent. Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam was among those responsible for this belligerent escalation. He was arrested for inciting violence, which, despite the facts, led to an international outcry on his behalf.
Western readers are accustomed to hearing about journalists who are censored or detained in developing countries. The “bad guy” is always the government in such tropes. But in this case, the government found itself with no choice but to arrest Mr. Alam and to subdue the violence he helped to inflame. It was not trying to protect its political standing but to prevent its citizens from getting hurt.
Government opponents are using the Western media to fuel an old cliché about government authoritarianism. But the Bangladesh situation is anything but cliched. Indeed, the government is more than justified to have taken the actions it did. Mr. Alam isn’t a victim. His actions harmed a lot of people.
Mr. Alam has long been a voice of dissent in Bangladesh. He has been free to express those views as have all Bangladeshis. Bangladesh’s press is vibrant. It boasts 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 because his latest pronouncements – through both social and traditional media outlets – included false claims about students’ deaths during the protests, which, in turn, instigated violence and an attack on the governing party’s headquarters. Many people were needlessly injured because of his false and very loud assertions. One member of the governing Awami League was permanently blinded in the attack on party headquarters.
In the U.S., it’s famously illegal to yell fire in a theater when there is no fire. Mr. Alam did the equivalent in Dhaka and was appropriately charged with a crime.
The truth is that no students were killed during the protests. In addition, opposition leaders infiltrated the otherwise peaceful protests – after the government had agreed to the students’ demands – and transformed them into violent anti-government demonstrations.
Some opposition members even masqueraded as students to provoke the response. The tactic is all-too-familiar in Bangladesh. The same terrible pattern occurred during Bangladesh’s 2014 elections when opposition party members firebombed vehicles and other means of transport rather than contest at the ballot box.
Political opponents wish to divert attention from the government’s many accomplishments — such as lifting 30 million people out of poverty and more than doubling per capita income — and to do so as national elections loom later this year. This time they hijacked a protest by young students, which the government had embraced, and tried to transform it into what the outside world could imagine was a common case of heavy-handed governance.
That simply wasn’t true. Nor was it true that Mr. Alam was beaten by the police, as he asserted. The New York Times reported that “hospital officials said he [Alam] had no injuries requiring hospitalization.”
Broadly held assumptions help us navigate a complicated and often brutal world. But sometimes — as is the case in Bangladesh—– the reality defies the cliché. Mr. Alam and all others who disagree with government policies can say what they want. But they cannot injure people in the process. Bangladesh was protecting its citizens in this case and would do so again.
Sajeeb Wazed is the Information & Communications Technology Advisor of Bangladesh and the son of the prime minister.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.