Sarwar’s abduction: A chilling message for journalists
Late in the evening on November 1, 2020, journalist Golam Sarwar, who went missing on October 29, was found unconscious near a canal at Sitakunda, Chattogram. He was heavily bruised, stripped off his clothes, but "thankfully alive", a reference fast becoming meaningful in cases of disappearance and such extrajudicial harassment in Bangladesh. Sarwar, who works for a local news portal, went missing four days after publishing an article about the alleged involvement of a minister's family in land grabbing.
According to a report by The Daily Star, during the three days of his disappearance, the abductors called his family members at least five times, instructing them to be ready to pay a ransom. This was perhaps a ruse to conceal their true motive. A video clip capturing the early moments of his rescue shows a barely conscious but deeply traumatised Sarwar—believing he was still being held by his abductors—begging for relief from their torture. Using words that are bound to have a long shelf life in the memory of journalists and ordinary people alike, he is heard saying: "Bhai, please don't beat me. I won't write news anymore!" He stretches his hands in a pleading gesture as he repeats these words again and again.
The next morning, while talking to journalists, Sarwar confirmed that he was indeed kidnapped and tortured for reasons not related to money but to his work. As we wait for police investigation to shed light on the identity of those behind the incident, it must be acknowledged that there is something eerily familiar and profoundly unsettling about the circumstances of Sarwar's abduction, especially the wording of his plea for mercy to his invisible torturers.
Soon after the incident, a reporter of Prothom Alo, one of the journalists beaten by the helmet bahini during the road safety movement in August 2018, recalled in a Facebook post what words he had used to dissuade his own attackers: "Bhai, don't beat me. I didn't do anything. I'm a good boy, bhai. Don't beat me, bhai." But he wasn't spared, neither was the Noakhali victim of gang rape whose helpless appeal to her attackers—calling them baba (father) and bhai (brother) as she begged for mercy—went on to trigger a nationwide movement in October. The visceral fear conveyed through these words and unlikely terms of endearment latches onto your heart like a virus latches onto its host cells.
It's hard to be not affected by Sarwar's plea for mercy or the manner in which he kept uttering those words, hysterically, unmindful of his surroundings or the fact that he was no longer under the clutches of his abductors. He was so overwhelmed by this traumatic experience that it consumed his entire being. If this wasn't a clear enough message, Sarwar's subsequent and significantly saner statement to the press puts any remaining doubt to rest. While talking to The Daily Star, he said he had heard his abductors say: "He [Sarwar] has to be beaten in a way that will teach other journalists a lesson." He was thus both their target and a conduit to send a message to the wider journalist community. Well, duly noted.
There's no shame in admitting that I, too, share Sarwar's fear of harm or retribution even as I wax eloquent about his wording. Many a time my friends and family warned me that I'm playing with fire by writing pieces critical of the powers that be. In truth, all I'm doing is my work. Just like Golam Sarwar, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, Iliyas Hossain, Mohiuddin Sarker, and many other staff and district correspondents of local, national and online newspapers who endured countless incidents of assault, intimidation, harassment, arrest, lawsuit, and yes, disappearance. Many of my more frontline colleagues who tirelessly work to deliver facts to the public are also afraid of the likely consequences of their work. Recognising how fear is manufactured and spread as well as our own vulnerability is vital to understanding the level of threat we're facing today.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has rightly described the Sarwar incident as a threat aimed at gagging freedom of speech and freedom of the press. What distinguishes violence faced by journalists from other cases of violence is that no assault on them is a one-off event. It's always meant to be a message, to anyone who dares to speak or unearth the truth, to those who believe in the lofty ideals about journalism. I can go on to rattle off a long list of cases of assault and harassment endured by journalists every year, or the number of times the Digital Security Act and other repressive policies of the state have been used to persecute journalists, activists, teachers, students, etc. The lists are being updated even as we speak. But it's futile to talk of lists and statistics when the authorities are not even ready to acknowledge them.
Perhaps what's more important now is to unmask the enemies of the press, like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) once did, releasing annual lists of state actors from various countries who posed great threats to the journalists. The enemies in Bangladesh are many, and they don't exactly come blowing trumpets to announce themselves or their intention. Often they rely on stealth to serve their purpose, and sometimes they can be very persuasive. Combatting the arguments, strategies and instruments they use to stifle press freedom and putting up a successful defence against them will require resilience, innovation, financial and organisational strength, and no small degree of courage. More importantly, the journalist community must be united to stand any chance against these press tyrants and offenders. But can our financially and legally weakened, politically compromised, and ideologically divided press institutions unite for their own survival and protect all journalists from harm's way?
Something tells me it's not going to happen soon. With so much division and violence and insanity going around, why should we still write and keep fighting? What hope is there for journalists like Sarwar who enjoy little to no support or legal safety? What can we possibly achieve in the end? The only truth I'm interested in right now is the truth that I keep telling myself: that we must keep our protests on record, so that those trying to bury the truth know their misdeeds haven't gone unprotested. But to start going forward together and build an enabling environment for the serious press, all journalists should have their own answers to these questions.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.