May 13, 2022
From Idavox

As a society we speak often about journalists who are threatened and even killed when they are in hostile land, but when that land is your very home it may take the support from those outside to prevail. Shafiqul Islam Kajol needs that support.

Dr. Lisa Sharlach

For over three decades, photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol has documented political strife and social inequalities in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, both for daily newspapers and for the news magazine he edits, Pokkhokal.  A political activist himself, Kajol’s photos are often close-ups of ordinary people on the streets striking, protesting, or coping with catastrophe.  Among his accomplishments are a documentary and book, “Unsung Ballads,” featuring interviews of the now-stigmatized war heroines – mass rape survivors – of the 1971 independence war from Pakistan. 

On March 10, Kajol left his office after work – and was kidnapped by an elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).  Kajol’s wife, Julia Ferdousi Nayan, filed a report the next day, and held a press conference on the 13th.  That same day, Amnesty International issued an “urgent action” on Kajol’s behalf titled “Editor Feared Victim of Enforced Disappearance.”  (Nearly 600 people had been “disappeared” by Bangladesh’s security forces since 2009, according to a 2021 Human Rights Watch report, and the fates of 86 are still unknown).  Kajol’s kidnappers held him bound and gagged in a secret cell, tortured him for 53 days, and finally abandoned him in a field near the Indian border. A patrol found him in a field near the Indian border on the night of the 3rd of May, World Press Freedom Day.

There is limited media freedom in Bangladesh today;  in October of 2018 the legislature passed the Digital Security Act (DSA) that inflicts severe penalties for a variety of broad, vaguely-worded transgressions. For instance, Section 25 permits a fine and/or jail term of up to three years for a person who “intentionally or knowingly transmits, publishes or propagates any data-information which he knows to be offensive, false or threatening in order to annoy, insult, humiliate or malign a person.”  Serial offenders would receive a sentence of up to five years.  Moreover, Section 31 of the DSA specifies that a first-time offender could be jailed for up to 7 years for publishing or transmitting online anything “that creates enmity, hatred or hostility among different classes or communities of the society, or destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder, or deteriorates or advances to deteriorate the law and order situation.”  A second offense could result in a jail term of a decade.  The Awami League, the party that rules Bangladesh through a decreasingly credible series of electoral victories, has manipulated the overly-broad wording of the DSA to silence critics, including Shafiqul Islam Kajol. 

Kajol’s Facebook posts and messages came to the attention of the authorities, who charged him under the DSA with defamation, indecency, promoting false information, and disturbing public order.  On March 9, 10, and 11, 2020, M.P. Saifuzzaman Shikhor and two members of a wing of the Awami League had filed charges against Kajol and some three dozen others under the DSA for posting and circulating on Facebook an “offensive” and “defamatory” report.  It claimed that certain Awami League politicians had been involved in a prostitution enterprise allegedly run out of the Westin Hotel by Shamima Noor Papia, the disgraced former head of the Awami League’s women’s wing, now jailed for arms sales and facing charges of money laundering.

Kajol’s troubles did not end when the border patrol found him on May 3rd.  The police arbitrarily arrested him;  then, despite the raging coronavirus pandemic, put him in indefinite pre-trial detention for the three charges against him under the DSA. Probably due to pressure upon the government about his plight from both within Bangladesh and internationally, Kajol left jail on bail on December 25, 2020. Although reunited with his family, he suffers from PTSD and is not permitted to work. Because of lack of funds, his son had to withdraw from college.  The courts will soon try Kajol for two of the DSA charges against him, and it is possible he may spend many years in jail.  According to Kajol, “I walk with my family in the middle of life and death.  There is no such thing as freedom of speech in this country.  There is no such thing as rule of law.”

Kajol’s documentary on the 1971 war heroines, “Birangana Unsung Ballads”


Committee to Protect Journalists,

Human Rights Watch, “Decade of Disappearances”

Digital Security Act (2018),

“Kajol’s DSA Plight: Charges in 3 Cases Framed in 1 Day”