It has been almost 11 months since Shahidul Alam was confronted with the full might of the the Bangladeshi state. On August 5, the police swept into the home of the award-winning Bangladeshi activist and photojournalist’s arrested him, hours after he had voiced support for massive student-led protests demanding road safety that had paralysed parts of Dhaka.
Alam was charged under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, a sweeping provision that allows the prosecution of “any person who publishes, in electronic form, material that is fake and obscene; defamatory; tends to deprave and corrupt its audience; causes or may cause deterioration in law and order; prejudices the image of the state or a person; or causes or may cause hurt to religious belief”. Activists allege that this legislation is being used to stifle free speech.
After more than 100 days in custody, amid mounting pressure from activists and human rights groups across the world, Alam was released on November 20. This wasn’t Alam’s first run-in with the government machinery. In 2010, his photography exhibition on extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh, titled Crossfire, was disrupted and temporarily halted by the police. In 2009, his exhibition on Tibet was shut down by the police. And in 1996, unknown assailants pulled him out of a rickshaw and stabbed him eight times.
Despite repeated attempts to stifle him, Alam has continued to speak truth to power and has combined activism and photography to train his lens on a range of socio-political concerns, including anti-government protests, floods and the lives of migrant workers.
It was a skill he discovered by chance. While doing his Doctor of Philosophy in Organic Chemistry in London, he bought a camera for his friend. When the friend couldn’t afford to pay him for the camera, Alam kept it for himself and discovered its potential as a tool for activism, he told the Time magazine .
Since then, Alam’s work has been featured in publications across the world. In 2014, he was given the Shilpakala Padak, Bangladesh’s top award. In 2018, while in prison, he was given the Lucie Humanitarian Award.
Equally energetic have been his efforts to promote photojournalism in Bangladesh. In 1989, he set up the Drik Institute, which organises exhibitions and galleries and also functions as a photography agency. Through Drik, he set up the Pathshala in 1998 to offer educational courses in photography and multimedia journalism. The next year, Drik instituted the biennial Chobi Mela, a photography festival.
In an interview to Scroll.in on Friday, Alam, who was in Mumbai for the Red Ink journalism awards, spoke about his life since his release, the threats to press freedom in Bangladesh as well as India and the power of photojournalism. Edited excerpts:
It’s been almost 11 months since your arrest. How do you look back at that period and how have things been since then?
I see myself as a citizen of an independent state and my constitution gives me rights. I intend to exercise those rights. What I said then, I continue to say now. I have not changed my position in any way as a result of it [the arrest].
There are some practical issues. I’m now identified as someone that the government dislikes. And that changes the dynamics in terms of my day-to-day working. I used to go around on my bicycle, I used to walk the streets, I used to stop and talk to people on the streets. I can’t do that now, it’s unsafe. I don’t carry a mobile phone because of surveillance risks. I report back to home-base every hour. I never go anywhere on my own.
The difference at a political level is that in August, we were facing an election and there was a hope that if there were a free and fair election, we might have a change. Obviously there was no election [the Sheikh Hasina-led Bangladesh Awami League party was re-elected on December 30 amid allegations of vote rigging]. We’re now stuck with a repressive regime that is now even more emboldened.
On the other hand, from my position, I’ve had everything they can throw at me thrown at me and I’m still doing what I’m doing. So I know I can resist. Not only I, there are many people fighting the good fight in Bangladesh. The students are still as active as they were, though obviously more circumspect and careful. But that resistance on the ground is still very much there.
What kept you going during those 100 days that you were imprisoned?
Several things. One was that the public support that I had was phenomenal, not just from international activists but within the country as well. My fellow prisoners looked after me so well. They made sure that nothing would happen to me. We set up a musical band and a vegetable patch. We painted murals. There was a whole lot of things, of which I was a tiny part. But all those people were committed to continuing the fight. Some of them have come out, others have not, more have gone in, but regardless of what has happened, I have not found any of those people who were put in jail for the wrong reasons give up the fight.
In 2014, you were given Shilpakala Award, which is government-backed. But on several other occasions, you have been at loggerheads with the government. How do you view the state’s shifting stance towards you?
My job is to be a critical observer and I’ve done that throughout. Even today, it would be very difficult for the state to deny the fact that I am a credible journalist with an international following. They do what they do knowing that that’s the case.
On the other hand, there are times when we are the only ones who can deliver things of a particular quality or stature. And the government recognises that we are a credible entity within Bangladesh that the world looks at.
I have provided them with multimedia programmes, done things for the government, and I will continue to. I don’t consider them an enemy. My job is to ensure that they do what they’re meant to be doing. The job of a critical voice is a constructive one. I will continue to support the government when it does the right thing and critique it when it does the wrong thing.
What are the challenges that are facing the media in Bangladesh today?
I think the challenge to the press is itself, to a large extent. Of course, it’s an environment of fear, it’s a fascist regime, but I don’t think that alone explains the abdication of the media. I’ll give you an example. In September, they passed the Digital Security Act despite the fact that there were all these protests. In October, the prime minister gave 20 crore taka to the Journalist Welfare Fund. After that I saw these huge banners of Hasina dangling from the national press club.
A lot of private media have become essentially extensions of government media, the spokespeople of the government. Which is very very worrying. The level of sycophancy is phenomenal. You have a press conference where journalists are fawning over the prime minister. Is this journalism? It really makes me cringe to consider that I’m a part of this fraternity.
There are very few voices, though important voices, that are speaking out, but doing so at great risks. And journalists are being victimised, major editors have so many cases against them and keep getting occupied with that. Certainly, after the elections, the tone of even the few dissenting voices has changed. They’re very careful about which word to use, what to say and how to say it. It’s a hush-hush environment, which is never what the environment for journalism should be.
In 2019, Bangladesh ranked 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, the lowest in more than a decade. On the ground too, have you felt things get progressively worse or has it always been this repressive?
In my opinion this is the worst it’s ever been. We’ve never had it this bad. Certainly we’ve never had it good. I wrote an open letter to the prime minister in 1992, shortly after [President Hussain Muhammad] Ershad left. We had elections, we had a democratically elected government. In March that year, there was a demand for the trial of war criminals and around a million people had gathered for this.
I watched the news that day, at that time there was no private media. I catalogued the entire news report and there was no mention of this [protest]. So I wrote an open letter to the prime minister at that time. Today, writing about something like that would be laughable. Because it’s completely controlled. But the sad thing is, now there is so much private media and one would have thought there would be these alternative voices, but they don’t seem to be there either.
India didn’t fare much better on that index, the country was ranked 140. Last month, a journalist from Delhi was arrested for sharing a video about Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. What do you think of the media in India today and are its challenges very different to that in Bangladesh?
I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable to comment about the situation in India but I do think you’re in a better position media-wise. Because there are dissenting voices. Journalists do get arrested and victimised, but still there are people speaking up. There are people speaking in Bangladesh as well, but it’s a far more repressive environment so to be able to speak is more difficult. Here, perhaps it’s less repressive. But by and large, you’ve got these mega media houses under certain ownership. So, the government interfering at all levels, it’s scary.
In both Bangladesh and India, we see ostensible democracies take very undemocratic steps to stifle dissent. Why and how do democratically elected governments use the tools at their disposal to wield authoritarian control?
In Bangladesh, I don’t believe it is a democratically elected government. It’s a democracy on paper, but that’s a different thing. It doesn’t represent the will of the people. But even when it does, I think certainly the public is no longer a part of the equation. The fact that people have been elected to serve the public is something that has been forgotten long time back. It’s a very small nexus that is being served. The proximity between the wealth and the government is so incredibly high. Most of the politicians are business people today. And you largely go into politics because it is the biggest business in town.
Also, elections are a tiny part of the democratic process. You need institutions to be able to play their role. The fact that they’ve been dismantled doesn’t help. The fact that there’s no democracy within the parties themselves is the biggest issue today. How can you expect a party that does not practice democracy itself to run a nation on democratic terms? And I think it is up to the public to recognise that and reject these authoritarian regimes.
I believe in my people and I believe they will resist and they will triumph in the end. In that regard, India has a bigger problem than we do. Because the public has been hoodwinked. And that is a bigger problem. The public has become part and parcel of this jingoistic approach and that makes it problematic. In Bangladesh, at least that hasn’t happened.
In such an environment, what is the role and responsibility of a journalist who is faced with an increasingly authoritarian regime?
To do good journalism – that is the best and only thing a journalist can do. Do your research, do your fact-checking, report truthfully and continue to say what has to be said. Walk the walk. Journalists should not worry which way politics is going. They should just do good journalism.
What is your advice to journalists on how they can stay on that course when there are risks of arrests and oppression?
Yes, that’s a problem, but I think we’re creative people. We find ways to do things. Humour I think is a very interesting tool, which we don’t use sufficiently. I think satire and humour are things we should practice a lot more. I think if your work is so rigorous that it’s difficult to challenge, that also makes it more robust. And often we have just not done our homework sufficiently. There are also strategies that can be developed. We need to find ways to get the message across.
In Nepal we have a very good example.They had this rule that on private media, you couldn’t give the news, you could only do entertainment. So you had two newscasters who sang the news to one another. I think we need to find ways to resist. At the end of the day, credible journalism is what will make us survive or not. My problem is not so much what the government can do. It’s what journalists are not doing.
You’ve launched a lot of initiatives to encourage photojournalism in Bangladesh. What, to you, is the power of the medium?
I think the power in it is that it’s so accessible. That the average person can relate to a photograph. If you look at social media, the minute there’s a video or a photograph, engagement and reach increases. So it’s something that the average person feels is their medium. Now that makes it powerful, that also makes it dangerous. That’s also the reason why it can be abused.
I chose photography because I recognised its power. I still believe in its power. I think the landscape has changed so you have to change your strategies. And I think what photojournalists are not doing sufficiently is re-looking at the vocabulary that they use. Photojournalists to a large extent have been caught in a timewarp, where a certain type of practice used to work and we’ve continued to worship that and we’ve forgotten that there’s a cultural shift and we now need to engage with the youth of today in a very different way. We need to be able to re-examine our mode of storytelling and find more creative means of engagement.