Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam’s Skype interview with Al Jazeera took just under five minutes on the 5th August. Little did he know that those five minutes would cost him his freedom.
Outside, large-scale student protests on road safety raged in the capital city of Dhaka, after a speeding bus cost two students their lives. Tuning in to the interview, one would hardly have guessed that moments earlier, Alam had been attacked by suspected members of the ruling political party Awami League’s student wing, while he was covering the violence against student protesters. Alam matter-of-factly condemned the government’s handling of the protests, which he described as “pent up emotions, energy and anger that has been let loose”.
Hours after the interview, 63-year-old Alam was arrested and charged under Section 57 of the country’s controversial Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) for “provocative comments”. A friend who saw Alam in court the next day said he was unable to walk on his own and showed signs of being beaten up. He remains in custody at press time.
Outraged by the inhumane treatment and lack of response by the Bangladeshi government, second year politics student at the University of Sheffield Olive Enokido-Lineham organised a campaign to free Alam and stand in solidarity with students in Bangladesh who were also arrested during the protests. The campaign on the 30th October in the Activities Zone in the Student’s Union is the only student-led event for the cause in a UK university. Enokido-Lineham said while student activism was celebrated in Sheffield and the UK in general, this was not the case in Bangladesh and that Alam’s arrest epitomised the “gagging of the media” he referred to in his Al Jazeera interview.
“This is not even specific to press freedom in Bangladesh, as new projects to monitor social media accounts in the run up to state elections extend beyond the press to ordinary citizens.
“Shahidul Alam’s case is also one of many worldwide – take the example of the unprecedented murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The crackdown on political dissent worldwide is overt,” she said in a statement. Saudi Arabian journalist Khashoggi, who had long been a critic of its government, was killed at the consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on the 2nd October after visiting to obtain documents he needed to get married.
At the event here, a UK university student and staff petition was also set up to urge the Bangladeshi government to release Alam, with 135 signatures from 23 universities and counting. The petition will be sent to the British High Commission in Bangladesh, the UK Department of Education, UK Department for International Development and the UK Foreign Office.
Guest speaker, PEN International chairman Salil Tripathi, observed that Alam’s arrest was unfortunately the latest in a string of unjust and unprofessional treatment of journalists in the state. He described the “chilling atmosphere” for journalism and free speech in Bangladesh at this time, where people risk being arrested or harassed simply for sharing social media posts.
“Bangladesh is improving in material wealth, but is declining in citizen liberties. There are rules where citizens can be arrested on suspicion for offences that are non-bailable. It is truly a harsh atmosphere,” he said, adding that Alam believed in modifying the media to bring a “new understanding” of the communities and their hardships, and that “pretty pictures” should never be the end goal for any photographer.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that “the entire Bangladeshi journalistic profession was targeted” on the day of the protest, as 22 other journalists had also been injured in deliberate attacks while doing their jobs on the scenes. RSF also ranks Bangladesh a mere 146 out of 180 countries in its 2018 Freedom of the Press Index. In the wake of his arrest, leading British artists and curators, including filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen, dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, and artists Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, have joined an international call for justice and transparency about Alam’s alleged crimes. A British exhibition of his work is also being planned in support of the cause.
At the event, however, the most impactful statement came from Alam’s brother in law, Saiful Islam. As he showcased a series of photographs by Alam and his students from the Drik Gallery in Bangladesh, Islam recalls how Alam loved to speak through his images, starting forty years ago when Alam was a PhD Chemistry student in Liverpool and had visited a company there to take photographs for an assignment.
“He was more curious about what was happening in the company instead of merely asking details about the assignment. He will always try to understand the hidden story – what something means, before he begins taking out the camera for photographs. He even decided not to be a chemist because he felt the country did not need more chemists, it needed someone who would document its story and call for change,” he said.
Islam also left students at the event with words from Alam, which was written on a note and smuggled with great difficulty out of prison to be delivered to the family and his well-wishers. The note read “If I cannot speak freely when I am outside, then the loss of freedom when I am incarcerated doesn’t feel as much. I am staying strong. Please do so too.”