Shahidul Alam was already established as an internationally renowned photojournalist, but he received worldwide attention again in 2018. Around midnight on 5 August 2018, he was abducted at his home by plainclothes men soon after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera and posted live videos on Facebook that criticized the government’s violent response to the 2018 Bangladesh road safety protests, led primarily by high school students. In a country where countless citizens are disappeared, it was almost a relief to learn that he was arrested. Many international humanitarian organisations and news media called for his release without charge. Twelve Nobel laureates and numerous eminent writers penned petitions on his behalf. Protesters gathered on streets to demand his release. After a Kafkaesque period in which his case repeatedly came before the court and was delayed, he was granted bail on 20 November 2018. His case is still pending.
Born in 1955, Shahidul Alam is Bangladeshi photojournalist, teacher, and social activist. He founded Drik Picture Library, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka, and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival. He has published several books and collections, including Nature’s Fury (2007) and My Journey as a Witness (2011). His awards include the Shilpakala Padak from the President of Bangladesh (2014), the Humanitarian Award from the Lucie Awards (2018), and the Tribute Award from Frontline Club in UK (2018) for his contribution to journalism. He was one of the persons of the year selected by Time Magazine in 2018. A truly accomplished photojournalist, Alam keeps his lens focused on social justice worldwide, and especially in Bangladesh. He has taught and inspired many photographers, and he continues to inspire us with his moral courage, dedication to humanitarian causes, and his resilience.
Shuddhashar: We are curious to hear your observations about the recent political polarization or change in Bangladesh. Do you think this change will play a positive role in the development of democracy and democratic values in Bangladesh?
Shahidul Alam: Quite the opposite. The recent election was an opportunity for Bangladesh to initiate corrective measures. Unlike the one-sided election in 2014, this time all political parties had participated. Had the government genuinely believed in itself, it could have held a fair and free election to demonstrate their claim that a fair election was possible under an incumbent government. It could have partially validated the 2014 election and paved the way for democracy to take root. Instead, through this farcical election, they’ve given a moral victory to the opposition by justifying the claim that a fair and free election could only be possible in Bangladesh under a neutral caretaker government.
Shuddhashar: What problems do you think are barriers to the development of democratic values in the politics of Bangladesh?
Shahidul Alam: For democracy to exist at a national level, it has to exist at a party level. Change of leadership in the major political parties in Bangladesh have only taken place through assassination. There is no internal tolerance of dissent, and sycophancy is the only way to climb the political ladder. For example, the chancellor of Dhaka University – a non-elected post – acts as the president of the union. There was an election in Dhaka University after 28 years, and the elected vice president (the top political position) has since been publicly physically beaten repeatedly this year by pro-government students. The government has neither tried to stop this, nor indeed recognised this as a problem. As long as major decisions in the country are taken based on party interest and not national interest, democracy will never be allowed to flourish.
Shuddhashar: Do you think that extreme nationalism, extreme religious communalism, and religious militancy are simultaneously developing and expanding in Bangladesh? Will you say something about this development and expansion?
Shahidul Alam: While there has been an increase in extremism in Bangladesh, I believe this is not because the general public is more extremist. It is the absence of value-based politics that has fertilised the ground for extremists to thrive upon. The youth are looking for alternatives, and right now, only the extremists provide a value-based option.
Shuddhashar: In 2010, you organized a photo exhibition about “crossfire,” which was shut down by the government. Since then, extrajudicial killings have increased. In your opinion, what do you identify as the underlying causes of these “crossfires”?
Shahidul Alam: The practice of ‘crossfire’ was a very short-sighted attempt to address a genuine grievance that exists in Bangladesh. The high level of corruption, nepotism, and violence had led to great discontent. Rather than address the root causes of this discontent, the previous ruling party of BNP (now the opposition) set up the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) as an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force in 2004 and gave them unprecedented powers. It created a Frankenstein that is now haunting everyone. More importantly, it has led to a culture of violence and impunity that is now no longer restricted to RAB. The government’s lack of credibility and its justifiable fear of the wrath of the common citizen have led to the extremely heavy-handed approach of RAB and other security forces. It is power at all cost, even at the risk of destroying the nation.
Shuddhashar: When you were picked up and later shown to have been arrested, it was said that you spread false news in social media. We look forward to hearing from you about the situation of fake news, censorship, self-censorship, the responsibility of journalists, information rights, and freedom of speech in Bangladesh. For a long time, we have been looking forward to listening to you discuss these issue in detail.
Shahidul Alam: The absence of genuine news provides space for fake news to prosper. The greatest exponent of fake news is the government itself. The state media has always been an exclusive spokesperson for the ruling party. Today much of independent media has also cozied up to the government. As such there is very little trust in mainstream media. People rely upon social media for news they can deliver. Understandably there is an abundance of fake news. Some of it is produced by the government, and the rest is provided by ordinary people, partly by design and partly by ignorance. This has led to permanent damage to the media industry and will take a long time to solve.
On the other hand, repressive measures continue to be used in many countries. Foreign governments are also culpable in this context. So long as a government, in our case Bangladesh, satisfies foreign governments’ narrow agenda, western countries are prepared to turn a blind eye to repressive measures. In many countries, media, education, and culture are the sectors where more resources need to be provided. But foreign countries largely look after their own interest, with little concern over either the security of the nation or the citizen’s need to be informed.
Shuddhashar: In the context of Bangladesh, we want to know your views and ideas about the positive and negative effects of social media on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
Shahidul Alam: Social media is here to stay, and the earlier we recognise it, the further ahead we shall be. Since private media has abdicated its role, it is social media that people turn to. It will be used and abused. It is only when we have an informed public that people will be in a position to make the right choices. Social media provides the mechanism to hijack the news, where each player will try to maximise his/her engagement and reach. The Truth has little currency in this environment. It is all about likes, shares, and comments. No one is waiting to listen to the findings of wise individuals. Instead of scrutinizing information and seeking reliable sources, social media is a quick fix for people.
Shuddhashar: After being released on bail, can you now speak freely, without any direct or indirect pressure and without any hesitation?
Shahidul Alam: Of course there is pressure, and there is hesitation, as the case still hangs over me. The government has also made it difficult for us to operate. In May they sent a bulldozer to demolish our building. We managed to get a court stay order in time to stop them. They then sent six tax officers to go through our books with a fine toothcomb, trying to find chinks in our armour.
There is also the threat of physical harm. I don’t go around in my bicycle anymore, or go out on my own. I don’t use a mobile phone as my location can be tracked, and I constantly keep in touch with those close to me and give alerts on my whereabouts. This is the new reality for me.
However, I am the citizen of a sovereign nation, and I shall continue to exercise the rights given to me by my constitution. The fact that the Bangladeshi public is largely behind me is a huge source of strength. Pulling off a major photo festival in such an environment is a wonderful example of people power.
Shuddhashar: When you were jailed, there was considerable outcry and solidarity expressed both in Bangladesh and internationally. In retrospect, do you think that the public response ended up helping the government deliver its message that it will punish those who speak up against them? Or did the public response empower everyday people who support your values and the type of work you do?
Shahidul Alam: The support and the outcry, both within the country and outside, were unprecedented. Nothing of this scale had taken place in the case of Professor Yunus, the ex-Chief Justice, or Khaleda Zia, so the government had a PR crisis to manage. On the other hand, this is not a government that has given a lot of importance to international opinion. Besides, this was happening at a people level and not a state level. I think the government recognises that whatever people may think and do, as long as Bangladesh delivers on issues like the Rohingya and the ‘War on Terror,’ other countries will turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses and the erosion of democracy that is going on.
On the other hand, it meant a great deal to my fellow prisoners and me, and to the people campaigning on the ground in Bangladesh. The support of the Bangladeshis was even more crucial. They were the ones at risk, and their opinions were more difficult to ignore.
My arrest was clearly designed to send out a signal: ‘If we can do this to Shahidul Alam, imagine what we can do to you.” However, the public outcry also sent a message: “This is how we can resist, despite everything that you can throw at us.”
Shuddhashar: Beginning in 2013, several bloggers-writers-publisher-activists were killed, contributing to a culture of fear, which you have spoken about often. Bangladeshis have seen that the state failed to take any effective action to prevent these attacks. Even intellectuals did not play a role against these incidents. How do you evaluate these issues? In a country with a long history of activists among artists and intellectuals, how do you interpret the silence? How will Bangladesh overcome this situation?
Shahidul Alam: There are two aspects to this. The government has successfully linked the ‘war of liberation’ with the party. So, questioning the activities of the party is seen as being ‘anti-liberation’. It is disappointing that many intellectuals and cultural leaders have not been able to see through this. They are the very people who should have been able to decouple this linkage. They are the ones who should have revealed the hypocrisy and self-serving nature of the government. The other aspect is that the ruling party is now extremely wealthy, and with full control over public resources, they can disburse resources to suit their needs. Nepotism is at an all-time high. So, people want the honey. Being close to power also results in picking up the crumbs. It is sad that intellectuals as well as others stoop to this, but greed too is part of human nature.
Shuddhashar: You have been an inspiring figure of resistance against injustice, speaking out against the injustices of several different governments and parties, at great risk to yourself. What is your advice for those who are working toward freedom of expression, societal progress, social equality and justice, and democratic values in present-day Bangladesh?
Shahidul Alam: The resistance is not individual but collective. It is the strength of the collective that has made us resilient. It is also important to remember that this is something we’ve been doing over many years (since 1984, during President Ershad’s military dictatorship). We’ve questioned every government (and the military) when they’ve gone out of line, and we have done that consistently. Credibility is hard-earned and takes a long time to build, but it is also the greatest asset one can have. The government has money and muscle, but credibility is something we own. We will always be materially overpowered, but we are nimble and resilient. Having the people on our side is a wonderful feeling. We cannot fight every single battle, as much as we want to. We have to choose our battles and fight smart. But we are here to stay.
Shuddhashar: Those of us in exile never stop dreaming of a healthy, democratic, and just Bangladesh. We would be interested to hear if you have comments to share about our role – from exile — in contributing to this Bangladesh.
Shahidul Alam: You are very much part of the team. You too have issues to deal with in your new contexts, but the fact that you are not immediately under physical threat should allow you to say and do things that those within the country will find more difficult to do. It is important that you do not see yourself as an isolated group, but as an extension of the community back home. It is important to maintain the linkages, to be engaged with the local struggles and do a resource mapping, so you can maximise your presence outside. Identify what you can bring to the table, and use what you have effectively. Hopelessness is a luxury we cannot afford.
Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the violence in the name of religion going on around the world today? In your opinion, is the world moving towards a kind of religious war or another world war? Or is this violence just part of a strategy of economic imperialism?
Shahidul Alam: It is essentially a power struggle and a class war. I don’t believe there is such a thing as morality in international politics. Religion, money, muscle, and fear are all part of the arsenal and will be used against us. I think they will use whatever works at any given time. Religion is a very handy political tool as it motivates people and promises to deliver rewards – at least in an afterlife.
Shuddhashar: You are a dedicated photographic artist. You have demonstrated the role of art to provoke critical thinking. We would like to hear you comment on taking photographs for the mere joy of beauty, or seeing the world through an activist’s lens. If you have examples of when those lines are blurred for you, we would be interested to hear.
Shahidul Alam: As an artist one responds to the stimulus one is surrounded by. As a person one responds to the human condition. They are not mutually exclusive. Neither are they limiting conditions. I chose to become an artist because of its ability to reach out to people at an emotional level, its ability to get under the skin. To reach where reason and logic are not always able to. I have no problems with producing art that is aesthetically pleasing, but to produce art for that reason alone is a very limited use of art, and a use I would not be satisfied by. I am as moved by powerful art as any other, but if that is where it ended, I would be left longing for more. On the other hand, art that haunts, provokes, and lingers, for whatever reason, is something to marvel at, something to strive for.
Shuddhashar: When you are taking a picture, do you find yourself playing with the colors like words in a poem? Or do imaginative novels unfold before you as you look through your camera lens? We would love to hear something about your creative process – about your joy in photography.
Shahidul Alam: One plays with every tool in one’s arsenal. As a photographer, one uses light, space, moment, and content. As a writer, one uses rhythm, tempo, and mystery. Storytellers are poets, musicians, and magicians. They paint with light, and weave with words. The camera and the pen are both extensions of that self. But in the end, it is the story that one yearns to tell, that is the driving force.