Bangladeshis use art and performance to demand the release of Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, 2018

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
5 August- 20 November, 2018
5 August
2018
to
20 November
2018
Location and Goals
Country: 
Bangladesh
Country: 
United States
Country: 
France
Country: 
Germany
Country: 
United Kingdom
Location City/State/Province: 
Dhaka, Washington D.C, New York, Perpignan, Berlin, all over the United Kingdom
Goals: 
1. Free Shahidul Alam, journalists and students arrested during the road safety protests in 2018

2. Press freedom for journalists

3. Freedom of expression for all citizens

 

On 5 August 2018, 20 plainclothes police officers picked up 63-year-old Shahidul Alam from his home in Dhaka by at least 20 plainclothes police officers. This happened hours after his interview with Al-Jazeera regarding the mass student protests over road safety that gripped the country during the previous week. Police officers wrecked the security cameras and intercom connection of the apartment before leaving with him. In the interview, Alam criticized Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s policies and stated that discontent with these policies was a driving factor for the student protests. The previous day, Alam also used Facebook Live to describe an alleged attack by Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) men, from the student-wing of the ruling party, while trying to record them beating students during the protests.

The next morning, on 6 August, Alam told reporters that he was beaten in custody and that officers cleaned his blood-stained clothes before transporting him to court. Alam added that the policed refused him access to a lawyer, but the police denied these claims. He was charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology (ICT) Act and placed on a seven-day remand for “spreading propaganda and false information against the government.” Following Alam’s arrest, students, human rights groups, Nobel laureates and notable academics from various parts of the world demanded his release and criticised Bangladesh’s internet laws.

By 11 August, several groups published statements condemning the Bangladesh government for infringing on Alam’s right to freedom of expression. Twenty-five human rights groups, including Transparency International Bangladesh, Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, and the German Section of Amnesty International, issued a joint statement. Their demands consisted of proper medical care for the artist and his “immediate and unconditional” release. Celebrated authors and academics, including Arundhati Roy, Eve Ensler, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad, released a similar statement calling for Alam’s discharge. Their statement read, “documentation and criticism are elementary aspects of human life. For a state to deny a citizen the right to say what is happening and to be angered about what is happening is a denial of this basic right."

473 Indian artists and filmmakers posted a joint Facebook statement supporting Alam. In addition, Amnesty International launched a petition demanding Alam’s release, which gained more than 5,000 supporters. Human Rights Watch accused the government of suppressing activists and journalists instead of punishing those who attacked student protestors. Adding to that, UN rights experts expressed similar disdain for the attacks on journalists and called for Alam’s immediate release.

Several prominent Bangladeshi writers, artists, professors, and social activists held a solidarity rally on 11 August in collaboration with students in Dhaka. They demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Alam. Additionally, they urged for justice for the young students attacked by police officers and BCL activists earlier in the week. Taslima Akhter Lima, a Bangladeshi photographer, and Shirin Haque, an activist and colleague of Alam, attended the rally alongside several Dhaka University and Jahangirnagar University professors.

On 19 August, nine Nobel laureates and 13 renowned personalities pressed for the release of Alam as well as other students detained by the police over road safety protests. The statement challened the ICT Act under which Alam was remanded, calling it a “draconian” law. Some of the eminent signatories included Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams, and Dr. Muhammad Yunus. Others included Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway; Sir Richard Branson, business leader and philanthropist; Richard Curtis, film director; and Sharon Stone, actress. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen joined this long list of Alam supporters on 25 August as well.

The police officially sent Alam to jail on 13 August after completion of his remand. As word of his arrest spread, further demonstrations occurred in different parts of the world using various methods. In Peru, Alta Tecnologia Andina (ATA) and Cultural Centre Ricardo Palma organized an exhibition titled “Shahidul Alam: A voice from the shadows” on 24 August. The display summarized Alam’s photojournalism career to raise awareness about his mistreatment in prison. Thousands viewed it over the following month. On its 29th anniversary on 4 September, Drik Gallery hosted an exhibition of Alam’s photos called “A Struggle for Democracy” in honour of its imprisoned founder. Notable activists and artists in Bangladesh, including Professor Anu Muhammad, Ms. Khushi Kabir, Professor Meghna Guhathakurta, and musician Arup Rahee, inaugurated the exhibition.

From 8 to 28 October, galleries, museums, organizations, and universities across the United Kingdom participated in the movement to release Alam by displaying a single image by the well-loved photographer from the earlier Drik exhibition. Additionally, Arundhati Roy, Eve Ensler, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad released a second statement on 5 September, reasserting their demands for Alam’s immediate and unconditional bail.

Across Bangladesh, graffiti and posters of Alam popped up with the tagline “Free Shahidul.” On 7 September, fans, friends, family, and human rights groups held rallies in Washington D.C., New York City, Perpignan, and outside of the Bangladesh High Commission in London. Demonstrators used the tag “#FreeShahidul” on social media to post updates and raise support for his discharge. In the U.K., prominent television presenter Konnie Huq and British MP Tulip Siddiq articulated support for the photographer.

Further gatherings included “Let democracy be free” in Shahbagh, a neighborhood in Dhaka, on 9 September. Protestors used art and performance, which Alam’s niece, Sofie Karim, shared on Instagram. In Shahbagh, a woman put on a paper bag which read, “We are not supposed to have heads. We don’t have tongues, words.” Another protestor played the guitar while wearing a makeshift cage with a helmet and hammer at the front, signifying the BCL activists who attacked the students and Alam. Others brandished cut-outs of Alam’s face in front of their own faces. Another display included a duct-taped camera with a banner that said “Let Democracy Be Free.”

Almost a month after his arrest, on 11 September, the court denied Alam bail. As a result, Amnesty International declared Alam a prisoner of conscience. Furthermore, Bangladesh Chhatra Federation declared a nationwide strike on 17 September to protest the detainment of Alam and its group leaders. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on the other hand, declared Alam “mentally sick” and an instigator of violence in an interview with Reuters on 12 October.

On 16 October, dozens of photographers gathered in Dhaka and raised their cameras in protest. They created a human chain at Dhaka University campus and held up posters calling for Alam’s liberty and demanding freedom of expression for journalists. A rally pressing for his release was also held in Berlin on 11 November.

After 107 days in jail, Shahidul Alam was finally released from Dhaka Central Jail at around 8:20 pm on 20 November. He secured bail five days prior to that but was held over confusion on legal matters. Relatives, students, lawyers, and well-wishers gathered outside the prison to meet Alam.

The campaign to free Alam was successful in that he was granted bail without any conditions; however, his release was possible due to his international influence, a privilege that most other journalists in the country do not have. The larger goal of freedom of speech for the press, therefore, was not achieved. The police released most of the students and journalists detained around the same time as Alam.

Research Notes
Sources: 
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Anon. 2018a. “Bangladesh: Photographer Shahidul Alam Denied Bail in ‘Cruel Affront to Justice.’” Amnesty International UK. 11 September. Retrieved April 1, 2019 (http://web.archive.org/web/20190401051911/https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/bangladesh-photographer-shahidul-alam-denied-bail-cruel-affront-justice).

Anon. 2018b. “Bangladeshi Photographer Shahidul Alam Detained after Post about Dhaka Protests.” Committee to Protect Journalists. August 5. Retrieved May 8, 2019 (http://web.archive.org/web/20190508163914/https://cpj.org/2018/08/bangladeshi-photographer-shahidul-alam-detained-af.php).

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Anon. 2018e. “Protesters in UK, US Demand Shahidul Alam’s Release.” Dhaka Tribune. September 8. Retrieved April 1, 2019 (https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2018/09/08/protesters-in-uk-us-demand-shahidul-alam-s-release).

Anon. 2018f. “(Updated List) Statement in Support of Shahidul Alam by Concerned Photographed, Artists, Filmmakers and Curators in India.” Facebook. August 7. Retrieved April 1, 2019 (http://web.archive.org/web/20190401040703/https://www.facebook.com/notes/in-support-of-shahidul-alam/updated-list-statement-in-support-of-shahidul-alam-by-concerned-photographers-ar/493169644428710/).

Anon. 2019. “Bangladeshi Photojournalist And Activist Freed After 107 Days In Prison .” NPR. November 21. Retrieved April 1, 2019 (http://web.archive.org/web/20190401180858/https://www.npr.org/2018/11/21/669868849/bangladeshi-photojournalist-and-activist-freed-after-107-days-in-prison).

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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Nerissa Nashin, 16/05/2019