Shahidul Alam arrested for “provocative comments” in wake of Bangladesh protests

Shahidul Alam, one of the world’s leading figures in photography, and a social activist who has been a harsh critic of the government in his native Bangladesh, has been arrested in Dhaka for making “provocative comments” following mass protests that have brought parts of the country to a standstill over the past week.

According to his partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, at least 30 plainclothes officers entered his home in the capital at around 10pm on Sunday 05 August, and sped him away in a car. He was officially arrested the next day. Alam had posted videos on Facebook and was interviewed by Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera about the protests, which he said stemmed from anger about widespread government corruption, and not just the bus accident that initially sparked them.

“It is very much larger,” he told Al-Jazeera. “This has been going on for a very, very long time. The government has been taking on group force; the looting of the banks, the gagging of the media, mobile internet is currently switched off, the killings, the disappearances, the need to get protection on all levels, the bribery, and corruption. It’s a never ending list. The traffic incident, as sad as it is, is really just the valve that allowed things to go through.”

Police official Moshiur Rahman told AFP that he was being interrogated for “giving false information to different media and for provocative comments,” adding: “He could not give proper answers. He admitted that these were his personal opinions.”

Alam has since been placed on a seven-day remand, in a case filed against him under the Information and Communication Technology Act, which has been used in more than 20 cases recently involving journalists, most of them related to news reporting, according to Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star. “I was hit [in custody]. [They] washed my blood-stained punjabi and then made me wear it again,” claimed Alam as he was taken to court for remand hearing, reported AFP’s bureau chief Shafiqul Alam.

The Bangladesh protests began after a speeding bus killed two teenagers on 29 July, with demonstrators pressing for the government to address the country’s chronic road safety, which resulted in the death of more than 4000 pedestrians last year. The country’s transport sector is widely seen as unscrupulous, unregulated and extremely dangerous, and as news of the teenagers’ death spread rapidly on social media they became a catalyst for an outpour of dissent against the government and widespread corruption. The protests turned violent when police began a crackdown, with reports that journalists and photographers have been brutally beaten.

Alam is the creator of the renowned Patshala South Asian Media Academy, a photography school in Dhaka that has trained hundreds of photographers, from Bangladesh and around the world, and he is founder and managing director of Drik Picture Library. He is also director of Chobi Mela, a photography festival in Asia, and a jury member of numerous competitions, including World Press Photo where he has been a judge on four occasions, and was the first Asian chair of the judging panel. His book, My Journey as a Witness, was described as “the most important book ever written by a photographer” by John Morris, the former picture editor of Life magazine.

The activist’s photos have been published in almost every major western media outlet over a more than four-decade career. His recent exhibition Crossfire, curated by Peuvian curator Jorge Villacorta, has been widely acclaimed, but was closed down by police leading to nationwide protests. Besides these many achievements, he is a leading critic of the Bangladeshi government, its police and the role its army plays in political life.

A spokesperson for The Royal Photographic Society, said: “The Society is very concerned to learn of the arrest and imprisonment of Honorary Fellow Shahidul Alam, and will be making representations to the Bangladeshi government to help secure his release.” The Committee to Protect Journalists has likewise urged the Bangladeshi government to release the photographer without filing charges.