On Wednesday night, walls across Kathmandu and Lalitpur lit up with projections of photographs and quotes from the jailed Bangladeshi photographer, writer, and activist Shahidul Alam. As the Capital prepared to welcome heads of state for the ongoing Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit, the installations pointedly called for attention from Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose government had summarily arrested Alam from his home on August 5.
Alam had earlier given an interview to Al Jazeera, during which he had been sharply critical of the Bangladeshi government and its heavy-handed response to student protests, along with a laundry list of issues he said the administration needed to address—corruption, political legitimacy, impunity and freedom of expression. A few days after his arrest, Alam was charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s draconian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act for speech that “hurts the image of the nation”.
Since then, calls from across the world have erupted in support of the veteran photojournalist. Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Transparency International and the Pulitzer Center, along with intellectuals like Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Gayatri Spivak and Naomi Klein, have all called for Alam’s immediate release. In Nepal, the photo platform, photo.circle, which has worked closely with Alam over the years, has led protests, vigils, and more creative actions like the projections of Alam’s work and image.
Alam is more than just a brilliant photographer—his work speaks to the dignity of the marginalised and their quiet revolutions; he is a mentor to an entire generation of photographers from all over South Asia, including Nepal, through the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. He also founded the Drik Picture Library and Chobi Mela, one of Asia’s foremost photography festivals. Alam has long maintained ties across South Asia, travelling frequently, hosting seminars and lectures, and acting as an advisor to new photography initiatives. He was a regular visitor to Nepal and friend to many in the country.
Alam’s arrest is a symptom of a deeper malaise that is afflicting all of South Asia, as governments crackdown on political dissent and freedom of expression. On Tuesday, India arrested five prominent activists for alleged links to Maoists and for inciting caste-based violence. In Bangladesh, the already draconian ICT law, which has recently been used against more than 20 journalists, is set to be replaced with an even more insidious version. Here, in Nepal, the recently implemented Criminal Code has been widely criticised for attempting to stifle journalistic investigations under the guise of protecting privacy. One individual has already been arrested for creating a satirical image of Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli. These are all worrisome developments for those who believe in protest, dissent, and the inalienable democratic right to exercise the freedom of expression without fear of censure or persecution.
With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina currently in Kathmandu for the BIMSTEC Summit, the Post joins in the call for Shahidul Alam’s immediate and unconditional release. We would also like to remind other leaders at the BIMSTEC Summit, including our own prime minister, that majority rule should not equal an infringement upon the democratic rights of citizens.