The interview: Shahidul Alam
It’s warm enough to eat al fresco and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Petals drift slowly, silently across the garden. My guest, multi-award-winning Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam, takes a deep breath and remarks, ‘It’s so good, being outside!’
In November 2018, Alam was released from prison, having served over 100 days in Dhaka Central Jail.
His crime? Documenting and then openly criticizing the government-sanctioned police response to students who were – initially – protesting for safer roads in the overcrowded, underfunded and economically divided capital city, Dhaka.
‘I was dragged out screaming, bundled into a van, handcuffed, blindfolded and gagged.
What he recounts is a violent kidnapping, not an arrest: no charges were laid against the then 64-year-old human rights activist when 20 plain-clothed police officers stormed his apartment at a time when he was (unusually) alone; no relatives were informed; no lawyer was called.
‘I was dragged out screaming, bundled into a van, handcuffed, blindfolded and gagged. The blows came heavy, from all angles, I could feel the blood dripping down my shirt. They put a weight on my head, got out ‘the pins’ to put under my fingernails, threatened me with waterboarding. Basically they were trying to get me to agree to shut up. It’s not easy being a journalist in Bangladesh. Rahnuma Ahmed [Alam’s partner] and I know people who have been abducted and never returned, others who returned as different people, people who never ever spoke of what had happened to them and have given up being vocal and critical of the government.’
He’s not wrong. Physical attacks and harassment are commonplace for journalists and online activists in Bangladesh. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2018 Global Impunity Index, which ranks states with the worst records of prosecuting the killers of journalists, placed Bangladesh 12th. Globally, in 2018, 43 journalists were killed in the line of duty and 55 were imprisoned – one of them being Shahidul Alam.
‘Over the course of the student protests, I saw 23 media workers being assaulted, their equipment smashed, and vehicles vandalized by goons armed with sharp weapons and rods, many wearing motorcycle helmets,’ he tells me. ‘Several photographs show that the police were nearby when the attacks took place. None of the attackers have been arrested. It’s dangerous, being a journalist in Bangladesh, and although many have abdicated their responsibility to ask the questions that need to be asked, there are others like me, speaking up about the politics, the inequality... asking the questions that need to be asked.’
It’s this tenacity, this absolute commitment to exposing social injustice and political corruption, which led to Alam being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018. It’s one of many accolades. When we meet in London, he is en route to New York where he was due to receive the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award – a rare honour given only in exceptional circumstances.
I ask him whether he was expecting to be arrested, having spoken up so loudly in criticism of Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
‘I wouldn’t say I was expecting it – if I [had been], I’d have packed my toothbrush and backed up my files! True to say, though, that I knew I was on the very edge – but that’s where I belong.’
So how, I wonder, did he cope with the harsh reality of over three months in Dhaka Central Jail?
‘Aside from “The Torture Thing”, it was an unusual networking experience! I met several kind-hearted murderers and a common thief or two, political prisoners, jihadis and others who I am convinced are entirely innocent of any crime, all living quite literally toe to toe in the jailhouse – each with an incredible story.’
I ask how he feels now about his incarceration, torture and the upcoming trial for spreading anti-government propaganda – which, if he is found guilty of undermining the government, will land him with a 14-year prison sentence.
‘The experience taught me a lot about the relationship between a state and its citizens, and what a power-hungry state can do to its own citizens. If I am found guilty, it will be because Bangladesh is no longer a democracy with a free press.
‘On a broader political level, what really concerns me is the fact that much of what determines world politics is war-mongering states colluding with weapons manufacturers. The war industry is such a huge part of the global economy. The most powerful nations in the world make decisions which deeply affect poorer countries and yet those decisions are really determined by the interests of the arms industry. War, be it between countries or civil, is the world’s biggest industry and that is what determines global economics.’
‘I know people who have been abducted and never returned, others who returned as different people, people who never ever spoke of what had happened to them and have given up being critical of the government’