The work of renowned photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam has appeared in publications worldwide, including the sronews. Now attention is on the 63-year-old himself. Police in Bangladesh have arrested him over “provocative comments” on Facebook; he was seized just after giving an interview about protests that have convulsed the country. As Mr Alam observed, demonstrations initially about road safety were fuelled by anger over issues including corruption and gagging of the media by the ruling Awami League.
The resulting crackdown has seen police use teargas and rubber bullets on the streets – and the notorious section 57 of the information and communication technology act against Mr Alam. It has been employed against scores of citizens, and more than 20 journalists recently, for perfectly normal criticism or discussion of leaders. Even the government concedes it should go; unfortunately, the proposed replacement is in some ways worse.
Britain and others should press for proper reform of the law, as well as urging the authorities to release Mr Alam, drop the charges and thoroughly investigate allegations of mistreatment in custody; friends of the photographer said he was unable to walk by himself into court and told them he had been assaulted.
Governments and international bodies have a special duty to press this case. Mr Alam’s contribution to photography has been truly global: he founded Drik, Bangladesh’s first picture library and its Majority World agency, promoting photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East; has trained hundreds of photographers in South Asia; and indeed is a visiting professor at the University of Sunderland. Charging such a high-profile figure is surely intended to have a chilling effect. To defend Mr Alam is to defend the right of journalists, and citizens in general, to speak out in Bangladesh.