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Photographer Shahidul Alam jailed for comments on Bangladeshi government corruption

Shahidul Alam pictured at the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute campus, image courtesy of Pathshala

The 63-year-old was accused of giving “false and harmful information through al-Jazeera, various electronic media, and his Facebook timeline"

Photographer Shahidul Alam has been imprisoned by Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court for spreading “false and harmful information” against the government after remaining in police custody for seven days.

He was placed before authorities around 3pm on Sunday 12 August, and charged under section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act, Moshiur Rahman, deputy commissioner of police, told the Bangladeshi title The Daily Star. His lawyer and his family members were not informed about the court hearing. 

In a letter submitted by investigating officer Mr Arman Ali, the 63-year-old was accused of giving “false and harmful information through Al-Jazeera, various electronic media, and his Facebook timeline, which led to deterioration of the law and order situation in the country, and created fear and terror in the minds of the public”.

One of Alam’s colleagues at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “He has good people standing up for him but it’s clearly not working. With the election coming up in January, the government are doing their very best to ensure that nobody gets away with speaking out against them.”

Alam was arrested on Sunday 05 August after comments he posted videos on Facebook and was interviewed by Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera about the Bangladesh road safety protests, which he said stemmed from anger about widespread government corruption, and not just the bus accident that initially sparked them.

The photographer’s colleague commended his actions, stating that he was “strong” and “didn’t say anything that was wrong or untrue”. He added: “He’s much braver than me. I’m very scared right now, I don’t feel safe against the government.”

The last time the Bangladeshi had a major run-in with the police, it was for a 2010 project documenting official torture and death squads, which led the Dhaka police to besiege and shut down his gallery and provoked national protests on his behalf.

Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act carries a minimum sentence of seven years and a maximum of 14 years, contrary to international legal standards for the protection of the right to freedom of expressions. The Act has been employed against scores of citizens, and more than 20 journalists in recent years. In a statement, Amnesty International’s deputy South Asia director, commented: “The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly should be protected by the state, not crushed.”

The latest protests in Bangladesh began after a speeding bus killed two teenagers on 29 July, with demonstrators urging the government to address a chronic road safety record, which saw more than 4000 pedestrians killed last year. The country’s transport sector is widely considered 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 Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, a photography school in Dhaka that has trained hundreds of photographers from Bangladesh and around the world, and he is also founder and managing director of Drik Picture Library. In addition Alam is director of Chobi Mela, a photography festival in Asia, and has served on the jury of numerous competitions – including World Press Photo, which he has helped judge four times, and for which he 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, was 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.