Of Mayors and Mice

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karzai-mush-fakhruddin.jpg Afghanistan’s Ahmed Karzai (left), Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf (centre) and Bangladesh’s Fakhruddin Ahmed at the World Economic Forum at Davos. ? AFP
The smile would warm the cockles of your heart. Especially if you were a CIA agent. This was exactly what was wanted. Happy obedient leaders. Democracy simply got in the way. Karzai, Musharraf, Fakhruddin. The new alliance. One new poodle.
It was summer 2006. The Talibans were getting ever closer to Kabul. Sitting in the Aina office in Choroi Malek Asghar, I was listening to Reza, founder of the Afghan media organisation. The recent anti-drug campaign was bound to have failed he claimed. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother was the chief beneficiary of the drug trade. The US $ 500 million or so spent on combating drugs, was more likely to have been spent on the now famous ‘corrupto mansions’ than on alternative livelihood for opium farmers.
I had felt at ease walking the streets of Kabul. My Arafat scarf and beard also helped. It was different for the ‘saviours’ of Afghanistan. They stepped from their secure offices into their secure vehicles and went to their secure homes. The saviours spend a lot of time in secure cars. The Lexus car that took me to the Serena hotel had five television sets. My Afghan friends call Karzai “The Mayor of Central Kabul.”
A month later I was across the border, in the earthquake zone in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir. I spotted flags with Iqbal, Jinnah and Mickey Mouse flying above one of the refugee camps. The significance of the cartoon character had escaped me. Chatting with my friend Zaheer back in Karachi, I brought up the subject. “Mushy Mouse” was his smiling reply.
mushy-mouse-1195.jpg Poet Iqbal, Founder of Pakistan Jinnah, and Mickey Mouse on a flag flying in Muzaffarabad. August 2006. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Mushy had come into power through a military coup, ousting an elected prime minister. He had suspended the constitution twice and arrested the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. On 3rd November 2007, days before a bench of the Supreme Court was to decide on a petition challenging the constitutional validity of his re-election as president, he had shut down all private television channels. He had also failed to protect the life of his chief political opponent, Benazir. The real Mickey might have run the country better.
There seemed to be no malice or sense of competition between the three US stooges in Davos. Emerging out of the darkness, hands held together in their solidarity of servitude, they positively glowed. Mushy was candid and genuine when he advised his peer Fakhruddin, the Chief Adviser of Bangladesh. “I think you are doing a great job. Carry on doing it no matter what anyone thinks, irrespective of human rights.”
This comedy of errors is a tragedy in the making and our adviser is being true to his script. Mushy would have been proud of Fakhruddin’s human rights record. The ban on media coverage of indigenous rights groups. The more recent ban on the outspoken journalist Nurul Kabir from TV talk shows and the written ban on the popular live programmes on Ekushey TV, neatly slot in with the suppression of free media that both Mushy and Karzai have practiced. Like most other bans, Kabir’s had no paper trails. No written instructions to deny. Just the phone calls from Uttor Para (the cantonment) that we have come to recognise. Our Chief Adviser might even be trying to get ahead of his senior poodles by teaming up with the Myanmar generals.
But Mushy Mouse and the mayor of central Kabul have already staged their sham elections. Our adviser’s play is yet to be played out.

Portraits of Commitment

Portraits of commitment
Why people become leaders in the AIDS response

Challenges help us find our true selves. They take us on a journey within the depths of who we are, leaving us at a destination we hope is worthy. Some people find themselves at lesser places.
AIDS is one of those challenges.
The South Asians in this book tell how AIDS has made them a better doctor, researcher, legislator, citizen or person. We know AIDS affects our daily life?but because of it we now have more respect for human rights and individual choice where once there was little or none. AIDS has helped us to see who we want to be.
Photographs by Shahidul Alam. Interviews by Karen Emmons. Commissioned by UNAIDS.
Tuk Tuk in Fort, Colombo
Viewers watching “Portaits of Commitment” at Fort Station in Colombo on the 21st August 2007, as part of ICAAP8. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
A story from Sri Lanka on WAD: Positive & Strong Princey Mangalika on HIV/AIDS
Reviews: IPS. Daily Mirror
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Shilpa Shetty. Actress, Big Brother Winner. Mumbai India. “Being a celebrity has advantages – people hear you. I thought I should make use of this position and speak out.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Tahir Baig Barlas. Corporate Manager. Karachi Pakistan. “We have the opportunity to do something now before it’s too late. Let’s not be reactive.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Sabina “Putul” Yeasmin, Daughter of a sex worker. Tangail Bangladesh. “I gave wrong information to make others afraid, as I had been. I had to go back and give correct information.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Sapana Pradham-Malla. Advocate. Kathmandu Nepal. “I can’t turn away.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Sally Hulugalle. Community Worker. Colombo Sri Lanka. “I want a better deal for those who are voiceless.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Rev. Alex Vadakumthala. Priest. New Delhi India. “The church finds its meaning when it responds to the challenges of the times.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Rajiv Kafle. Former Drug User. Kathmandu Nepal. “I saw a need and an opportunity where I could step up and really make a difference.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Noor jehan Penazai. Partliamentarian. Islamabad Pakistan. “These politicians have to realise it’s a very serious disease and we have to talk about it.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Dr. Ananda Wijewickrama. Doctor. Colombo Sri Lanka. “I had to do something for the patients …they needed a place to go, to be consoled and, if dying, to die with dignity.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Arif Jafar and Anis Fatima, MSM and mother. Lucknow India. “I am grateful to Allah he gave such a son to me.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
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Habiba Akter. Dhaka Bangladesh. Positive Counsellor.
“I have no choice. If I don’t do it no one will.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld

An exhibition supporting the book opens at the Barefoot Gallery, in Colombo at 7:00 pm on the 18th August. 704 Galle Rd. Colombo 3.

The Month of Victory

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14th December 1971. The stark dismembered face stared from the bricks in the Rayerbazar graveyard. It was a last ditch attempt by an occupation army to leave a nation they had been unable to subdue, crippled intellectually and culturally. Rashid Talukder’s iconic image was one of numerous outstanding photographs taken by Bangladesh’s best known photojournalist. The lifetime achievement award given to him was long overdue. Rashid Bhai joins other Bangladeshi photographers featured in the Festival of Photography in Asia Chobi Mela IV, whose images grace the much awaited Drik Calendar 2007.

Meanwhile a self appointed head of caretaker government chooses the month of our victory, to call in the military against the wishes of his own cabinet. Kudos to the caretaker advisers who chose to resign rather than going against the interests of the nation. Where ministers have shamelessly stayed on despite blatant exposures of corruption and malpractice, it is a rare example of self-respect.

The Drik calendar 2007 is in the press and is out next week when it will also be available on our website: http://www.drik.net/html/calendar.htm and in our online shopping mall: http://kiosk.mdlf.org/estore/publisher?id=21
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Autumn was unkind, rude and remorseful
Spring become unmerciful, rude and murderous
Butterflies don?t die, they don?t live either
Photo: Momena Jalil
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Dried Kash flowers at the bank of the Old Brahmaputra. “When I had my legs I could cross the river in one go.” Rajib. Bangladesh/Photo: Saiful Huq Omi.
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People fishing in a group using traditional techniques. The fishing usually takes place in the dry winter season. Wetlands of Bangladesh/Photo:Rashid Talukder.

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Enticing a prospective client. With roughly 25 customers needed for daily upkeep, competition is intense. Kandupatti brothel, Dhaka. Bangladesh/Photo: Shehzad Noorani.

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Every morning After Fazr, Keramat Ali sat here. His work ended at around 10 pm. After 22 years of service, he went back to his home town and his family. No pension and no savings/Photo: Syed Mahfuz Ali

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?Mama, take my picture,? my niece Pinki asked me. It was already nearing dusk. I held my breath with the aperture open just enough, and pressed the shutter/Photo: Sheikh Motiar Rahman

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Sheep head for shelter at the onset of a storm in the Himalayan range in the Yarlung Valley. Eastern Tibet. China/Photo: Shahidul Alam

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She migrated from the Northern district to Dhaka for livelihood. As a sand worker at Gabtoli, she works dawn to dusk for seventy taka. Bangladesh/Photo: Partha Prathim Sadhu

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Men saw a large tree trunk in the naked afternoon sun. They don?t pick leaves in the gardens. Kapai Garden, Lashkarpur Tea Estate. Bangladesh/Photo: Munem Wasif

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Traders import cows from India prior to the Muslim festival Eid Ul Azha. A cow falls in the water while being unloaded from a boat. Aricha. Bangladesh/Photo: Abir Abdullah

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?These are the shacks we live in ? we call them ?Tali? ? there are 1873 families living here at this moment.? Rohinga refugees from Myanmar. Teknaf. Bangladesh/Photo: Mahbub Alam Khan

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This is a Road I have been seeing for ages, while I have been happy, sad, upset, romantic, high, low & while growing up. It fills me with memories. They call it the VIP Road/Photo: Gazi Nafis Ahmed (Adnan)

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Dipa Thapa, 75, has two pet cats in Pashupati Bridhashram (an Old People?s Home). They are her only friends. Nepal/Shehab Uddin
In the countdown to the election the newly launched DrikNews, promises to challenge the stranglehold of western agencies AP, AFP and Reuters. www.driknews.com is the site to watch.
14th December 2006. Amsterdam

I hear the screams

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Even after years of playing Pied Piper with a camera, I am still taken aback by children insisting on being photographed. It was September 1988, and we had had the worst floods in a century. These people at Gaforgaon hadn?t eaten for three days. A torn saree strung across the beams of an abandoned warehouse created the only semblance of a shelter. Their homes had been washed away. Family members had died. Yet the children had surrounded me. They wanted a picture.
It was dark in that damp deserted warehouse, but the broken walls let in wonderful monsoon light, and they jostled for position near the opening. It was as I was pressing the shutter that I realized that the boy in the middle was blind. He had pushed himself into the centre, and though he wasn?t tall he stood straight with a beaming smile.
Blind Boy in Goforgaon
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CARE

Clip on story of the blind child, from keynote presentation on citizen journalism at 50th Anniversary of World Press Photo in Amsterdam.
I?ve never seen the boy again, and today I question the fact that I do not know his name. But he has never left my thoughts and often I have wondered why it was so important for that blind boy to be photographed.
It?s happened elsewhere, in boat crossings at the river bank. In paddy fields heavy with grain, in busy market places. A shangbadik (literally a journalist, but in practice any person with a half decent camera) was hugely in demand. They refused to take the fare from me at the ferry ghat. Opened up their hearts and told me their most personal stories. Confided their secrets, shared their hopes. Never having deserved such treatment it has taken a while for me the photographer, to work out why being photographed meant so much to that blind child.
The stakeholders of Bangladeshi newspapers are the urban elite. Consequently stories from the village are about the exotic and the grotesque. Village people exist only as numbers, generally when plagued by some disaster and only when figures are substantial. A photograph in a newspaper, regardless of how token the gesture, is the only time a villager exists as a person. A picture on a printed page would have lifted that blind boy from his anonymity. That humbling thought stays with me whenever I am feted as a shangbadik in some small village. I receive their gift of trust gently, careful not to break the delicate contents.
It was as a photographer of children that I had begun my career. It was way before 9/11 and one could make appointments with strangers and go to their homes. I took happy pictures of kids, and parents loved them. It was easy money, except when I would photograph the children of poor parents. They loved the pictures but couldn?t afford to pay, so I would quietly leave the pictures behind and pay the studio out of my pocket. Back in Bangladesh, the only way I could make money was as a corporate photographer, but something else was happening. We were in the streets, trying to bring down a general who had usurped power. I didn?t know it then, but I was becoming a documentary photographer. Suddenly taking pictures of children meant more than smiling kids on sheepskin rugs.
As the pressure against the general mounted, I photographed children who joined the processions. The night he stepped down, I photographed a little girl with a bouquet of flowers. She was out with her dad in the middle of the night, celebrating the advent of democracy.
I am back in Kashmir eight months after I had been here photographing the advent of winter. The valleys of this fertile land are green with new crops, but many of the homes Child in Siran Valley rubble
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CONCERN
are still to be rebuilt. As I walked through the rubble, the kids again wanted to be photographed.
NAJMA
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CONCERN
Najma came running, her bright red dress popping out of the green maize fields.Unsure at first, she smiled when I told her she had the same name as my sister.
Zaheera singing nursery rhymes
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CONCERN
Zaheera, a cute girl with freckles, gathered her friends and sang me nursery songs.
But my thoughts are far away. Despite the laughter and the nursery songs very different sounds enter my consciousness. I remember the children screaming on the night of the 25th March 1971, when I watched in helpless anger as the Pakistani soldiers shot the children trying to escape their flame throwers. The US had sent their seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal, in support of the genocide. Today, as I remember the Palestinians and the Lebanese that the world is knowingly ignoring, I can hear the bombs raining down on Halba, El Hermel, Tripoli, Baalbeck, Batroun, Jbeil, Jounieh, Zahelh, Beirut, Rachaiya, Saida, Hasbaiya, Nabatiyeh, Marjaayoun,Tyr, Jbeil, Bint Chiyah, Ghaziyeh and Ansar and I hear the screams of the children. Piercing, wailing, angry, helpless, frightened screams.
News filters through of the children killed in the latest bombing. The photographs have kept coming in, horrific, sad, and disturbing. Mutilated bodies, dismembered children, people charred to ashes. But none as vulgar as those of Israeli children signing the rockets. Death warrants for children they?ve never known.
I remember my blind boy in Gaforgaon. The Lebanese and the Palestenians are also people without names. Their pain does not count. Their misery irrelevant, their anger ignored. Sitting in far away lands, immersed in rhetoric of their choosing, conjuring phantom fears necessary to keep them in power, hypocritical superpowers fail to acknowledge the evil of occupation. The ?measured response? to a people?s struggle for freedom will never in their reckoning allow a Lebanese or a Palestinian to be a person.
When greed becomes the only determining factor in world politics. When the demand for power, and oil and land overshadows the need for other people?s survival, I wonder if those screams can be heard. I wonder if those Israeli children will grow up remembering their siblings they condemned. I wonder if through all those screams the war mongers will still be asking ?why do they hate us??
11th August
Siran Valley, North West Frontier Province, Pakistan

Boundaries

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Chobi Mela IV

She packed her load of firewood onto the crowded train in Pangsha. The morning sun peered through the lazy winter haze. The vendors called ?chai garam, boildeem? and the train slowly chugged out of the station, people still clambering on board, or finishing last minute transactions. Some saying farewell. The scene had probably not been very different a hundred years ago. Maybe then, they carried pan in place of firewood, or some other commodity that people at the other end needed. She would come back the same day, bringing back what was needed here. Only today she was a smuggler. The artificial and somewhat random lines drawn by a British lawyer had made her an outlaw. She was crossing boundaries. There were other boundaries to cross. The job a woman was allowed to do, the class signs on the coaches that she could not read but was constantly made aware of. The changing light and the smells as sheet (winter) went into boshonto (spring). The Ashar clouds that the photographers waited for, which seemed to wait until the light was right.
Rickshaw wallas find circuitous routes to take passengers across the VIP road. Their tenuous existence made more difficult by the fact that permits are difficult to get, and the bribes now higher. Hip hop music in trendy discos in Gulshan and Banani with unwritten but clearly defined dress codes make space for the yuppie elite of Dhaka. The Baul Mela in Kushtia draws a somewhat different crowd. Ecstasy and Ganja breaks down some barriers while music creates the bonding. Lalon talks of other boundaries, of body and soul, the bird and the cage.
Photography creates its own compartments. The photojournalist, the fine artist, the well paid celebrity, the bohemian dreamer, the purist, the pragmatist, the classical, the hypermodern, the uncropped image, the setup shot, the Gettys and the Driks. The majority world. The South. The North. The West. The developing world. Red filters, green filters, high pass filters, layers, masks, feathered edges. No photoshop, yes photoshop. Canonites, Nikonites, Leicaphytes, digital, analogue.
The digital divide. The haves, the have nots. Vegetarians, vegans, carnivores. Heterosexuals, metrosexuals, transsexuals, homosexuals. The straight, the kinky. The visionaries, the mercenaries, the crude the erudite, the pensive the flamboyant. Oil, gas, bombs, immigration officials. WTO, subsidies, sperm banks, kings, tyrants, presidents, prime ministers, revolutionaries, terrorists, anarchists, activists, pacifists, the weak, the meek, the strong, the bully. The good the evil. The hawks the doves. The evolutionists, the creationists. The crusaders the Jihadis. The raised fist, the clasped palms. The defiant, the oppressive, the green, the red. The virgin.
Whether cattle are well fed, or children go hungry, whether bombs are valid for defence, or tools of aggression, boundaries ? seen and unseen ? define our modes of conduct, our freedoms, our values, our very ability to recognise the presence of the boundaries that bind us.
Festival Website

Flying Decadence

If ever I’d wanted to savour the decadence of flying in a private jet, this was it. The F28 seats 78, less one for the flight engineer. I had the choice seat, 1F, right hand window seat, perfect for viewing the Everest. As it turned out, it didn’t matter too much. There were only four other passengers, and we could have taken any seat we chose, left, right, window, and aisle. Had it been a long flight, I would have sprawled across three seats and snored away.Service was excellent. Captain Enam was a photographer and we had fun talking pictures. Never before have I known each passenger in my flight. No queues on arrival, baggage on the belt, even before we’d arrived. Wonderful. Except of course for Biman or the environment. A conservative estimate of a flight to Kathmandu costs Taka 2 lakh. That’s Taka 40,000 per passenger on flight 703. The enormous environmental damage for ferrying five people to a neighbouring country was staggering.
Biman interior
The F28 we were flying was old, water dripped onto the seats, the shuddering panels had withstood daily wear and tear for some 35 years. Still, Bangladesh had paid some nine crore (ninety million) taka for this craft.
I could hear the mumbling in the ground. Cautious comments about how top management never consulted the rest of the staff, how decisions were made on political rather than technical or economic grounds. Rama, a Nepali passenger whose father worked in Cosmic Air commented on how they had expected the flight to be packed because the afternoon flight of Cosmic Air had been cancelled. She was surprised that despite such numbers there were two flights to Kathmandu on the day.
The comments then veered to Biman as a whole. “Amra Borishale batash ani nei” (We only transport air to Barisal and back, there are no passengers), said a Biman official. “Chowdhury shahab er bari Borishale, oi flight ki ar thaman jaibo (Mr Chowdhury the minister- is from Barisal, fat chance you have of stopping those flights).
I enjoyed my flight. I bet the two cockroaches who kept me company did too.

Rusted and broken hinge of landing gear of Biman aircraft. This aircraft had taken off from Kathmandu airport, but soon returned to land because of 'technical problems' which were never revealed to the passengers. May 21 2009. Kathmandu Nepal ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit

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Over the years, February has become our month of resistance. This is the window that successive repressive governments have allowed us, to vent our steam. The open air plays in Shahid Minar, the book fare in Bangla Academy and of course the midnight walk and the songs of freedom on the night of Ekushey, the 21st February, are all tolerated, for one month.
Yuppie Bangladeshis put on their silk punjabis and saffron sarees, and become the torch bearers of our heritage, for one month. Come March, it will be business as usual. It has been difficult convincing development experts of the value of culture in our society. With ‘poverty alleviation’ being the current? buzzwords, one forgets, that it was the love for our language that shaped our resistance in ’71 or that ‘Bangla Nationalism’ has been used to justify repression in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On the 1st February, perhaps we could look back at a collaboration between Drik in Bangladesh, and Zeezeilen in the Netherlands:
Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit
Culture glides through peoples’ consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the currents and the countercurrents. Trends change, flowing in the slipstreams of dominant culture. A few swim against this current, while others get trapped in ox-bow lakes, isolated from the mainstream.
Photography, more than any other media or art form has influenced culture. Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion. The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred on the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more important realisation that photographs largely are manufactured by the image industry, one that is increasingly owned by a corporate world. The implied veracity of the still image and its perceived ability to represent the truth hides the ubiquitous and less perceptible manipulation enabled by photographic and editorial viewpoint. Not only can we no longer believe that the photograph cannot lie, we now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels and newspapers and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before.
Photography has become the most powerful tool in the manufacturing of consent, and it remains to be seen whether photographers can rise above the role of being cogs in this propaganda machine and become the voice for the voiceless.

World Press Photo In Dhaka: Behind The Scenes

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With hundreds of people seeing the show every day, and excellent media
coverage, it might appear as if the staging of WPP photo in Bangladesh was a
smooth well organised affair. As Marc will testify, the reality was very
different. For those of you who have seen the show at the gallery or online,
this behind the scenes look will provide an amusing take on a potential
disaster.
The crates had arrived at Zia International Airport on the 24th of December
2003, but the journey from Zia to Dhanmondi took considerably longer. The
opening was at 4:00 pm on the 7th January 2004. By 3:30 pm, the crates
hadn’t arrived! We did know they had left the airport, and was able to tell
the Dutch Ambassador that it was safe for him to come over. The head of the
caretaker government, our chief guest, Justice Habibur Rahman was already on
his way. The adrenaline was flowing!

Victory's Aftertaste

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Rashid Talukder’s photo of the dismembered head in Rayerbazar
(http://www.drik.net/calendar96/), or the Pullitzer winning image by Michel Laurent and Horst Faas, of the bayoneting of Razakars have been used to represent Bangladesh’s war of liberation. Kishor Parekh photographed a different war. An old man held up a tiny flag of the new Bangladesh. A child cast a furtive glance at a corpse in the street. Jubilant children laughed as they ran across mustard fields in bloom. Women shed silent tears. “Shoot me right now, or take me”, he had said to the major who refused to take this unaccredited photographer. But Parekh did board the helicopter, but then went his own way. On his own, with limited film, Parekh photographed the war that ordinary women, men and children had fought.

Shahidul Alam

Sat Dec 20, 2003

Fraud Band

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Salma, a housewife in Norshingdi, receives a call from her husband, a migrant labourer in Singapore. Rural women in Bangladesh have set up small mobile phone businesses which now allow easier communication in villages.
Salma, a housewife in Norshingdi, receives a call from her husband, a migrant labourer in Singapore. Rural women in Bangladesh have set up small mobile phone businesses which now allow easier communication in villages. Norshingdi. Bangladesh ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

She was mildly self conscious when I asked to photograph her, but a smile soon spread over her face. The telephone had connected her to her husband, a worker in Singapore. Salma, a woman in a village near Sonargaon in Bangladesh, had recently learnt to use the village mobile telephone, and it had transformed her life. Had this been where the story ended, it would have been a simple affair with a happy ending. Perhaps for Salma, it wasn’t significant that the technology that allowed her access to her husband, was one of many that allowed people in distant lands to tap her call, to add her to a database, to classify her as yet another consumer of products or a source of cheap labour for electronic sweatshops. For many others however, the wealth of new opportunities provided by globalisation, merely represents a wider net for global exploitation.
There are now many Salmas, and on the 14th August 2003, Grameen?s subscriber base reached a million. Greater than the total subscriber base of the government land lines. ISPs too pop up in many street corners, and though Internet telephony (VOIP) is illegal here, the service is openly advertised in convenience stores. In between the tangled wires on every street pole in Dhaka is the attractive advert: broadband, 24 hours, only taka 1000 per month. That?s about US $ 17. Not a bad price for broadband, until you realise that the definitions differ. The bandwidth on offer is 1K/sec, and breaks every time a storm, or a competing ISP cuts the cable, or when electricity fails (generally 2-3 times a day) at any of the relay nodes. No wonder many users call it ?fraud band?.
The VSAT on our rooftop delivers 512K connectivity. A respectable speed, except that we expect to have 200 dialup customers, another 200 leased line clients, and maybe a few smaller ISPs running Voice over IP (VOIP) services and the ?broadband connections? using that bandwidth. That is the only way we can pay for the US $ 3500/month for staying connected. Plus a $ 3,500/64 KB/year license fee. An average user in the west would pay around 20 ? 30 Euro for comparable access.
Even getting here hasn?t been easy. In 1994, when we setup Bangladesh?s first email service, we were using off-line email. Our server, a 286, and just one telephone line which we used for voice, fax and email, provided email connectivity to the world bank, UNICEF, major universities, and several organisations that are now ISPs. Since then the Net has been both a boon and a bane. It has been our lifeline to the rest of the world, and it has been the area where the government has attacked us the hardest. On the 27th of February 2001, we setup the country?s first human rights portal www.banglarights.net. The government promptly closed down all our telephone lines the next day. It took a lot of protests, to get the local lines back, but even now, we cannot make an international telephone call. Not using the government lines anyway. However, our VSAT on the rooftop, allows us an access that the government will not be able to stop simply by pulling a plug somewhere. Our e-newsletter reaches a carefully targeted 5000 worldwide, and a note saying the government was getting heavy would be immediately followed by a string of protests from fairly
influential organisations worldwide. So we walk a fine line, and continue to be subversive. On the other hand, the government?s lack of knowledge can be used (and abused) to find ways round the system. The import of the satellite phone by the BBC, which connects through Inmarsat, was allowed by the Bangladesh Telephone and Regulatory Council (BTRC), on condition that it not be used to make calls outside the country!
For the majority world, education offers the most effective route to take advantage of the globalisation juggernaut. And it is here, that the technological opportunities and the networking that accompanies globalisation, can be best utilized. Interestingly, the role models that seem to have worked best are those developed in the south, and it is only when the asymmetrical flow of information, which flows essentially from north to south, is replaced by south-south movement, that we will begin to turn the tide around. We started using the Net for education fairly early on, but activism and survival have really been the main driving forces behind our relationship with new media. An incidence of rape at a local university was being hushed up, and it was our presence on the Net that forced the establishment to arrange an investigation. The rapists got off with mild punishment, but it was the first time they had been challenged, and it has changed campus dynamics. It was our fragile network that allowed us to contact legal help groups and other activist organizations, when Taslima Nasreen, the feminist writer was under threat. It was the Net that kept us relevant.
The most interesting shifts have been in the area of media. With mainstream media coming under increasing restrictions, and the cost of publishing soaring, media activists have been taking to the Net to get their ideas across. A whole set of blogs, newsletters, opinion forums and activist sites have sprung up. Apart from providing an alternative space where points of view not palatable to mainstream media can be aired, these Net spaces have also become meeting grounds for the diaspora, who have until now felt excluded from the development process, and numerous archives abound providing alternative information sources.
The main struggle however remains between activists trying to make full use of a vibrant media, and a skeptical, fossilized and generally corrupt bureaucracy, that is deeply suspicious of what this media might do. It is reminiscent of the first time Bangladesh rejected the fibre optic cable that went along the Bay of Bengal, since the information minister was scared that ?state secrets? would be leaked out. A new rule in Bangladesh prevents CDs from being sent overseas, while the same data sent through the Net can be sent legally.
Our journalism school is trying to develop on-line learning modules, and we are hoping to start up a regional centre for investigative journalism that will rely heavily on new media for its success. There are interesting political implications too. Our latest plans for setting up a ?public accountability site?, promises to be the most problematic for the establishment. The idea is to setup kiosks in poor neighbourhoods, which will provide information relevant to the locality that they can use to determine how public funds and other resources are being used. The government has promised such transparency, and we want to hold them to it. But when the public begins to sense how their resources are used, the trouble will start, and those who made the ministerial speeches, will be the first to shut us down. That too is a fight that we need to win, and we?ll use new media as our primary tool.
Presented at the World Summit on Information Society. Geneva. 9th December 2003