Siege of Drik Gallery

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New Age Editorial

THE siege, so to speak, of the Drik Gallery by the police on Monday, to force cancellation of a photo exhibition on extrajudicial killings by acclaimed photographer and Drik managing director Shahidul Alam, not only undermined the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the republic but also put the entire nation to shame. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Tuesday, the police, along with the Rapid Action Battalion and the Special Branch of police, had, from midday onwards, put pressure on the Drik management to not hold the exhibition on the ground that it did not have official permission and that it might cause ?unrest in the country?, before they cordoned off the gallery half an hour before the inauguration of the show. Subsequently, the organisers were forced to hold an impromptu inaugural ceremony on the road in front of the gallery.
The reasons cited by the police appear somewhat dodgy. As Shahidul Alam pointed out, Drik has been ?arranging shows since 1993 and no permission has ever been required.? Other galleries in the capital and elsewhere in the country would certainly make the same observations. In other words, even if there is a provision in the Dhaka Metropolitan Police ordinance that makes obtaining permission for an exhibition mandatory, neither the organisers of such exhibitions have deemed it necessary to comply with it, nor have the police themselves shown any urgency with regard to its enforcement. The question then is why the police deemed it invoke a provision that is seldom enforced. The answer may be found in the remark of an assistant commissioner of police quoted in the New Age report. ?The organisers did not obtain official permission although exhibitions on sensitive issues require prior permission,? he said.
Indeed, the issue that the Drik exhibition deals with, i.e. extrajudicial killings, is sensitive. It is, perhaps, more sensitive for the police and the Rapid Action Battalion because they are the prime perpetrators of such killings. It is, perhaps, equally sensitive for the government since it has not only failed to rein in the trigger-happy law enforcers despite widespread criticism and condemnation, at home and abroad, of extrajudicial killings and, most importantly, embargo by the highest judiciary but also appeared, of late, to be trying to justify such blatant violation of the rule of law by the supposed protectors of law. It is unlikely that the police acted on Monday beyond the knowledge of the government, which could only indicate that the incumbents may be even willing to foil any attempt at creating public awareness of, and thus mobilising public opinion against, extrajudicial killings, which is what the Drik photo exhibition appears to be. It is ironic that the ruling Awami League promised, in its election manifesto, to put an end to extrajudicial killings.
As indicated before, the police action not only was in contravention with the constitution but also put the entire nation to shame. The inauguration of the exhibition was scheduled to be followed by the launch of the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, and the guest of honour was none other than celebrated Indian writer and human rights activist Mahashweta Devi. There were also celebrated personalities from some other countries. In other words, the police enacted the shameful episode in front of such an august gathering tarnishing, in the process, the image of the nation as a whole.
While we condemn the police action, we demand that the government order immediate withdrawal of the police cordon around the Drik Gallery and thus allow the exhibition to continue unhindered. It is the least that the government should do.

DAILY STAR Editorial

Police action against Drik exhibition:It undercuts people’s political and cultural rights
THE police action, stopping the Drik gallery exhibition of images relating to the incidents of ‘crossfire’ in Bangladesh, is a case of oppression and curtailment of our fundamental rights of freedom of expression, speech, information and cultural expression. On Monday, just before the exhibition was to be inaugurated by eminent Indian intellectual Mahasweta Devi, policemen positioned themselves before the gallery in Dhanmondi and simply refused to let anyone enter or come out of its premises. By way of explanation, they told the media that Drik gallery did not have permission to organise the exhibition.
The question of permission is totally uncalled for. There are hundreds of photo exhibitions and other such functions of public viewing happening everyday in the capital city. Did their organisers have to seek permission in each case to be holding these? Drik itself has been organising such events since 1993. Never was any permission required or sought or demanded by any agency. Exhibitions such as these have educative, informational and instructive values. Free flow of ideas helps enrich intellectual wealth of the country, broadens its outlook and enhances the level of tolerance in a society of contrary or dissenting views. There may be a debate on an issue but it doesn’t mean people on one side of an issue need not hear or refuse to see the other’s point of view.
This is exactly the level of maturity we crave for and have actually reached in certain areas of national life which must not be allowed to be undone through any ham-handed act of indiscretion. If the police become the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong for our society, then God help us.
Let certain facts be made clear. Democracy entails a guarantee and preservation of the political and cultural rights of citizens. In such a setting, the sensitivities of certain individuals or groups or bodies cannot override the bigger demands of an open, liberal society which the present government espouses as policy. Now, if the police or any other agency is upset at a revelation of the sordid truth that ‘crossfires’ have been, they should be making sure that such extra-judicial killings do not recur. The fault lies not with Drik gallery that it organised the exhibition. It lies in the inability or reluctance of the authorities to dig into the question of why ‘crossfire’ killings are today a reprehensible affair. Besides, why must the authorities forget that by preventing what they think is adverse publicity for the country they are only making it more pronounced before the nation and the outside world?
We condemn the police action. And we would like the home minister to explain to citizens how such acts that clearly militate against the people’s right to know and observe and interpret conditions can at all take place.

News in Netherlands

Widespread condemnation of closure of photo exhibition in Bangladesh (Power of Culture)

Prince Claus Fund partner closed down by police (Metropolis M)

News in UK

?Crossfire? censored ? the power of documentary photography (Prof. David Campbell)

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

PRESS RELEASE

23 March 2010
Bangladesh: Lift ban on extrajudicial killings exhibition. Amnesty International is urging the Bangladeshi authorities to lift a ban on an exhibition of photographs raising awareness about alleged extrajudicial executions carried out by a special police unit.
?Yesterday?s closure of the Drik Picture Library exhibition ?Crossfire? in Dhaka is a blow to the right to freedom of expression,? said Amnesty International?s Bangladesh Researcher, Abbas Faiz. ?The?government of Bangladesh must act immediately to lift the police ban and protect the right to peaceful expression in words, images or any other media in accordance with Bangladesh?s constitution and?international law.?
Hours before the ?Crossfire? exhibition was due to open at a special ceremony in Dhaka, police moved in and demanded that the organizers cancel it. When they refused to shut it down police closed the?premises, claiming that the exhibition had no official permission to open and would ?create anarchy?.
The exhibition includes photographs based on Drik?s case studies of killings in Bangladesh, which government officials have portrayed as deaths in ?crossfire?.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Bangladesh since 2004 when the special police force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), was established.
In most cases, victims who die in the custody of RAB and other police personnel, are later announced to have been killed during ?crossfire? or police ?shoot-outs?.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations consider these killings to be extrajudicial executions.
Human rights lawyers in Bangladesh see the closure of the exhibition as unjustified and with no legal basis. They are seeking a court order to lift the police ban on the exhibition.
Drik?s Director, Shahidul Alam says he has held hundreds of other exhibitions without needing official permission, and that ?the government invoked a prohibitive clause only because state repression?was being exposed?.
Abbas Faiz said:?By closing the ?Crossfire? exhibition, the government of Bangladesh has effectively reinforced a culture of impunity for human rights violations. Amnesty International is calling for the?government to take action against those who carry out extrajudicial executions, not those who raise their voices against it.?
The ban is also inconsistent with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?s pledges that her government would take action to end extrajudicial executions.
Amnesty International is urging authorities to allow peaceful protests against the killings and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
END/
News in USA

Police in Bangladesh Close Photo Exhibit







By David Gonzalez

New York Times

Shahidul Alam had hoped his ?Crossfire? exhibit on extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh would ?shock people out of their comfort zone? and provoke a response.
He got his wish.
Minutes before the show was to open on Monday afternoon, the police shut down his gallery in the Dhanmondi district of Dhaka.
But instead of stifling public debate, the government?s action has had the opposite effect: art students have formed a human chain at the university and lawyers are preparing to bring legal action to reopen the show.
?It really has galvanized public opinion,? Mr. Alam said in a telephone interview on Tuesday from southern Bangladesh. ?People were angry and ready ? they just needed a catalyst. The exhibit has become in a sense iconic of the resistance.?
The photography exhibit was a symbolic treatment of the wave of executions carried out by the Rapid Action Battalion, an anticrime squad whose many critics say that it engages in violent social cleansing.
Rather than document actual killings ? something already done at great length by groups like Human Rights Watch ? Mr. Alam created a series of large, moody prints that touched on aspects of actual cases.
[Lens published a post and slide show, “Where Death Squads Struck in Bangladesh,” on March 16.]
Although the killings have drawn international condemnation, they have continued, despite promises by the government to rein in the battalion. Mr. Alam, a photographer, writer and activist, had hoped that his track record and international reputation would offer the ?Crossfire? show some protection.
But the police and officials from the battalion began to put pressure on him around midday, according to a press release from the gallery, insisting that the exhibit did not have the necessary official permission. As the 4 p.m. opening hour approached, the police closed the gallery, saying the show would create ?anarchy.?
With the gallery closed, Mr. Alam, his associates and invited guests put on an impromptu exhibit outside the gallery. The government?s intrusion ? without any apparent court order ? was denounced as illegal.
?The forcible closure of Drik?s premises is a blatant violation of our constitutional rights,? Mr. Alam said in a statement. ?We call upon the government to immediately remove the police encirclement, so that the exhibition can be opened for public viewing, and Bangladesh?s image as an independent democratic nation can be reinstated.?

In response to `Smoking gun abused for smokescreen'

By Rahnuma Ahmed

As a New Age columnist, I was thinking of writing about the controversy surrounding the Tibet exhibition (Into Exile. Tibet 1949 ? 2009, November 1-7) for my next column. My dear Maobadi friend, Tarek Chowdhury’s piece, which he was kind enough to forward me, had meanwhile been published in Samakal (`Tibboter odekha chobigulo onek kotha boley,’ November 13). Since some of our political concerns and perspectives are shared, since I benefited from his piece as I did from that of other writers who had trodden the path before me, who have extensively researched and written on China, Tibet and US imperialism, who have carefully built up their arguments and critiques based on a close scrutiny of facts and figures and have thereby helped deepen our understanding of imperialism, I drew on them. Unflinchingly. Unreservedly. Of course, I was careful to credit ideas as I went along (but not all. For instance, although I learned a lot from reading pieces by authors such as Michel Chossudovsky, F. William Engdahl and others, they were not named since I had not directly cited them. For an ex-academic like me, the space constraints of column-writing have been a learning experience).
In `Smoking Gun Abused for Smokescreen‘ (December 13) Tarek assumes that what I wrote in my column (‘China-US politics over exhibiting Tibet. In Dhaka,? November 23) was a `response’ to his Samakal op-ed. But if I had felt obliged to pen a response, surely??I would have written it up as that, and sent it off to Samakal?
I wrote as a columnist, not as Drik’s spokesperson. I have never done thus, because I do not see myself in that role. Neither, I think, do my readers (nor Shahidul Alam, or anyone else at Drik for that matter, but that’s beside the point). Secondly, I do not think my task is to pass judgment (`we don?t see Rahnuma draw any judgement about the SFT?the real ?area of contention? between us’). Not on SFT (Students for a Free Tibet), nor on anything else. That work, I think, is best left to judges. As a writer, I work towards contributing in, and in opening up further, spaces of critical thinking. Hence, I map out fields of debate, I position myself within the debate, often bringing into the discussion issues which have escaped the attention of other writers (in this case, `neat fit,’ Guantanamo, which I will go into later). I constantly seek to clarify why I think and believe what I do, as I do. Readers are intelligent people; in my view, they are both capable of, and also free to, reach their own conclusions which may, or may not, be in agreement with mine. To try and persuade, yes. To argue, yes. To pass judgment, no.
And hence, what I wrote in my column was obviously framed by my concerns (which would not have been the case if I was writing a `response’). After briefly describing what had happened (a visit by Chinese embassy officials, followed by Bangladesh intelligence, eventually a lock-up of Drik’s premises by the police), I wrote about what Tarek had written in his Samakal piece: the SFT, its funding sources, his suspicion about the timing of the exhibition, CIA funding of the Tibet movement through NED (National Endowment for Democracy). I then drew on the work of others who have researched on the SFT/NED/CIA nexus to elaborate on Tarek’s argument, and to offer my readers additional evidence: NED’s Reagan-ite origins, the roles of the (present) Dalai Lama’s brothers in the Tibet resistance movement during the 1950s in which the CIA had been active, had trained guerrilla units etc. etc.
After this, I broached the issue of cultural and political activism, seeking Shahidul’s response: an `opportunity to see rare photos,’ `we have faced pressure before,’ even `progressive institutions’ have wanted us to practise `self-censorship’; this I juxtaposed with Barker’s argument, namely, that progressive activists, both Tibetan and foreign, should first and foremost cast a critical eye over the `antidemocratic’ funders of Tibetan groups, or else, a progressive solution to the Tibetan problem, a `more thoroughgoing democratisation of [Tibetan] social life’ will not be generated. But Shahidul had said that Drik was not above criticism, that it was welcomed, and I expected readers to remember that. For me, the obvious implication of what he’d said was, whether Drik’s decision to co-host the exhibition was right or wrong should be a matter of public debate. It would give Drik the opportunity of critically appraising itself.
As for what I had written, it’s implication was much sharper. If formulated as a question it would stand thus: should Drik, as a progressive institution, have agreed to partner an exhibition with the Bangladeshi chapter of SFT, since the latter (the parent organisation) receives funding from NED, which now does what was covertly done by the CIA 25 years ago, even though the exhibition gives members of the public an opportunity to see a collection of rare photographs? This clearly was a matter for public debate (not a matter of my passing a `judgment’). I was certain that intelligent people/readers would clearly see what I was driving at.
I then returned to Barker’s argument. I wanted to tease it out further, not to minimise the importance of what he had said, but because I think (as probably Barker and many others do too) that there is no `neat fit’ between the different movements for freedom that different activists may, and do, simultaneously support. In other words, there is no `single’ list of freedom movements that will satisfy everyone critical of US imperialism. To illustrate my point, I drew on Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the Irish Nobel Peace laureate, who is a strong defender of both the Palestinian, and the Tibetan, cause. I pointed to the recently-launched `Thank You Tibet!’ campaign to which Mairead belongs, which extends support to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet, claiming that they are a “model for all of us.”
In `Smoking Gun,’ Tarek points out that I had failed to mention Maguire’s connection to ICT (she’s a member of the International Campaign for Tibet’s International Counsel of Advisors). Also, that she’s an advisor to the Points of Peace Foundation (a media and human rights foundation located in Norway with “a mandate to support Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in urgent need of media, dialogue and communication assistance in their home countries and internationally”), and the founder of Voice of Tibet radio station (a PPF project aided by NED; the radio station, from what I gather, was founded by three Norwegian NGOs and not Maguire, as Tarek states, but it’s a slight error which is not crucial to our discussion). However, these additional? facts provided by Tarek, only serves to substantiate my point that there is `no neat fit.’ Does Maguire’s support for the Dalai Lama, her ICT membership, and being a PPF advisor weaken her credibility as a progressive activist? Does it imply that she is, let’s say, not genuinely concerned with promoting freedom and democracy in Tibet, or elsewhere, like Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq? Even though Maguire has strongly criticised Israel, “an allegedly democratic country with a sham justice system,” ?and the Bush administration for “increasing nuclearism, ongoing wars, and the ignoring of international treaties and laws in articles published in CounterPunch, USA’s best known left newsletter (which has also published articles critical of “anti-Chinese frenzy in the West, pursued in the guise of pro-Tibetan… human rights activism,” John V. Whitbeck)? (CounterPunch has published articles critical of CIA, US imperialism, too countless to mention).
Maguire’s support for the Dalai Lama, interestingly enough, does not appear to have prevented US immigration officials from detaining and harassing her at Houston airport (May 2009). `They questioned me about my nonviolent protests in USA against the Afghanistan invasion and Iraqi war.’ She added, ‘They insisted I must tick the box in the Immigration form admitting to criminal activities.’ Detained for two hours, grilled, fingerprinted, photographed, then grilled again, Maguire was released only after the Nobel Women’s Initiative, an organisation she helped found, raised a hue and cry.
There are `strings attached’ to Maguire’s `compassion for Tibet,’ says Tarek. I am not clear what he means by this phrase, and much less so, by this sentence which follows soon after, `True beauty of any actor can only be judged when the audience gets the chance to take a glance at the greenroom’ ? except that it seems to imply that something sinister lies behind Maguire’s activism. If Tarek means that support for the Tibetan cause is per se suspect, then what is one to make of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s recent decision to pull out of a peace conference meeting linked to the 2010 Football World Cup because the South African government had denied Dalai Lama a visa? (Reportedly, as a result of Chinese pressure). Further, what is one to make of Archbishop Tutu’s statement on behalf of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, human rights leaders and concerned individuals which tells the Dalai Lama, “we stand with you. You define non-violence and compassion and goodness.” How does one view this? As naivete on the Archbishop’s part, because he does not seem to be aware of the Dalai Lama administration’s acknowledgement (1998) that it had annually received $1.7 million in the 1960’s from the CIA, spent partly on paying for guerrilla operations against the Chinese, a fact which critics say, puts His Holiness’ commitment to non-violence, as being a public face? Or, should we be looking for a `strings attached’ answer? Or do we interpret it to mean that Archbishop Tutu’s opposition to apartheid and/or his subsequent defence of human rights and? commitment to campaigning for the oppressed is not genuine, but a mere rhetorical device? Or, do we re-think some of the issues, while reminding ourselves in the process that premier Chou-en-Lai had lent his support to the Pakistani military dictatorship in 1971 when it had unleashed a genocidal campaign against the people of east Pakistan because it was in communist China’s national interest?
Tarek writes, “Mistakenly she has equated Parenti?s strong criticism of China of ?dazzling 8 percent economic growth rate? (does this apply to pre-1978 period or when HH fled to India?) with the China which ?stood up? in October 1949 under the leadership of Mao and misled her readers grossly by misrepresenting Parenti?s views.”
What I wrote was: “One area of contention [with Tarek] is an old one, centering on whether Tibet is better or worse off, under Chinese communism. As Michael Parenti, severely critical of the Hollywood `Shangri-La’ myth puts it, old Tibet, in reality, was not a Paradise Lost. But if Tibet’s future is to be positioned somewhere within China’s emerging free market paradise?with its deepening gulf between rich and poor, the risk of losing jobs, being beaten and imprisoned if workers try to form unions in corporate dominated “business zones,” the pollution resulting from billions of tons of industrial emissions and untreated human waste dumped into its rivers and lakes?the old Tibet, he says, may start looking better than it actually was.”
Now, if I were to list out the different periods and their characteristics that are packed together in this passage, this is how it would look:
1. Old Tibet/pre-Communism, was not Shangri-la/paradise lost
2? New Tibet=part of Communist China:
(a) earlier/pre free-market paradise
(b) present/emerging free-market paradise: deepening gulf between rich and poor, risk of losing jobs in corporate-owned zones, pollution, untreated human waste
As should be obvious to intelligent people/readers who know that chairman Mao was not an advocate of free market enterprise ? even to in-attentive readers because of? the word `emerging’ ? the sentence incorporates the assumption that the deepening gulf between rich and poor, risk of losing jobs in corporate-owned zones, pollution, untreated human waste etc. etc. — was unbeknownst in the New Tibet which precedes the present pre free-market paradise, in other words, it was unknown in Mao’s China.
Tarek further writes, “To make her public response to my views and questions…” which seems to imply that my `private’ response to his `Tibboter odekha chobigulo..’ (Samakal had published its own slashed-down version) had been very different. But this is how I had responded privately:
2009/11/9 Rahnuma Ahmed (translated to English)

Dear Tarek

Many thanks for writing this article, and for selecting me to be the first reader. My chief comments are:

(a) the issue of China-Tibet-US politics, and its analysis from a geo-strategic perspective, is undoubtedly interesting, and important. But when this perspective is utilised to analyse the politics of culture, it is necessary to be extra-cautious, since our conceptual tools have been developed to analyse geo-strategic politics, on the assumption that it is primary.

(b) I have felt that you view politics and political struggles conspiratorially, this diminishes the significance of your piece, for instance, you seem to view people as conspirators. To push my point further, I have felt that you did not subject the Chinese government/state to the same critical eye as you did the US and Tibet/Dalai Lama.

(c) while it is true that the US and China are opposed forces, that their political systems and ideologies are different etc., I do find their alliance in some areas — and here I am not? talking of trade relations — very interesting. For instance, the recent Uighur/Guantanamo incident. And it is incidents such as these which remind me that it is no longer possible to view China from a 1960s perspective, as a beacon of light amidst darkness. If one sticks to the dichotomy that China is `good’ and the US is `evil’ — one has to turn a blind eye to too many things, I believe this will hinder our attempts to understand the state as a historical phenomenon.

We will/must continue to argue and debate. lal salam/r
And toward the end of my column, I spoke of the Uighur/Guantanamo incident, of how Chinese interrogators had gone to Guantanamo and grilled Uighurs (a Muslim minority from the autonomous region Xinjiang, in western China), how they had been actively assisted by US military personnel to soften them up. But in hindsight, it is my second point, about a conspiratorial view of politics, that now seems almost-prophetic. Even though, I must admit, it doesn’t answer why Tarek has chosen to ignore the long response which I posted on Shahidul’s blog (December 4) in response to? questions and comments on my column `Exhibiting Tibet.’ I had forwarded him the link, he himself had posted two comments after mine. Probably, an acknowledgement would have made writing `Smoking Gun,’ with all its allegations and accusations, difficult.
When Tarek writes, “Personally, I won?t be surprised to see the SFTBD?s Bangladeshi national director (it has quite a corporate style organisational structure), the young devoted lady who ?breathes her time equally between Dharamshala ? and Bangladesh? rewarded soon by some heavyweight promoter for her superb service” (italics mine), his gaze is undoubtedly male. It is directed at male readers, written to incite their curiosity on gendered lines.
May be if Tarek had been less melodramatic, less into `actors,’ `greenrooms,’ `make-up,’ `choreography,’ `media event,’ `orchestrated propaganda,’ `dress rehearsals,’ `TV shows,’ `anchors,’ he would have digressed less. May be if he had steered clear of metaphors that have become associated with an imperial mentalite ? Condoleeza Rice’s declaration, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” ?? he would not have barked up the wrong tree. Maybe, if he had been less `judgment’-al, he could have meaningfully contributed to the debate.
But who knows?
Published in New Age, December 20, 2009

We Protest

?Into Exile ? Tibet 1949 ? 2009,? an exhibition organised by the Bangladeshi chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, in partnership with Drik, was symbolically opened by Professor Muzaffer Ahmed, former chairman of Transparency International?Bangladesh, on 1 November 2009. Despite pressure on Drik to cancel the exhibition, first by officials of the Chinese embassy in Dhaka, and later by Bangladesh government officials, special branch, police, and members of parliament, the opening took place outside, on the street, as Drik’s premises had been locked up by the police. The police had insisted that we needed official permission to hold the exhibition but were unable to produce any written document to that effect.

Police enters Drik's premises even after exhibition is cancelledPolice insisted on entering the private premises of Drik even after they were unable to produce any documentation to show they were authorised to do so. A day after blocking the entrance to the gallery to prevent an exhibition on Tibet from taking place, police said they had orders from the Home Ministry to guard the place for seven days. Dhaka, Bangladesh. November 2, 2009. ? Shehab Uddin/DrikNews/Majority World

We went ahead with the opening as it is part of Drik’s struggle for the freedom of cultural expression. We are particularly affronted at being asked by officials of a foreign state, to cancel the exhibition. We strongly believe that governments should have the courage to present their views at cultural platforms and to try and convince people by arguing their case, in other words, acting democratically, rather than using intimidation and heavy-handed tactics.

Shahidul with police 7067 Tibet Exhibition SeriesShahidul Alam insisting that police leave the premises of Drik and not intimidate visitors to the gallery. Police positioned themselves outside the gate leaving some of their riot gear prominently displayed inside. Upon further resistance the riot gear was removed. 2nd November 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Saikat Mojumder/DrikNews/Majority World

The forced closure of Drik affects many people, which includes members of the public, clients and those working at Drik. Public interest is our concern. We also want to continue working as an internationally acclaimed media organisation with both national and international commitments. Hence, having registered our indignance, at the actions of the Bangladesh government, and those of Chinese embassy officials we will be closing the exhibition 2 November 2009.
We express our thanks to members of the public and the media, for being present at the street opening, for demonstrating their deep disgust at governmental interference, and at their show of solidarity.

Stop Press: Police have been evicted from Drik and have positioned themselves outside the gate.

`Still pictures are not still…' Fore-seeing the effect of visual images

by Rahnuma Ahmed
`Still pictures are not still…’ said Mahasweta Devi. She was in Dhaka to inaugurate Chobi Mela V, and, fortunately for us, had expressed her wish to put up with Shahidul Alam, the director of Chobi Mela. Having Mahasweta Devi, and Joy Bhadra, a young writer and her companion, as house guests, was a `happening’. I will write about that another day.
Mahasweta Devi consistently used the words stheer chitro (exact translation is, `still images’). Still pictures, she went on, inspire us. They move us. They make us do things.
However, I thought to myself, many who are working on visual and cultural theory may not agree. Some would be likely to say, things are not as simple as that.

The effect of visual images needs to be investigated

The debate about the power of visual images has become stuck on the point of the meaning of visual images, on the truth of images. This, said David Campbell, a professor of cultural and political geography, doesn’t get us very far. He was one of the panelists at the opening night’s discussion of Chobi Mela V, held at the Goethe Institut auditorium (`Engaging with photography from outside: An informal discussion between a geographer, an editor and a curator/funder of photography’, 30 Jan 2009).


David went on, it is much better to focus on the effect of images, on the function of images, on the work that images do — and that, is how the debate should be framed. At present, attention is overly-focused on the single image, and what we expect of the single image. By doing this we have invested it with too much possibility, we place too much hope on it’s ability to bring about social change. The effect of visual images needs to be investigated, rather than assumed.
nick-ut-associated-press-pulitzer-terror-napalm
Amy Yenkin, another panelist in the programme, and head of the Documentary Photography project at the Open Society Institute asked David, Why do you think this happens? Is it because people look back at certain iconic images, let’s say images from the Vietnam war that changed the situation, that they try to put too much meaning in the power of one single image..? David replied, `In a way, I am sceptical of the power of single images, a standard 6 or 7 in the western world, that are repeated all the time. I was personally affected by the Vietnam war images, by the image of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm bomb, but I don’t know of any argument that actually demonstrates that Nick Ut’s photograph demonstrably furthered the Vietnam anti-war movement.’ He went on, `Now, I don’t regard that as a failure of the image, but a failure of the interpretation that we’ve placed on the image. It puts too much burden on the image itself.’
The discussion was followed by Noam Chomsky and Mahasweta Devi’s video-conference discussion on Freedom (Chobi Mela V’s theme), and I became fully immersed in watching two of the foremost public intellectual/activists of today talk about the meanings and struggles of freedom, and of imperialism and nationalism’s attempts to thwart it in common peoples’ lives.
But the next day, my thoughts returned to what David had said, and to the general discussion that had followed. On David’s website, I came across how he understands photography, `a technology through which the world is visually performed,’ and a gist of his theoretical argument. I quote: `The pictures that the technology of photography produces are neither isolated nor discrete objects. They have to be understood as being part of networks of materials, technologies, institutions, markets, social spaces, emotions, cultural histories and political contexts. The meaning of photographs derives from the intersection of these multiple features rather than just the form and content of particular pictures.’ .
In other words, to understand what happens within the frame, we need to go outside the frame.

Abu Ghraib photographs: concealing more than they reveal

A good instance is provided by the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuse photographs taken by US military prison guards with digital cameras, which came to public attention in early 2004. The pictures, says Ian Buruma, conceal more than they reveal. By telling one story, they hide a bigger story.
Images of Chuck Graner, Ivan Frederick and the others as “gloating thugs” helped single out, and fix, low-ranking reservist soldiers as the bad apples. As President Bush intoned, it was “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonoured our country and disregarded our values”. None of the officers were tried, though several received administrative punishment. As a matter of fact, the Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations specifically absolved senior U.S. military and political leadership from direct culpability. Some even received promotions (Maj. Gen. Walter Wodjakowski, Col. Marc Warren, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast).
The gloating digital images, no doubt embarassing for the US administration, probably helped “far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view.” They made “the lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules?William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney?look almost respectable.?
But there is another aspect to the story of concealing-and-revealing. Public preoccupation with Abu Ghraib pornography deflected attention from the “torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film,” and from finding out who “the actual killers” were. By singling out those visible in the pictures as the “rogues” responsible, it concealed the bigger reality. That the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, as Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris point out, “was de facto United States policy.”
Lynndie England, who held the rank of Specialist while serving in Iraq, expressed it best I think, when she said, ?I didn?t make the war. I can?t end the war. I mean, photographs can?t just make or change a war.?
True. Photographs can?t just make or change a war. But surely they do something, or else, why censor images of the recent slaughter in Gaza? To put it more precisely, surely, those who are powerful (western politicians, journalists, arms manufacturers, defence analysts, all deeply embedded in the Zionist Curtain, one that has replaced the older Iron Curtain) apprehend that the visual images of Gaza will do something? That they will, in all probability, have a social effect upon western audiences? And therefore, these must be acted upon i.e., their circulation and distribution must be prevented.
At times, their apprehension seems to move even further. Images-not-yet-taken are prevented from being taken. Probable social effects of unborn images are foreseen, and aborted.

Censoring Gaza images, for what they reveal

All of this happened in the case of Gaza. But before turning to that, I would like to add a small note on the notion of probability. I am inclined to think that it’ll help to deepen our understanding of the politics of visual images.
As the organisers of a Michigan university conference on English literature remind us (“Fictional Selves: On the (im)Probability of Character”, April 2002), the notion of probability went through a major conceptual shift with the emergence of modernity. What in the seventeenth century had meant “the capability of being proven absolutely true or false” as in the case of deductive theorem in logic, gradually altered in meaning as practitioners searched for rhetorical consensus, and the repeatability of experimental results, leading to its present-day meaning: “a likelihood of occurring.”
What might have occured if Israel had allowed journalists into Gaza? What might have occurred if the BBC instead of hiding under the pretence of “impartiality” had agreed to air the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza Aid Appeal aimed at raising humanitarian aid for (occupied and beseiged) Gazans? What might have occurred if USA’s largest satellite television subscription service DIRECTV had gone ahead and aired the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine’s `Gaza Strip TV Ad‘?


Could pictures of Israel’s 22 day carnage in Gaza, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, have sown doubts in western minds about the Israeli claim of targeting only Hamas, and not civilians? Could photos of bombed UN buildings, mosques, schools, a university, of hospitals in ruins, ambulances destroyed, of dismembered limbs and destroyed factories have forced BBC’s viewers to question whether both sides are to blame? Could pictures of the apartheid wall, the security zone, the checkpoints controlling entry of food, trade, medicine (for over two years) make suspect the Israeli claim that it had withdrawn from Gaza? Could photos depicting the effects of mysterious armaments that have burned their way down into people’s flesh, eaten their skin and tissue away, have given western viewers pause for thought? Could the little story of Israel acting only in self-defense, begin to unravel? Could pictures of Gaza in ruins have led American viewers to wonder whether there is a bigger story out there, and could it then lead them to ask why their taxes are being spent in footing Israel’s military bill (the fourth largest army in the world), to ask why they should continue to sponsor this parasitical state, even when its own economy is in ruins?
May be.
After all, as Mahasweta Devi had said, still pictures are not still. Still pictures (may) move us. They (may) make us do things. The powerful, know this.
—————-
First published in New Age on Monday 16th February 2009

Un-intelligent manoeuvres: tales of censorship

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Rahnuma Ahmed

Calling for an end to the emergency rules, editors and senior journalists of the print and electronic media yesterday protested against the interference of government and military agencies in the everyday task of the media. ..[t]he media has to work under limited rights, pressure and in fear of fundamental-rights-denying emergency rules since the president declared the state of emergency on January 11 last year.
VOA News, May 14, 2008

My Dilemma

IN THESE times, writing or speaking in defiance of censorship is often viewed with a tinge of suspicion. There must be higher-up backing. Or else, how could she, how could he… One also comes across those who say, see, this proves there is no Emergency. Not in the strict sense of the word. This government is not like any other government. They are different.
Times must be pretty hard, I think, when a generalised suspicion passes for analysis. When sycophancy becomes second nature. The problem with Emergency is that it breeds irresponsibility. Our rulers know what is best for us. We will speak up after the government has set the house in order, after things have been sorted out. After the elections are over. After Emergency has been lifted. After this, after that ? it is a list that trails off into an indefinite future.
Too much abdication, too many ifs. Not only that. Emergency breeds a culture of fear. People are more likely to keep their mouths shut, to sound non-committal, to adopt an I-mind-my-own-business attitude, to churn out uniform phrases. The recent joint statement of the editors and senior journalists of Bangladesh (May 13, 2008), speaks of continuous monitoring and interference in the day-to-day running of print and electronic media, to a point where, as Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age put it, editors are no longer able to make ‘independent’ decisions.
And the source of interference? Some newspaper reports said, the editors spoke of ‘government agencies.’ In a daily I read, ‘civilian and military agencies.’ Yet another spoke of ‘government and military agencies’. A Daily Star report went a bit further, it said the editors had spoken of ‘a military intelligence agency’ (May 16, 2008), I saw people sitting up and taking note of the series of meetings being held at the National Press Club. I heard people utter the words `DGFI’, but I didn’t see it in print. I also heard, things are going to change from now on, heavy-handedness is likely to lessen, the editors’ demand created ripples. This, however, remains to be seen.
Since the declaration of Emergency, military interference in the print media has concentrated on changing priorities, on overseeing that particular news stories get reported, that others go unreported, or under-reported. These pressures are the more visible ones. But infiltration has occurred in more devious ways. A prime example is provided by confessions of politicians who allegedly pocketed public wealth. Most of these `confessions’, made under remand, have been printed in the dailies with tremendous enthusiasm. Not only in the tabloids, in the more serious papers too, without any mention of sources. As if the confession was made to the reporter, in person. A blogger has termed this “crossfire journalism,” because of its deafening one-sidedness. The accused is not given the opportunity of self-defense, to offer his or her side of the story. Interestingly, many of those accused have contested these confessions in court, they have claimed that these were made under duress. This does not seem to have caused much concern. I say this because I have not come across any retractions, nor have confessions ceased to be published. I have other concerns too. That the media does not sift through, that it does not investigate, that it reproduces whatever it is handed-out ? as long as it is from a particular source ? that I find very disturbing. Of course, not all newspaper editors have equally succumbed to the army’s campaign of calling the shots, but that is a separate issue.
In the case of private TV channels, interference has focused on news programmes, live discussion programmes, and also, nightly news review programmes, hosted mostly by journalists. In the latter two programmes, members of the audience raised questions. For instance, in Ekusheyr Shomoy, a panel of journalists acted as auditors to what the experts said. Many other programmes had live, viewer phone-ins. These features, in their own fashion, contributed to creating public spaces of democratic deliberation. (Of course, not all channels have been equally courageous, but that again, is a separate issue). From the interference that they face, it would seem that these spaces are perceived as threats. What does it threaten? Who does it threaten? These questions are sidelined, the emperor’s nakedness is not to be mentioned.
Military interference of these Emergency months has included a jealous guarding of its own image, of censoring photographs that threaten its sense of honour and dignity. Mahbubur Rahman, the former army chief was assaulted by party workers last year, strict instructions were given to newspaper offices that these photographs should not be published. The army has guarded its self-image of physical supremacy most viciously, as is symbolised by the furore over the photograph known as the `flying kick,’ taken during the Dhaka University student protests, in August 2007.
No timeline for the expiration of Emergency has been announced. Not yet. I would be lying if I said, everything seems to be fine, no deception seems to be involved. If I said, why worry?

Tales of censorship

The situation was far from ideal when political parties ruled the nation. Although newspaper ownership and content was not subject to direct government restriction, attacks on journalists and newspapers occurred frequently. Government efforts to intimidate them also occurred frequently. Political cadres would often attack journalists. Some were injured in police actions. For instance, according to a 2005 human rights report, 2 journalists were killed, 142 were injured, 11 arrested, 4 kidnapped, 53 assaulted, and 249 threatened. If one used similar indices of comparison for last year, the situation does not seem to have worsened. Thirty-five journalists were injured, 13 arrested, 35 assaulted, 83 threatened and 13 sued. A media practitioner was forced to sign an undertaking, another came under attack. (New Age, January 15, 2008).
But I think the terrain itself has changed, and hence, the terms of comparison need rethinking. Threats to the industry have surfaced that bring back older memories, Martial Law memories, even though we are constantly told that we have no reason to fear. These threats are substantial. The owners and directors of at least 5 TV channels, and 5 newspapers are facing ACC anti-corruption charges. The first and lone 24-hour news channel in the country, CSB, was taken off air last year, after the August protests. The closure of newspapers and TV channels, according to some observers, has broken the backbone of the media industry. It has caused massive unemployment among journalists, and others in media-related occupations. Wages are no longer regular. According to an insider friend, those working in a private TV channel received their wages and salaries for February last week only. In 5 or 6 newspapers, wages have not been paid for the last six months or so. The severe crisis in both print and electronic media is not only a financial one. In some senses, it is one of existence too. Existence as known thus far.
Journalists have been tortured for investigating security forces (Tasneem Khalil, Jahangir Alam Akash). It is rumoured that the owner of a private TV channel was picked up by security forces. He was left blindfolded, and released only after he had agreed to sign blank sheets of paper. Guidelines for talk shows have been issued. Names of blacklisted guest speakers have been circulated to private channels (white-listed ones too!). A faxed letter on plain paper asking Ekushey to close down its highly popular talk shows (Ekusheyr Shomoy, Ekusheyr Raat) was sent in end-January. Later, a similar letter was sent to most other channels. Sending plain paper directives, minus any letterhead, to newspaper and TV offices seems to be a new tactic of the military agencies. Leaving no footprints in the sand?

Tales of ownership

For the regime, the anti-graft drive has had some useful side-effects. The intelligence services are systematically acquiring shares in private media companies, by offering the release from detention of their owners in return.
The Economist, November 8, 2007
Is this true? Is there any way of verifying what is reported in the lines above? Why should the intelligence services buy up shares in the media industry? Any guesses?
Rumours have been floating of the intelligence agency brokering deals, of buying and selling shares in the media industry. If that’s true, how would that be in the public interest?
These are common enough questions that have bothered me, and all those I know who have read the article.
What intrigues me however is, the military intelligence agency already has vast powers at its disposal, powers that enable it to control the print and electronic media in this country, be a part of the conditioning factors that have led to the industry’s severe crisis, with an almost broken backbone, both financially and otherwise.
What further powers will ownership give? Should one look towards Pakistan’s milbus (military-business) to seek answers?
First published in New Age 20th May 2008

Keeping the lamp lit

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The newly appointed education adviser has my sympathy. He had spoken the truth. With scandals emerging about departing advisers, and accusations flying about the gross incompetence of the ‘PhD’ government, he must have felt the need to demonstrate the character of the cabinet.
Having lost the Candy Man, we now have an adviser who is candid in his remarks. “Regardless of the verdict of the court, the teachers shall be freed, ” he had said. Great news for the teachers. Sad news for justice.
But the candor of the education advisor is unlikely to inspire confidence in the government. He might equally have said, “regardless of the verdict of the court, we shall find Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia guilty,” or any other convenient outcome for the many flimsy cases against politicians, business people, students or any other member of the public. The fact that the government finds the judicial system irrelevant, while confirming people’s fears, does do away with their flicker of hope for justice. This was a lamp that needed to stay lit.
The anniversary party could have done without the media gatecrashers. The weeks leading up to the 11th January 2008, have been particularly difficult for the government. In August, it had taken violent protest by the students for the military presence in campus to be removed, but it is the fallout of the government’s heavy-handed response that they now need to deal with. Having closed the 24 hour news channel CSB
kakoli-prodhan-csb-news-6.jpg 24 hour CSB News TV channel after its closure. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Kakoli Prodhan

and intimidated others with barely veiled threats, they had expected an easy ride. But they had reckoned without the spunk of Bangladeshi media. BTV has long since become irrelevant. Cheek in jowl, private channel media activists have found creative ways to get the news to the public, and an informed audience has responded. I remember the phone calls ‘from above’ that came in while a talk show was going on. The savvy presenter responding smartly toned down his own questions, letting me speak as I pleased. It was a live show, and he could hardly have been blamed for the words I was using. The phone calls to the editor, the ‘invitations to tea,’ and the physical presence of army personnel have made honest reporting a harrowing task, but the news programmes are alive and well, and while they have economic pressures, they retain a loyal following.
Even newspapers that had decided to ride in the comfort of the military train are having to make face-saving critiques of a government facing derailment. It is the government, which is on the back foot. CSB is still closed, but the phone in callers, the letter writers, the bloggers and the talk show speakers have joined in the fray. This is media at its best.
Amnesty’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, made up for her initial failure to denounce emergency rule, “Amnesty believes that the government can waive some of the restrictions, even under emergency rule.” The media again had set the tone. She was far more forthright in the latter stage of her visit and pointed to the ubiquitous presence of the military in all public spheres, clearly stating that military rule was unacceptable.
I could smell the stench of decomposed flesh as I walked up the stairway of the partially demolished Rangs Building.
side-view-of-collapse-0762.jpg
rangs-building-looking-up-0761.jpg
Loose concrete slabs and boulders still dangle precariously from the remaining metal rods of the Rangs Building. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
rangs-building-worker-0771.jpg Even in this unsafe condition, and while the body of a security guard is still buried under the rubble, workers remove rubble from the partially demolished Rangs Building. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The Rajuk administrators were themselves scared to be there, but being government officials they had little choice. They pointed me to a staircase that was relatively safe. Workers, not having my benefit of class, climbed the more dangerous ones. I wonder how it feels to walk past a deceased colleague, past the stench, the rubble, past rickety columns. What is it like to know one’s death will only matter to one’s nearest ones.
Yesterday police turned their batons on garment workers demanding outstanding wages and fires yet again engulfed city slums.
fire-in-slum-in-rayer-bazar-1712-px-600.jpg Fire in Rayer Bazaar slum destroyed around 2500 homes. January 12 2008. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
sh-31.jpg Garment worker killed by collapse of factor building. ? Shehabuddin/Drik/Majority World
The recent deaths of other garment workers and general demands to receive an acceptable minimum wage, all point to the disengagement from the public of a caretaker government that has failed to care.
We are in need of honest answers, and while the new education adviser revealed the government’s complete disregard for the judiciary, I suspect his honesty was the unintended byproduct of yet another exercise in spin. If on the other hand, his admission of the irrelevance of the judiciary was the beginning of a process of transparency, unpleasant though the truth might be, I welcome it. Admission of guilt does not in itself solve the problem, but it does begin to address it. Something they have so far singularly failed to do. They have blamed the ills of the nation on politicians and political parties. On bad democracy. The people are in no illusion about the improprieties of the past. But bad democracy can only be replaced by good democracy. There is no such thing as good autocracy, and pliant front men, no matter who they are backed by, can never be an answer.

When a Pineapple Rolls

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Getting hold of a copy of the banned magazine was difficult, but most of the people who were subscribers seemed to have read the article. As often before, censorship had given the Time Magazine piece a notoriety, and readership appeal, it might not otherwise have had. The ban was short lived, and soon the article had been forgotten.
The Bangladesh government’s treatment of its journalists however had not been so short lived. The Channel 4 journalists were predictably, released well before Christmas. For Saleem Samad, and Priscilla Raj, the situation was considerably different. Tortured and terrorised, they fell victim to a government in permanent fear of being labelled `fundamentalist’. When a pineapple rolls it is the grass that suffers, and post 9/11, it is the small states that have felt the pangs of `terrrorism control’.
The ban of the 28th July 2003 Newsweek issue was based on fears at home. “Repeated bans on international magazines on account of articles on Islam constitute a flagrant violation of the free flow of information,” Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to Bangladeshi information minister Tariqul Islam.
The RSF statement fails to address the wider issue of control on the media. Arranging photo ops, planting questions at press conferences, removing access to the `pool’ for dissenters, spin, corporate control of the media and the newly found ally of embedded journalists are beyond the reach of a government with limited media management skills. Fisk, Chomsky, Pilger, Monbiot et.al. have made valiant attempts to overcome media control in the west. But neither their work, nor the excellent independent analyses that have circulated on the Net, have managed to create a significant challenge to a well-entrenched propaganda machinery. They have largely preached to the converted.
The handling of the Channel 4 incident and the ban on Newsweek by the Bangladesh government were at best clumsy. Buying out the limited copies that are imported for Dhaka’s elite, could have far better stymied the tiny readership to Time and Newsweek in Bangladesh. An “Out of Stock” label has far less glamour than a “Censored” sticker. The harassment of Samad and Raj, was unnecessary. These were ill paid professionals trying to make a living helping foreign journalists.
A flimsy majority that depends upon a small but significant Islamic party, makes things further complicated for the government of Bangladesh. Dissent within has to be managed along with keeping in the good books of powerful states. The earlier Time Magazine article on Al Qaeda links, was tenuous at best, and the Far Eastern Economic Review article on the rise of fundamentalism was shoddy journalism. But when it is so important to say one has been a good boy, any slander, no matter how unbelievable, has to be vehemently denied. Banning the award winning film Matir Moina, (now showing in cinema halls, with only minor amendments) was a knee jerk reaction, symptomatic of a nervous government trying to juggle with appeasement outside and appeasement within.
This is not the first time the Islamic parties (Islami Oikya Jote, IOJ) have played a key role in parliamentary dynamics. Popularity for major parties far exceeds the following of OIJ, a small and disciplined party. Despite their low votes however, they have had a key presence in all governments since the elections in 1991. “We could withdraw from the alliance if the demands are not met,” Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini has threatened at strategic moments, and the government does not want to rock its own boat.
While we may be thankful that the Bangladesh government is not media savvy, the more crude attempts to suppress free journalism doesn’t bode well for media professionals. We have now had three largely free and fair elections, but the elected representatives of the people have hardly behaved in a democratic manner. Each of the three governments have resorted to violent means to ensure loyalty. More recently, warrants of arrests, issued against five editors and one executive editor on defamation charges, within a period of three weeks, represents a shift in strategy. The minister’s statement “Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” was really intended for rookies on the streets, and rural journalists. Going for the big boys is a more recent affair.
So how does a nation, scared of big brother, and managing a rickety coalition handle the media? Letting the journalists speak appears to be the most sensible route out. Surely, not all western journalists will be as incompetent as their Times and FEER counterparts. Maybe they themselves, given a more free hand from corporate control, would exercise the journalistic rigour required of them. Strengthening local media would go a long way in providing alternative analysis to western viewpoints. Murdered journalists don’t write too well.
“Not a hair will be touched” the minister had said in 1994, when feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was facing persecution. Not a hair was touched, and Nasreen, still under threat, was provided safe exit to a land of her choosing. In the same July 1994 issue where the NYT covered this story, there was another news, of a US doctor going to work in a bullet-proof vest and being shot in the head. While one tripped over the word fundamentalism in the Nasreen article, religion or fanaticism was never mentioned in the story of the doctor’s death. When journalists regurgitate a state’s values, control is complete. Thankfully, Bangladesh has not reached such levels of state control, and our journalists have not reached such levels of acquiescence.
A responsible media which operates freely, could do wonders for Bangladesh, for its image and its people. But there is a downside to this. A more informed public would be less easily manipulated, corruption would be more difficult, absolute power would be more readily questioned. Government acquiescence in the face of western interests flies against the rhetoric of demands for free press by western states. Secret deals are more easily made in the absence of meddling journalists.
As for terrorism, we would love to see it end. If only the US would stop manufacturing it.
Shahidul Alam
Fri Aug 15, 2003