Occupational Hazards

By Fariha Karim

Intimidation is a hazard of the job for Nurul Kabir. The outspoken newspaper editor faced it during his first days on the beat as a reporter, and even before, as a student activist. ?Intimidation by the powers that be is a part of my life, and it has always been that way,? he said.
It was days after he had been warned to leave the country, and Kabir was back behind his desk at the New Age office, a slightly framed man behind a towering pile of books, papers and letters, a twist of smoke curling up from the cigarette in the ashtray beside him.
Most recently, his opponents have included the Bangladeshi military. He has been a vocal critic of the military-controlled caretaker government of the last two years, a consistent thorn in their side, doing his job as a responsible journalist and shining a spotlight on those who wield power.
And his comments, repeated again and again in his newspaper and during talkshows on private TV channels, have included demands for a strong army in the interests of the security of the nation state. For this to happen, he argues, military leaders need to stop meddling with politics.
Now, unconfirmed reports say he is being threatened by the military. Sources claim his life is in danger, and he has heard that army officers have demanded ?Nurul Kabir has to be taken care of?.
A few days ago, his fresh-faced young driver, Nazib, 20, was threatened at gunpoint during a terrifying car chase which left him barely able to breathe. As he made his way home alone after dropping off his boss, he was followed and criss-crossed by six men riding two super powered Honda motorbikes.
?I thought they were going to kill me,? Nazib said. ?All of them were wearing green helmets, and the guy in the middle, he had something sticking out of his arm, like a gun, and was pointing it at me. I was driving at over 100 miles per hour, and I still felt like the car wasn?t working.?
But why is it that a man who is trained to write is seen as a threat by men who are trained to kill?
Maybe it’s because Nurul Kabir has built up his own following of unwavering supporters disciplined by facts and argument instead of military drill, largely through appearing on talkshows. And this has taken place because of the courage of his colleagues who have given him the airtime. Before the military-controlled caretaker government, public criticism of the military was largely taboo. But the last couple of years have shown that journalists are prepared to resist in the most dangerous of circumstances. When ex-President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency, threatened censorship and longer prison sentences, coverage of the more unwanted aspects of the regime grew.
And there was a cost ? journalists were arrested, tortured, and in the case of Dainik Giri Darpan correspondent Jamal Uddin, feared killed (though the official explanation was suicide). The country?s first 24-hour news channel, CSB, was pulled from the airwaves following footage of violent clashes between students and police at Dhaka University, and Ekushey was also heavily leaned on.
None of the perpetrators were brought to justice, and the attacks continued. So did the journalists. Private broadcasters defied bans to stop airing news and current affairs programmes. despite the risks. And of course, the public tremendous desire to consume current affairs, aided by the growth of television in rural areas, spurred them on.
Now, the guns are trained on Kabir ? and his poor, innocent driver ? at one of the most sensitive of times, in the wake of the BDR rebellion which claimed the lives of four civilians, six BDR soldiers, and 56 officers. It is one of the greatest losses of officers suffered in the history of the country. But, according to Kabir, “they?re conspiring to harm me when they?re not in power. Now there is an elected government. If I?m killed tomorrow, the government will get the blame. And they?re using this [the aftermath of the rebellion] as an opportunity, when officers are emotionally charged.?
From their most recent record, journalists and their co-workers have shown they are prepared to fight against the harshest of odds. When the state has upped the ante, so have they. Condemnation of the car chase has come not only from colleagues in the Dhaka Union of Journalists but also other quarters, including architecture, anthropology, women?s rights activists and judges.
As long as the state continues to try and silence this man, they?re in for the big fight. The battle lines have been drawn.

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

If the heavens were to write back

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“John Pilger, my name is Fariha Karim. I think you know my uncle,” my 21 year old niece had blurted out. She was a big fan of the celebrated investigative journalist and had clambered through throngs of people in Trafalgar Square, up the large stone steps leading to the iconic lion statues and climbed her way over the lions, past the organisers to get to the tall Australian.
Most nieces tend to think their uncles are famous. Fariha had seen me on the podium when I’d chaired World Press Photo. She’d been to the award ceremony when I was given the honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. She’d seen me preside at Chobi Mela. Pictures on the occasional book, the odd Time magazine cover and a few exhibitions had reinforced my image in her eyes. That was enough for my youngest niece to think everyone in the world would know her uncle.
Fariha was thinking of entering journalism. So when she saw this famous journalist at an anti-war demonstration in London in November 2001, protesting against the British-US bombing of Afghanistan, she decided to take full advantage of the situation. As most of Stop the War marches were in those days, it was busy, with numbers of protestors regularly running into tens of thousands. Organisers estimated 100,000 protestors; police shrunk numbers to a conservative 15,000. Speakers included veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, then Labour MP George Galloway. John Pilger was amongst the celebrities. It was a brave attempt by the aspiring journalist, but her uncle failed to make an impression on the big man, and Fariha hastily retreated.
I suppose in photojournalism circles a few people would know me, but it is rare for a majority world professional to be known in the west. A famous western journalist was a different matter. Pilger was known worldwide. His book Hidden Agenda, was widely read. His films had won awards. His words mattered.
I was therefore taken aback on reading Pilger‘s Guardian piece on Moudud. In marketing terms this was powerful co-branding. This was about as high as it got in journalism. I had tried writing to Pilger before, without success. This time I wrote to the email in his website. I wasn’t surprised by the boiler plate response:
Thank you very much for emailing the John Pilger website. We will
endeavour to respond to your email as quickly as possible.

However, due to the huge volume of emails received it will not always
be possible to reply personally to your mail.


Editor
johnpilger.com

Watch the War on Democarcy trailer: http://warondemocracy.net
—–
From: shahidul@drik.net
Subject: The Prisoner of Dhaka
Date: March 12, 2008 11:08:38 AM GMT+06:00
To: pilgereditor@gmail.com
——
“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and myths that surround it’ – John Pilger
Dear Mr. Pilger,
I have admired your work for many years and use a lot of it when teaching at Pathshala, our small school of photography in Bangladesh. The lead statement in your blog, quoted above, is one that I ardently believe in. I was therefore surprised when Hasna Moudud forwarded me the article “The Prisoner of Dhaka” this morning. I can understand Hasna’s reasons for sending me the article. It is her husband in jail and her attempts to circulate an article which paints Moudud in a good light, may not be journalistically valid but an understandable response from a spouse. However for a journalist who is acclaimed for his investigative prowess, to have so many significant omissions, and a fair number of inaccurate observations, is worrying for the profession.
The arrest of Moudud on the basis of alcohol being found in his house is laughable, and clearly a setup. We have written about it in national Bangla newspapers. The actions of the military government cannot be justified, and we have vehemently protested through our blogs and in local newspaper columns. Unfortunately our words do not reach mainstream media in the west. Yours does. Hence it is important that you voice your opinion against such irregularities, as you have indeed done in this article. But to paint Moudud as a saint, does go against the sentence at the top of this mail. A google search on Moudud Ahmed and chameleon will provide enough links to whet any researcher’s appetite. Sure, not all those links can be trusted and as a journalist you need to dig deeper to get to the facts, but that precisely is what has been carefully omitted in the Guardian article.
file11-r43-fm-8-moudud-with-rowshan.jpg Moudud Ahmed on the dais with Rowshan Ershad wife of autocratic general Hussain Mohammad Ershad at a Jatiya Party Rally in Manik Mia Avenue. In the meeting he strongly criticised the BNP, but promptly joined the party (BNP) when they came back to power. Dhaka. May 1996. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
“Although technically you may call it extrajudicial?I will not say killing?but extrajudicial deaths. But these are not killings. According to RAB, they say all those who have been killed so far have been killed or dead on encounter or whatever crossfire, whatever you call it?people are happy.”
?Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed, November 2006

I have watched this man wax lyrical about any leader he currently served, only to rapidly change colour and join the winning side when the tables were turned. Moudud and his group of lawyers have abused the legal system wherever possible and under each regime, but for me, one of his ‘lesser’ crimes is perhaps the most blatant. Demanding the clemency of a murderer, because he was a political thug loyal to the party. I do not want to list the misdeeds of Moudud. You are a trained investigative journalist and there is enough evidence out there for you to make your own opinion. Neither do I support the arrest of Moudud on the charges made against him. There are far more sinister charges against the man and it is somewhat pathetic that the government had to resort to this charade to jail him. But to paint one of the most despised men in Bangladeshi politics as a hero, does insult the Bangladeshi public.
While I dislike Moudud for his blatant opportunism, I will defend his rights in this particular arrest. That is because even a lying, conniving opportunist politician deserves what is due in the law. Not because he is a hero. To paint him as such is simply shoddy journalism.
I have tried contacting you in the past, to congratulate you on the excellent journalism that you have consistently been responsible for. Indeed you have been a major inspiration. An article such as this casts doubts on your journalistic rigour and your judgement.
I remain respectfully yours,
Shahidul Alam
http://shahidul.wordpress.com
——
I’ve gotten used to this lack of response. On the rare occasions when I’m asked to submit a piece for some prestigious western publication, if I write a piece that is critical of western journalistic practice, the communication goes blank. They are busy people, and polite rejections are perhaps an expensive option. We however lay great store to these shining examples of free media. “It’s been reported on the BBC” gives a statement a holy aura. The Guardian too is amongst the exalted ones, with Pilger the high priest. It would be so nice though if the heavens were to write back.

A Beginner's Guide to Democracy

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Rahnuma Ahmed

I don’t often get brainwaves. But there was something about David Miliband?s interview, shown on a private TV channel, that inspired me. I don’t often watch TV either. It was just fate, I guess.

To be honest, it wasn’t only Miliband, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. There have been others. From Britain. From the US. From Australia. From Canada, Germany, the European Union. Some have been visiting dignitaries. Others were diplomats, some of them still posted here. They have given us a steady stream of advice. Some of it was sought, much of it volunteered.
On what to do. How to do. The practical steps involved. The people required. The mechanisms needed. The institutions that must be in place. The values to inculcate.
As a recipient of this sudden surge of Western interest in Bangladesh, a poor, hapless nation, led often enough by wretched, self-serving leaders, as a recipient of endless lectures on democracy, often embellished by locomotive metaphors (‘democracy derailed,’ ‘getting democracy back on track’), I have been at a total loss. So much is being expected of us. What are we to do? And, being part of the derailed ‘us’, what am I to do?
It was Miliband who showed me the way. I knew what I had to do before the interview was over. The relationship between Bangladesh and Britain should be a two way street. We should not only take, we should also give. It should be a modern relationship, as befits a modern world. We should be partners, that’s what he had said.
The mind works in strange ways. Suddenly I remembered Mohammod, a Palestinian friend of mine, from my Sussex days. The three of us, the third being my American flatmate, had been chatting in the kitchen. He had been invited for dinner. “You western people, you are People of the Book,” he had said. “How to cook, how to garden, how to mow the lawn, how to take pictures. For everything, you people have a book. You follow the instructions 1, 2, 3 of your little book.” His laughter had been irresistible. We had joined in. I myself less grudgingly.
Write a How To Do on Democracy? Or A Beginners Guide to Democracy? But why on earth? Why me, and for whom? Dare I?
I got hold of a CD copy of the interview, I transcribed it. I read the transcript several times. It’s not a lengthy interview, only twenty minutes or so, but of course, it’s quality not quantity that matters. It’s a question of having the right attitude, of having a positive frame of mind. I quickly marked out Miliband’s check list for Bangladesh: (i) full, free and fair elections this year (ii) buttressing institutions of a strong civil society (iii) an independent judiciary which treats all cases on merit without fear or favor (iv) a strong media that asks tough questions, and also (v) strong systems of education, health and local government, since the latter are important supports to the formal institutions of democracy.
Miliband was not asked tough questions. The interviewer was not a recognised journalist. Knowing English seemed to be more important. Being able to read questions off the cue card seemed to be more important. I don’t know how these things work, but the end result was there for all to see. No ruffles, no stress, no strain. No curiosity. Just sheer complicity. In the path to democracy project, a project in which Bangladesh is the eager learner, and Britain, as represented by its Foreign Secretary, has all the answers. Tempered, of course, with the appropriate dash of modesty (‘I have been in Bangladesh for six hours, I have to be careful about pretending to be an expert on Bangladesh’).
Complicity doesn’t just happen. It is an act of creation, and there is no reason to assume that a lot of effort isn’t involved. What were the ground rules at work in Miliband’s TV interview? My guesses are made on the basis of the effect that was achieved. That made it so tidy.
Rule 1: Take everything at face value. When Miliband says, British citizens of Bangladeshi origin “look very closely at developments in Bangladesh. They have family here, they worry about economic, social, political issues,” do not ask whether they are similarly concerned at developments in Britain. At the increasing loss of liberties. At Islamophobia. Do not ask how they are contributing to the movement for democracy in post 9/11 Britain, a Britain decidedly less democratic than it was earlier. Don’t take up the “two-way process” seriously.
Rule 2: Ask self-evident questions, these help to elicit self-evident answers. “What are your views on the road to democracy for Bangladesh? Or where are we on the roadmap for democracy?”, this is a good instance. It helped the Honorable Foreign Secretary come up with the checklist I mentioned above. Do not engage with his answers. When he speaks of Britain and Bangladesh’s “shared interests,” do not ask him whose interests he’s talking about. Whether that of the Labour government, or that of the British people. Do not ask him whether the Blair, or the present Brown, government genuinely represents the interests of the British people. Do not breathe a word about the million strong anti-war demonstration held in London several years ago.
When Miliband speaks of trade relations between Britain and Bangladesh, of Britain as an investor, do not raise the issue of Asia Energy (re-named Global Coal Management). Do not bring up the issue of Phulbari, of the strong and vibrant people’s movement against Asia Energy, against open pit mining. Do not quote the British High Commissioner’s statement, “Many of you will be aware of UK-based Asia Energy Corporation?s contract to mine coal at Phulbari, but may not know that other British investments in coal and power generation are also waiting for the green signal from the Government here. These new projects, when implemented, would double the value of the UK?s cumulative investment in Bangladesh.” Nor this one, “Yes, I will continue to lobby for new British investments particularly in the energy sectors in Bangladesh” (same speech).
When Miliband speaks of his passion for the environment, do not ask him why energy corporations do not calculate carbon costs when they declare their assets. When he says, “Don’t repeat our mistakes,” do not ask him whether that impacts on Asia Energy’s push for open pit mining. (Do not mention conflict of interest between the government and people of Bangladesh. Especially avoid mention of Dr. M Tamim, the Advisor’s Special Assistant for Power and Energy Ministry and his private consultancy).
Rule 3: Do not mention instances to the contrary. When Miliband says, “So the road to democracy first of all, needs to have full, free and fair elections,” ” the elections are seen to be a credible expression of the will of the Bangladeshi people,” “help make sure that democratic voices are heard through the ballot box not outside it,” do not raise questions about the overthrow of a popularly elected leader in Iran in 1953. Do not raise any questions about Hamas. Do not ask why 36 of the 39 Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council members that the Israelis abducted in 2006, are still detained. Why some of them haven’t even been charged. Do not say the un-sayable, that more Palestinian legislators are in prison than legislators from all the other parliaments in the rest of the world put together. Do not ask tough questions.
When Miliband speaks of the necessity of an “independent judiciary which treats all cases on merit without fear or favor, a strong media that asks tough questions,” do not bring up the Hutton report (2004) on the BBC, regarded by several national newspapers as an “establishment whitewash.” The report was considered to be uncritical of the government. Don’t mention former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet’s name either, and why Britain had refused to extradite him.
Rule 4: Treat history as irrelevant, trivialise it. Use it as a decorative word, as having no content. You can utter the words, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom share a very strong historical linkage, but steer clear of what that “linkage” involves — British colonialism, exploitation, historical struggles, injustices, movement for freedom.
Rule 5: Treat what is happening in the world as irrelevant. Do not talk of the blockade of Gaza, of Israeli settlements, of the West’s refusal to talk to Hamas, Israel’s apartheid practices, its land thefts, slaughter of Palestinian children. Of the slow genocide that it is inflicting on defenceless civilians, bulldozing houses, torture and assassinations. Of voices of protest. Of Rachel Corrie. Do not talk of Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Do not mention that a recent report cites as many as 6.6 million post-invasion excess deaths in Occupied Afghanistan as of February 2008. That post-invasion excess deaths in the Iraq War are now about 1.5-2 million.
Absolutely do not mention that UK playwright Harold Pinter, in his 2005 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech urged the arraignment of Bush and Blair before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. He had said, “How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?
Postscript:
In a recent address before an audience at Oxford University, in honour of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, David Miliband has said, “the goal of spreading democracy should be a great progressive project.” He refused to categorically rule out military action against Iran.
The road to democracy in Bangladesh as chalked out by her western partners seems to be signposted with the messages: Take everything at face value. Do not ask tough questions.
First published in The New Age on 4th March 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.

Freedom of Expression Roundtable

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Amnesty International launches Bangla website and discusses freedom of expression in Bangladesh

8 January 2008
irene-khan-and-shahidul-alam-at-drik.jpg Feature on Korean media

MEDIA ADVISORY: Amnesty International, Drik News and Drishtipat are hosting a seminar on freedom of expression in Dhaka on January 9th at 6 pm. Amnesty International Secretary General, Irene Khan, will talk to young journalists, bloggers and activists about the state of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The meeting will also discuss the important role that the media can play in protecting citizen rights and steps that can be proposed to the Caretaker Government to ensure a free space for human rights defenders and journalists. Irene Khan will also launch Amnesty International?s Bangla website at this event – www.amnesty.org/bangla. The event will take place at Drik Gallery. There will be a live webcastasif-saleh-providing-live-text-feed-0926.jpg Asif Salef of Drishtipat, uploading the live text stream (text provided below). ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
irene-khan-at-freedom-of-expression-roundtable-at-drik-0940.jpg Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International speaking at the “Freedom of Expression” roundtable at Drik. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
journalist-akash-talking-of-persecution-by-military-0912.jpg Journalist Jahangir Alam Akash talking of being tortured by military while pursuing an investigation. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World. In an email Jahangir informs us: yesterday night, police went my previous house of uposhahor in rajshahi for arrest me, when i attend in a roundtable in dhaka in presence of amnesty international secretary general irene khan.participants-at-roundtable-on-freedom-of-expression-0914.jpg Participants at “Freedom of Expression” roundtable at Drik on 9th January 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
irene-khan-talking-to-participants-of-freedom-of-expression-roundtable-at-drik-0947.jpg Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International speaking to participants at the “Freedom of Expression” roundtable at Drik. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Transcription by Asif Saleh/Drishtipat
Thanks to the technical team who helped set this up.
=========
greetings
the secretary general of amnesty international irene khan is with us
Shahidul Alam introducing
Irene Khan is not only a Bangladeshi but also first muslim woman head of Amnesty
We will have this show in a different format than usual
This will be a discussion and not room for speech
We want to create dialogue
Shahidul thanking all.
Irene introducing speech with a history of Amnesty
Irene talking…when I am in bangladesh from higher level it seems there is a lively media
But there must be another story
I met the army chief today and expressed my views about freedom of expression
For years now we have picked up a steady stream of journalists who have been attacked and wounded
In times of change we desperately need room for freedom of expression.
I am going to try get a complete picture from every one.
Shahidul now saying we are going to try to keep the discussion small
My name is Akash
I used to work for CSB new
The roundtable is very important for me
I want to get a little bit of time for myself.
because my rights have been severely hampered
Akash describing the story of how his rights were violated
I reported a story in CSB news when a father was shot by RAB infront of his daughter and I got persecuted for this.
Akash describing the process in details….how he has been fleeing for 3 months
he has been living a crippled life for the past 3 months
The oppression that happened to me
Akash has broken down in tears
Describing the judicial process.
Even though the high court has given him bail but still the local court still has issued a warrant against me.
There may be a lot more Akashes out there
Jahirul Huq Tito , Manik Saha to name a few over the years.
I want to live a free life
I want to go back to my profession.
and work for humanity
I want to dream of a new Bangladesh…I don’t want the oppression that has happened against me to happen to any body else,
Irene is speaking
We knew about your case
When you were in detention, I explained your case very forcefully to the foreign adviser.
You said that you do not want justice but just want to live and that shows the desperation of the case.
I want to assure you that Amnesty will do every thing they can.
parvin Sultana asks whether irene feels that we have press freedom in Bangladesh
sanjib drong of adivasi forum speaks..
Describes the case of Cholesh Richil..who was killed on March in Modhupur.
by the joint forces
The killing on the indigenous community is always justified.
I want to request you to take up the case of cholesh richil and follow through.
The perpetrators know that if indignous leaders are killed then nothing happens and that is only going to encourage more killing
I would like Amnesty to find out at what stage the investigation reports are held
Irene speaks.
Irene: We have already picked up the case and already spoke to high level cases.
High level admins
There has been no prosecution on the case
A crime has been committed but no justice has been serveed.
Pavel partha speaks
I want to highlight the violence of the multinational companies.
Companies like Monsanto ..
Our natural resouces are being stolen,
cases like Phulbari is an example of what multinationals can do in the name of progress
Corporations are violating our rights
we want to know what Amnesty can do to highlight this…
Faruq Wasif of Prothom Alo speaks
thank you irene..
Your coming to Bangladesh and solving individual cases are not the solution
we want to highlight the case of 1971….Amnesty was silent during the war of 71
Similarly your stand in this visit was very mild.
Doesn’t it show a very tolerant view of Amnesty towards military regimes?
Omi Rahman Pial speaks from bdnews24…
I am a blogger
What is the limit of my work?
I see Akash in front of me and I fear what may happen to me and what I need to do so that it doesn’t happen to me?
We have lots of irregularities and working under lots of pressure…
I can’t publish news at the right time because our internet will be brought down , calls will be made etc.
Jornalist from Samakal
We are living in an era of depression rather than free expression
I want to hear from Irene — how is she explaining Bangladesh’s current state.
I want to understand the total role of Amnesty in current Bangladeshi situation.
Anisur Rahman from New Age speaks
Cholesh is from my village
Cholesh was a symbol of free expression as well.
Cholesh used to speak for others in the community.
That’s why Cholesh was targetted
They tried not to kill the person Chalesh but silence a whole community.
Garments workers are not getting their salaries but when they are protesting, they are being taken to court.
Also want to highlight the case of tasneem khalil
We don’t know where he is today,
He was a blogger and a journalist at Daily Star.
We are seeing freedom of expression only for a few folks in certain commissions of the government.
He is now talking about some inconsistencies on tax loop holes
not sure..why 🙂
those who are on the web…this is not alam…but asif.
Shahidul asks to keep things shorts
Biplab Rahman , a blogger and journalist speaks
highlights internet monitoring.
telephone tapping
I have done a lot of research on Chittagong Hill tracks
and I want to highlight why mobile network is not there is those 3 disrticts
Therer were towers placed by the telecom companies but it was taken down by the local armed forces
I wanted to highlight the cases of university teachers as well…and think they should be released
Tipu Sultan from Prothom Alo speaks.
The journalists outside Dhaka lives under severe restriction
All the news are screened by authorities
They can not send the news of fertiliser crisis because of joint forces restrictions
They regularly face the threat of extortion cases from the local forces
But the authorities in Dhaka know this but they still deny it.
BUt the Dhaka journalists are doing much better compared to them.
Yesterday there was a case like that in Thaurgaon.
Udisa Islam speaks
Freelancer ..used to be in tv
Another introduction of mine is — I am the wife a teacher who were detained in Rajshahi University,
I am hearing a lot of sad stories..
but what is the worth of presenting this here?
We need to share this stories with each other ALL the time
This I am saying as a grassroots journalist,.
Last Aug 22nd whatever happened in bangladesh, everyone knows
Similarly whatever happenned with the museum statues.
The media played a brave role there.
How were those published and not some other stories?
Journalists oppression goes on for years!!
Its not because of state of emergency
Tipu Sultan (another victim) was not created under State of emergency (SOE)
it will happen again and again.
We need to talk about the whys of that..
Are we going to talk about the 20 students that still in prison from the university crisis?
Hana Shams Ahmed of Daily Star speaks
I want to highlight the kind of censorship after 1/11
We are very demoralised
speacially after the arifur Rahman incident.
We are very demoralised…and we can talk any thing about religion or army,
priscila raj speaks
Want to highlight three things….
Extra judicial killings
How can we work with International orgs to stop creatiion of organizations like RAB
In cases of State of emergency the most suffered are the people who are the most vulnerable in the society ..like the adibashies (indigenious community)
Lastly why do we never see the results of enquiry reports of the investivative commissions
Zaid Islam a photo journalist speaks
Sara Hossain speaks
I am here as a lawyer who represented some of these journalists who were victims in the last few years.
We need to talk about what we can do to stop this.
We always complain about internation conspiracy but we need to work in our own houses as well.
We don;t coordinate our work,.
I highlight time to the stories about slum dwellers and I send the reports to you journalists but no journalists show any interest..
But that is not the case if the story is about a big politician’s bail.
Amirul Rajib, a photo journalist speaks,
When a big crisis happens and media highlights the issue a lot but not many people are found to help them.
other than the family
We don’t have a infrastructure…
to handle these cases.
we all have to have our own personal network…
How can Amnesty help in all these cases to build an infrastructure.
to handle cases of oppression,
and also cases of regular engagement with the grassroots is needed from int orgs.
Anis highlights that no local journalist in Modhupur highlighted Cholesh’s case because they knew that that they will not survive if they highlighted that.
Ataur Rahman of journalists forum thanks to portray the current picture of bangladesh media today.
Amnesty needs to have a presence in Bangladesh.
I want to blame Amnesty for today’s crisis somewhat.
they need to have a presence in Bangladesh.
We have to look at what is happening in South Asia as a whole as well.
Amnesty needs to play a much stronger role.
here
Another question speaking about how unfairly he was sacked from Amnesty Bangladesh 5 years ago.
Najma Chowdhury from Shwadesh Khabor Weekly…
Do you think anything will change after your visit, Irene Khan?
Chandan Shaha from a weekly,,,
He highlights a case where a minister was sacked because of taking a bribe from a multinational
and wonders why the minister got sacked and nothing happened to the multinational.
Irrelevant talk about corruption of govt
Does Amnesty have a way to research these stories? Shouldn’t they already know these things?
Someone from Manusher jonno speaks
tallks about child rights in Bangladesh
what to do for children prisoner?
Shafiqul Huq Mithu speaks about jahirul Huq Tito in Pirojpur.
another journalist who has been taken in to jail by the admin.
Highlighting details of Tito’s ordeal with the court and but law enforcement agency.
Shahidul speaks,
Highlighting the permission that he had to take for the event..
at World press freedom day.
which says that there you can not criticise the govt in such cases.
We are violating law here by criticizing the govt…Shahidul mockingly reminds Irene,
You all highlighted a lot of cases here..
As journalist you tend to be in the present.
But the activists have to take a longer term perspective..otherwise it gets very depressing…
You all talked about today…but we need to talk about the past as well.
When you take a long term view of human rights, there is not a supported political system where human rights are violated…
go back from 1971…there is a thread of impunity where human rights violations have been left unquestioned
National Human Rights Commission is something that can be very powerful
Whether it is going to be a watchdog or a lapdog, it will all depend on how much pressure we ALL can create
A lot of people told me that this year extra judicial killiing have been reduced…but I am not satisfied by such replies.
We need to highlight why they are going on and what is being done to stop it.
ON freedom of expression..
Irene asking why all the draconian rules are necessary under state of emergency..
These rules are hanging like an axe?
for people..
One think that that has struck me after talking to a lot of people…
civil society and govt have understood clearly how they can use international laws and international civil society to protect the human rights in Bangladesh.
One thing to highlight is there is a worldwide network of human rights defenders.
Today’s event is being captured by people worldwide and that says a lot.
about this network,
We have an enormous opportunity in the internet to create a worldwide network..
that is why Amnesty is starting a Bangla Human Rights Portal for everyone.
I hope you all will take part in it and create a network.
What I am saying is not going to solve the problems.
But if we all create a noise together and work for change, change will happen.
We All need to work together.
on this.
We are hoping we will be able to make our website more interactive.
http://www.amnesty.org/bangla
Irene talking about the question on economic and social rights.
and explaining the campaign on human dignity which focuses on poverty.
what is relationship with human rights and climate change , poverty etc …
This is just a partial transcript of the whole conversation that took place.
Faruk Wasif and Irene are having an exchange over whether West has monopoly on human rights
We are closing …
thank you all
Shahidul thanking,,,Naeem, Givan, Asif for organizing this and highlighting the collaboration of a lot of people.
Shahidul ends with saying that the movement is ours whether or not Irene Khan is there or not,

From Dili to Delhi

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I had just left behind a tense East Timor. No rice for several weeks? violence had again erupted on the streets. I had expected my one day pit stop in Dhaka, on my way to a UNAIDS assignment in India, to have been less eventful. Dili to Delhi had a nice ring to it. The plane had arrived in the early hours of the morning, and as I sat at Drik trying to finish the million pending bits that invariably pile up, Rahnuma rang to talk of the fire. Soon we were up there, outside the familiar building where I?d recently given interviews. Through the billowing smoke, my NTV and RTV mugs reminded me of how close our lives constantly were to needless tragedies shaped by irresponsible gatekeepers. I wondered whether the new gatekeepers in power, ushered in by an unspoken coup, would be different. They had started well, arresting corrupt individuals, and attempting to establish the rule of law, but the sinister rumblings of indefinite stay, had all the signals of previous regimes while the significant omissions in their ?hit list? was deeply worrying. On the plane Farhad Mazhar and I talked of having to brace ourselves for new measures designed to make us more safe. As for the disproportionate influence of ?friendly nations?, swapping freedom for security appeared to be the order of the day. I wish we had a choice on whom to befriend.
Naeem?s translation of Anisul Haque?s moving Op Ed, and Peu?s mail pointing to Munir?s powerful images,
body-of-young-man-1240.jpg
injured-on-van-4300.jpg
fire-1224.jpg
helicopter-drop-1244.jpg
rope-descent-1234.jpg
phalus-brother-4306.jpgPhotographs copyright Munir uz Zaman/Driknews. (Permission for use and high resolution images available from www.driknews.com).
bring home a message too often forgotten. As Shupon points out, we forget very easily. As we?ve forgotten the deaths in the garment factories, or the ferry disasters. But then, those had involved the death of poor people.
spectator-5117.jpgcopyright: Shahidul Alam/Drik
The near death of the well to do could perhaps have a more lasting memory.
mountain-sunrise-and-cattle-5036.jpgcopyright: Shahidul Alam/Drik

The tranquil mornings in the mountains of East Timor seemed a long way away.
Shahidul Alam
Delhi
27th February 2007

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

The Land Became The Sea

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As we watch in horror at the scale of the event, several things come to mind. How events a thousand miles away can affect our lives in so many ways. How connected we are in our joys and our sorrow. I realise that Bangladesh was not as badly affected as our neighbours, and that we should take pride in our achievements, but Bangladeshi newspapers today gloated over the victory of the Bangladeshi cricket team over India in their headlines! While I fret over the fact that the media plays on the negative, to downplay a disaster of such proportions in favour of a cricket match said a lot about our sense of proportions. In 1991, when nearly a million people had gathered to demand the trial of a war criminal, the government had chosen to ignore the news and mentioned instead the man of the match in a cricket game in Shunamganj. I had hoped a free media would play a more responsible role.

As I watch BBC and CNN interview British and German tourists, and the director of Oxfam from her office in Oxford, I remember my experiences in the 1991 cyclone where one hundred and twenty thousand people died in Bangladesh. As I stumbled through the debris, trying to get a sense of what had happened on the night of the 29th April 2001, I kept asking “What happened that night?” The aid workers told me of the number of bags of wheat they had distributed. The government officials quoted the figure in dollars that would be needed for reconstruction, the engineers spoke of the force of the wind.

A young woman in Sandweep looked at me and said “The land became a sea, and the sea became a wave”.

I try to imagine the tsunamis hitting the coasts of India, and Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and remember her words. The thousands whose lives have been wrecked by the earthquake do not constitute the ‘experts’ that the media consider worth asking.

Shahidul Alam
27th December 2004
Dhaka

Chobi Mela III Ends

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Well, Chobi Mela III is coming to an end. One of the artists visiting Chobi Mela III was the celebrated Mexican photographer, Pedro Meyer. Pedro is also the editor of one of the most popular websites on photography <http://www.zonezero.com/> www.zonezero.com. It is apt that the editorial on zonezero today, the final day of Chobi Mela III, talks about his visit to the festival. Extracts from the editorial where Pedro talks both of his experience in Dhaka and his feelings about the festival follow. The full text is available at: http://www.zonezero.com/editorial/editorial.html
Bangladesh is according to economists, one of the poorest countries in the world. However, statistics tend to also obscure other aspects of life that seem to get lost in such descriptions as “among the poorest in the world”. I found that the people in Bangladesh are among the friendliest I have ever met any place, nothing to say that they must be the biggest enthusiast of having their picture taken that exists on the face of this earth. Probably the most efficient way of getting on with life is, how it is dealt with, in this very poor nation.
This event (Chobi Mela) here, is one of the largest of it’s kind in Asia. Bringing photographers and their work to the forefront during the two weeks of this festival. I have met photographers from all over the region, and I am sure that as this festival grows over the coming years, Bangladesh will increasingly become a major center for the development of photography. And what better place to have such an event than a city, where to such a large extent, photography is welcomed by the population.
Pedro Meyer left day before yesterday, Raghu Rai left yesterday, Ozcan Yurdalan left this morning, while Zhuang Wubin is still out there somewhere in Sylhet. The exhibitions by Morten Krogvold, Michel Szulc-Krzyzanowski, Srinivas Kuruganti (Alliance Fran?aise), John Lambrichts (Goethe Insitut), Raghu Rai (Drik Gallery One), Darren Soh, Student?s of Morten?s workshop, Zhuang Wubin and Chris Yap (Drik Rooftop Gallery) all end today. We will arrange separate showings for ?Bridging East and West?, by Saudi Aramco World, which was held up by customs, and the exhibition by students of Barbara Stauss at a later date. Those of you who cannot make it to the galleries should give your eyes a feast at <http://www.chobimela.org/> www.chobimela.org.
Shahidul Alam