I didn’t eat the bananas!

I ALWAYS take a window seat on day flights. The ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is my cue to peer into the watery landscape that the plane flies over before it lands in Dhaka. Few things give me more pleasure than the sound of the wheels touching land. This Antaeus-like effect only works on home soil. It’s knowing I’m back in Bangladesh which gives that warm inner feeling. Grounded in Dhaka for nearly a year due to COVID-19, I miss those landings.

As I sift through stories on international media, stories about Bangladesh are the ones I home in on. Sadly, they are often stories of natural disasters or the impending damage due to climate change. Stories about corruption, or our migrant workers being mistreated are sad, but as a journalist, these are stories I cannot avoid reading or reporting on. One hopes that by shedding light on such injustice, one can help shape a better future for my countryfolk. Some stories, like a cricket win, or a Pathshala student winning a major photography award bring a smile. A one-hour documentary on Bangladesh on Al Jazeera was a big deal. The trailer suggested it was a dark story, but still I waited eagerly.

It is a well-made documentary, and the content is explosive, though the smoking gun is in some cases missing, but the affirmation of one’s suspicions in such a blatant manner, leaves me sad. It is my country after all. Bangladesh is not unique in having corruption or nepotism or abuse of power, but to be publicly confronted by detailed accounts of such blatant abuse by people in the highest echelons of power would sadden any self-respecting Bangladeshi.

Yet this is the government that constantly reminds us of upholding the bhab murti (image) of our nation. Indeed, our jails are packed with people who’ve been arrested for having slighted the nation or its leaders by their words or their cartoons. Laws and constitutional provisions have been put in place preventing citizens from not only critiquing leaders, but even neighbouring countries. Abrar Fahad, a bright young student, was brutally tortured and killed in his university dorm two years ago by fellow students of the ruling party for having had the audacity to question a deal made with our ‘friendly’ neighbour.

So who do we as citizens turn to when my nation has been vilified, when our leaders bring us shame where do we hide our face?

Al Jazeera states that it wrote to all key characters asking for a response. The prime minister, the inspector general of police, the home minister and the army chief and his brothers. If this not be true, a simple response from the government would have sufficed. If true, the government should have responded before the programme aired, ensuring their version be included. To resort to innuendo and slander after airing, rather than providing a considered well-articulated and timely response, hardly befits a government that has led a war of liberation, been in power for over a decade, and has an entire retinue of seasoned politicians on its roster. The advisers, spin doctors and pet intellectuals at the government’s behest, appear to be sleeping at the wheel. It leaves us citizens, no leg to stand on.

The programme talks of a crime syndicate that allows the prime minister ‘to pursue absolute power’. A man who was once her personal bodyguard is implicated. Surely one doesn’t become the personal bodyguard by submitting a curriculum vitae. Detailed background checks would have taken place. Was a known killer the one that she could trust? The chief of our army is meant to have met up with his brothers, killers on the run, on foreign soil. He is said to have helped one of them obtain a false identity. They are escorted by officials of our diplomatic corps and meet in a Bangladeshi high commission building. What do we make of the Bangladeshi officials identified in the programme who assisted the killer in obtaining a false identity? How trusted will my Bangladeshi passport be, by immigration officials world-wide who view the programme? How safe is an army which purchases weapons through such dubious means? If private telephone conversations of the army chief can fall on the hands of a foreign TV channel, how secure is my nation?

I don’t want my privacy to be invaded by the state, whatever the source of the technology may be. But to be spied upon by technology sold by Israel, an apartheid state guilty of oppressing my Palestinian sisters and brothers, is something I cannot accept. When my government reportedly trades with a nation it has banned trading with, using my money, to spy on me, it is particularly galling.

An explosive report involving key government officials on a leading international channel should have been splashed across the front page of every newspaper with bold headlines. To report on the rebuttal without having reported on the news itself, is journalistically untenable, but situationally understandable. The government boasts of a free and unfettered media, but the unwritten taboos in the media include critiquing the prime minister or the military, as many in jail will testify. This journalistic ‘lapse’ gives the game away, but is further substantiated by the candid admission by the editor of the Daily Star that ‘If one looks at the flood of totally groundless and unsubstantiated defamatory cases under the DSA against journalists and newspapers, and the promptness with which such cases were accepted and the accused sent to jail and refused bail for weeks if not months, the answer will be obvious — and we are not even mentioning the intimidation, threats and restrictions of advertisements and other tactics that are used. But even then, we must struggle on and, that’s what we do.’

Ironically, it is the further gaffe by the government of publishing a rebuttal that has created the window for the media. In the course of reporting the government’s press release, the New Age has pretty much described the entire Al Jazeera documentary. It followed up later with an excellent editorial describing not only the contents of the programme but shredding to bits the government’s desperate attempt at damage control. A timely and nuanced op-ed in the Prothom Alo, neatly weaves in references to the fear factor that journalists operate within. Perhaps that’s the pride I can salvage from this episode. While we have repression and denial and sheer incompetence from our government, at least there are still media houses that have not gone with the flow. They’ve found innovative ways around the government’s flat footed censorship mechanisms. These are brave and intelligent ripostes. That at least we can celebrate. The regime might have money and muscle on their side, we have creativity on ours.

The knee-jerk response by the Inter-Services Public Relation Directorate to pass off the procurement of surveillance equipment from Israel as a UN-related purchase, and the equally sad attempt by a minister to claim that the proxy country Hungary had ‘asked’ for COVID-19 vaccines from Bangladesh (intended as an olive branch to the maligned country), only resulted in stern denials from both Hungary and the United Nations. The olive branch lays shrivelled in the diplomatic pathway. While the pet intellectuals and other apologists marvel at the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes, it’s not just the clear-eyed kid, but an entire nation that giggles at the spectacle on view.

As for the government’s rebuttal, I am reminded of the Bangla proverb ‘Thakur ghare ke re?’ ‘Ami kala khaini.’

‘Who’s there in the temple?’ asks the guardian. ‘I didn’t eat the bananas!’ comes the sheepish reply.

I hope they don’t slip on the peel on the way out.

Originally published in The New Age: http://www.newagebd.net/article/129498/i-didnt-eat-the-bananas

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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