… for the missing

From Groundviews

By Gypsy Bohemia

A solitary lamp perched on a desk top lights a room. A man scribbles feverishly on paper, hunched over the light as if he?s jealously guarding what little he has. His desk is cluttered with cartoons and drawings ? some of a President, others of two small children. He holds down his paper with one hand and writes with the other, so violently that other loose papers and articles shuffle with his movements.
He is breathing hard, as if he?s run to his desk from sleep, taken by wild inspiration. He has forgotten to switch on the fan, and the heat of that December night hangs in the air, thickening like spoiling milk. Small explosions of sweat begin to burst from the pores of his forehead, drip darkly onto his fast-moving hand, and trickle onto the paper, blotting the ink. This frustrates him but he doesn?t stop to soak up the liquid, just writes on, faster.
His wife lies in bed in the next room. She is awake, some inexplicable worry vaulting the sleep away from her eyes whenever it threatens to close them. She watches the empty space next to her, willing her husband to come back to bed but knows he won?t. She wonders what he felt the need to write about in the middle of the night, leaping out of bed as if possessed. She was afraid he?d knock something over in the dark and wake the children, but that walk from bedroom to desk is so familiar that he doesn?t.
It is only when he feels that familiar cramping in his fingers that he pauses. He looks around the room, fighting to make out familiar shapes in the blackness outside his little circle of light. His house is modest and unadorned for the most part ? the only exceptions are the sketches of his children that he has been drawing since they were born. Some have been framed; others lie strewn around the house ? on bits of furniture, stuffed carelessly into vases by the children, folded within the pockets of well-worn wallets, dog-eared between the pages of story books.
He wiggles his fingers to give them a stretch and picks up one of the drawings on his desk. His little boy is growing up quickly and sometimes he feels like he?s missing it, so caught up is he in his work. Sometimes he sees print in his sleep. Sometimes he finds himself talking to his little ones about his work and has to stop mid-sentence, realizing they don?t understand most of what he?s saying. He shoots a guilty glance in the direction of his bedroom, knowing he woke his wife in his mad midnight rush to get to his desk. She worries for him, he knows. He doesn?t take enough time to relieve her of those worries, to comfort her. He resolves to, as soon as he finishes this article.
After this brief pause, he goes back to his article, crossing and re-crossing the lines, scribbling out careless mistakes, cursing his own pen which writes far slower than the thoughts run in his head. He longs for the computer at his office but knows it is too late to go there now and besides, to leave now would be to disrupt the flow of his writing. The flow in tonight?s case is a torrential storm of words, figures and damning evidence.
His wife gives up a losing battle and comes to the doorway of the bedroom, which is always open ? just in case. She leans against the frame, appreciating the cool wood against her hot skin, and watches her husband as he works. She knows every telltale movement of his obsessive inspiration so well. Watching him from behind, he looks the same as he did when they first married. He would stop every now and then to shuffle through printed sheets of information and look up to stare unseeingly at some point on the wall, piecing parts of it together in his head. His back would periodically straighten and then fall into that characteristic hunch every time he was struck by something new that he simply had to write down. Even through the dull ache of worry in her stomach, she can?t help but smile.
She knows the value of what he does, but it isn?t the easiest thing to live with. The warnings, the childrens? questions, her own engulfing fear. When they came with ropes and iron rods to take him away she expected that fear to kill her on the spot. It stuck in her throat and seemed to expand outwards, threatening to burst vocal chords already strained with soundless screams. There was an awful moment before he was dragged away, when she looked from her husband?s eyes, smoldering with helpless anger, to the terrified ones of her children. Seconds later, she caught sight of her own in a mirror and saw only naked panic. 4 pairs of eyes, a thousand different emotions. Darting urgently from one to the other, trying to comprehend, trying to rebel, trying to say goodbye. Moments later, he was gone and they were alone.
When he came back, she couldn?t believe it. She wildly kissed each purpling eye, each ugly bruise and held him tightly against her, not caring even as he cried out in pain when her arms circled sensitive, injured skin. She tried to make him swear never to put himself in danger again. For her. For their children. He refused. The truth is more important, he kept insisting, and his eyes suddenly became distant and withdrawn and she knew he was already thinking of something to write. At that moment she felt a mixture of searing frustration and aching love so strong, she almost choked.
Today, as she watches him write, she feels a similar emotion. She looks down the hall to her children?s shared room, listening in the stillness for any indication that they?re awake. Her little girl has been having nightmares of late. She never says what they?re about, but insists on crawling into bed with them for the rest of the night. She only falls asleep when her head is nestled safely against her father?s chest.
He?s been writing so hard and so long, he doesn?t notice she is standing behind him. Suddenly though, in a rare lapse of concentration, he feels the pressure of her stare on his back and the weight of her worry cloaking his skin ? another layer of heat on an already hot night. He turns around and looks for her in the darkness, finding her barely visible in the shadows of their bedroom doorway.
?Come to bed? she says quietly and her eyes linger on him for a moment or two before she turns to go back inside.
He looks at his unfinished article for a moment, hesitating. Then he wonders how many times he will get to hold her after this article comes out. He lives under no illusions ? they came before. They will come again.
He puts down his pen as if putting down a heavy weight. The truth can wait for a few hours, he thinks. The truth can wait until morning.
He gets up, switches off the lamp, and as the room dissolves into darkness around him, walks that familiar path back to bed.

Authors note: Journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda went missing on the 24th of December, days after writing several critical articles regarding election malpractices by the Government. He remains missing to this day. Like him, hordes of journalists have been arrested, abducted, jailed, tortured and murdered for reporting the truth and expressing dissenting views. Some have been returned to their families. Others, like Ekaneligoda, have simply vanished without a trace, leaving their families with the horror of not knowing whether to hope or grieve.

These attacks are not simply hits against the media. They are a direct violation of our rights: the right to know the truth of what is out there, the right to ask questions of those who should answer to us, and the right to simply have a different point of view.
For every voice that is silenced, more must shoulder their burden, wear their courage and take their place to end this cycle of insidious violence. This is my tribute, for The Missing.

Emerging from the Shadows

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The first Friday of every month, we would clear out the furniture of Bijon Da?s ?Boithok Khana? (drawing room), move some of the chairs out to the verandah, and set up a table for the speakers. People would invariably arrive in dribs and drabs, but pretty soon, the rickety chairs would get filled up and the crowd would spill over into the verandah. This was where Manzoor Alam Beg held court.
Cowboy by Manzoor Alam Beg
Young photographers with their first black and white prints, would mingle with the likes of Rashid Talukder and Anwar Hossain. The ever young Dr. Ansaruddin Ahmed would hand out his pristine prints. The crowd would wait in expectant silence for the results of the monthly photo contest. The monthly photographic newsletter, then without pictures, would be distributed. Invariably, there would be a speech or two. It was a camera club, trade union and a hangout joint, all rolled into one. Despite the mix, the salon smell hung in the air. Much was made of acceptances in salons. A gold medal, a bronze, or even an honourable mention, was celebrated. Winners were generously applauded. Outside of the salon circuit we knew little of what was going on elsewhere, but if it was a well we were living in, it was a nice well. That monthly meeting meant a lot to all of us.
boat by Naibuddin Ahmed
There were few who remained from the old school. The recent split from Pakistan meant that the established studios like Zaidi?s had gone. But the war of liberation changed the Bangladeshi psyche. 1947, while of immense significance to South Asia, meant little to Bangladeshis. History books barely touched upon it. There were few references to it in literature. 1971 on the other hand was a lived experience. Unsurprisingly therefore, apart from the early photographs of Golam Kasem Daddy, dating back to 1918, there are few early photographs from Bangladesh.? There followed a romantic period where photographers like Amanul Haque and Naibuddin Ahmed produced stylized landscapes and carefully set up idyllic images of people. Nawazesh Ahmed and later Anwar Hossain, began to adopt a more contemporary feel to their images. Bijon Sarker and Manzoor Alam Beg, combined elements of classical pictorialism with the curiosity of an experimentalist. Sayeda Khanam was the lone woman of that era. Doggedly pursuing an almost entirely male profession.

Sayeda Khanom
??Sayeda Khanom/Drik/Majority World

1971 was a turning point. Rashid Talukder?s nose for a picture and his journalistic instinct, ensured that he was at the right place at the right time throughout Bangladesh?s turbulent history. Having had no formal education in photography, Talukder was freed of the compositional binds that many contemporary image makers were trapped within. The 2 ? square had its own aesthetic, but Talukder and other photojournalists used the balanced frame to capture some of the most disturbing images of the 20th century.
Dismembered head at killing fields of Rayerbazaar. Photo: Rashid Talukder
Dismembered head at killing fields of Rayerbazaar. Photo: Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World

Talukder?s dismembered head of a slain intellectual, framed by bricks and their sharp shadows, being perhaps one of the most powerful images of the 20th century. Talukder, Mohammad Shafi, Jalaluddin Haider, Aftab Ahmed were amongst the press photographers who documented some of the everyday events of 1971. But Talukder?s picture of the bayoneting of Biharis, had been hidden from public sight until Drik published it in 1993. Kader Siddiqui, the man responsible for the killings, was too powerful a man to antagonize, and until then, no publication had been prepared to take the risk. A similar frame by Michel Laurent, had meanwhile won a Pulitzer. Talukder?s dismembered head too, had been passed by the the authors of the Century Book. Others, had recorded 1971 in their own way. Taking great risks as amateurs, preserving a history of our birth pangs, knowing it could signal death.

Purple backed sunbird by Shehab Uddin? Shehab Uddin

Photographers then started specializing. S S Barua, and Nawab became the bird specialists, to be later followed by Enamul Huque and Shehab Uddin. Consumerism had approached, and photographers in the new nation were turning to fashion. Shamsul Islam Al Maji brought a modern touch to glamour, but Amanul Haque in his classical style also painted a rural Bangladesh, complete with the beautiful farmer?s wife, her red sari provided by the photographer, her gourd plant, planted by him a year ago, so it would be the right height at the right time of the year.
Moon and cow by Mohammad Ali Salim
Then came the salon era. Mohammad Ali Selim, Kazi Mizanur Rahman, Kashi Nath Nandy, Abdul Malek Babul, Debabrata Chowdhury were all fine photographers, but their arena was the camera club contest. The rule of thirds, the well placed diagonal, the balanced image, was what everyone was making. They entered contests, won prizes, vied for medals and certificates. This was a world in itself. The Bangladesh Photographic Society became the launchpad for the contest winning photographers. The stickers at the back of the prints were often more important than the images themselves. The society newsletter proudly boasted of salon acceptances. Strategies for winning contests were hotly debated at the monthly meetings. Stardom was based on number of medals and not on quality of content. Pretty pictures ruled.

woman in ballot booth

Woman voting at a ballot both. Election 1991 ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

While photojournalists had recorded street life and political strife, and a few photographers had addressed poverty, there was no culture of documentary practice. No personal projects. Photography was still seen as an illustration, meant to fit in with a predetermined caption. The movement against General Ershad changed all that. Resistance had been building, and the iconic image of Noor Hossain, with ?Let Democracy be Freed? painted on his back, was a turning point. In 1971, the photographs were taken surreptitiously, under fear of death. In the new movement, the photographers were in the fore. They were the witnesses of the people and empowered by people?s will. Ershad clamped down on the media, enforcing censorship. The media responded en-masse, stopping publication in protest, but the photographers continued to work, and when the general fell, and an impromptu exhibition was organized of pictures of the movement, the queue outside Zainul Gallery was nearly a mile long. There were near riots as people stormed the gallery to get a glimpse of their hard earned victory.

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Hasan Saifuddin Chandan controllling the crowd at the entrance to Zainul Gallery. 13th December 1991. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The struggle for democracy had an obvious impact on the photographic movement. 1989 was a significant year. 150 years after the birth of photography, the region?s first photo library, Drik, was set up. The Bangladesh Photographic Instititute was set up. After sustained lobbying by photographers a bill was passed in parliament for a department of photography to be set up in Shilpakala Academy, the academy of fine and performing arts. That too was in 1989 though it was never implemented. The workshops at the Bangladesh Photographic Institute and at Drik showed there was another way of working and that photography had more to offer than simply producing pretty images or winning awards. Photography was also trying to move away from the shadows of painters who still ruled supreme. The success of a photograph had always depended on how well it resembled a painting. The medium began to find its own identity, and while photography was still not considered art, photographers were now not so concerned about the label. So photographers found their own solutions. They did what other artists and media professionals had failed to do. They aggregated, and made up for lack of external support by supporting each other. A revolution was in the making.
But there were other pressures too. Most photographers still found it difficult to make a living and the lure of ?bidesh? (foreign lands) was too much for many to withstand. Several of the young photographers who were making the transition away from Salon photography, decided to try their luck overseas. Years later, not one of them has been successful in establishing a career in photography. Nasir Ali Mamoon was an exception in some ways. Portraiture had always been his forte. While others drove taxis, worked in petrol stations, or temped in low paid jobs, Nasir took this opportunity to produce portraits of people he admired. Ginsberg, Gunter Grass and many others filled his album. While unsuccessful commercially, he was able to expand his photographic repertoire and eventually, when he decided to leave the others behind and return to his native land, he was able to establish himself as THE portrait photographer of the era. Fine portraits adorned the newspaper he worked for, and while the post was largely ornamental, he was made the first picture editor of a newspaper.
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There followed a resurgence in the media. With the return of democracy, new newspapers filled the newsstands. There was also another movement taking place. The nation?s first picture library had been set up. While international media had no interest in the democratic struggle in Bangladesh, the cyclone in 1991 that followed was familiar fodder to world media and their appetite was insatiable. There was a difference though. This time the work of local photographers also filled the pages of the New York Times and the Newsweeks of the world. Mostly they were similar images different only in having been taken by locals, but soon the content and the focus also changed. The New York Times published a full page on their Sunday Week in Review on the 1991 cyclone which did not show a single corpse. There were pictures of fishermen rebuilding their boats, farmers replanting seeds, villagers rebuilding their homes. The world began to engage with a new story teller. One with local roots. The first fund raising photo exhibition took place in 1991 and raised over 4000 dollars for cyclone victims.
The newly formed agency Drik, began to bring in photographers from all over the globe to conduct workshops. Its regular calendar became a showpiece for Bangladeshi photography. Well printed postcards and posters, complete with credit lines for photography. Photographers learnt to protest when their pictures got stolen. A movement was taking shape. It crystallised with the formation of? Pathshala. The South Asian Institute of Photography. The setting up of the school represented a clear move away from Salon photography. Documentary photographic practice complete with the engagement it involved became an emerging trend. Soon a few women joined the ranks, and the photo stories ranged from the usual ?subjects? of international photographers like prostitution and floods to the more personal representation of family life, and the search for identity. The students were hungry, and the explosive mix of inspiring teachers and driven students soon created the photographic explosion that was inevitable. Bangladesh emerged in the world of documentary photography as no other nation had. Before 1998, no Bangladeshi photographer had ever won an award at World Press Photo. Shafiqul Alam Kiron?s winning entry on women victims of acid attacks was soon followed by Chobi Mela, the first festival of photography in the region. The heady mix of great photographers walking down the streets of Dhaka. Showcasing work on the same gallery walls with the best of the best, would have to be inspirational. Meanwhile the school continued shaping their craft, pushing them to their limits. Some made it to Masterclass, others were star students of the seminar programmes. Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Guardian, Le Monde, and other leading publications across the globe suddenly woke up to this great wealth of photography in Bangaldesh.

Then things got stuck. Success is a hard act to live with, and the rapid recognition of the star photographers created a flock of clones who followed. Some found their own identity, but many were just following. Again it was Chobi Mela to the rescue. The identity of the festival itself was changing. Drik?s success had given it the overall stamp of documentary practice, but slowly other photographic genre was creeping in. Fine art, conceptual work, the odd installation, began to work its way into the gallery spaces. The level of intellectual engagement drew many others besides photographers. Practitioners from Africa, Latin America and Australia joined the Europeans and North Americans, and of course Asians who regularly joined the festival. Speakers like Noam Chomsky had conversations with regional legends like Mahashweta Devi. This was all the spark that was needed. A resurgent Pathshala, started producing more provocative work, and broached new territory. It was a movement in the making and the rules were being made as one went along.

Chobi Mela in Kathmandu 4122Chobi Mela V tours to Kathmandu

The Bangladesh segment of the exhibition “When Three Dreams Cross” tries to map this journey, through the images that formed the milestones of this movement. There are significant departures from the mapping we had attempted to follow. The irrelevance of 1947, and the huge presence of 1971, has played a role that is to be expected. Other less expected characteristics have been the absence of the physical representation of habitats, artefacts, and mementos that are often a part of vernacular photography. Until recently, even family photographs, weddings and the many other everyday things that always been the visual basis for understanding cultures has largely not been preserved. Waqar Khan, has made an important contribution by collecting old photographs, mostly from aristocratic homes, which documents some aspects of this history. But the warm humid climes of this delta, has led to the erosion of much of our physical heritage. The shifting of the rivers has led to an uprootment of many who no can no longer relate to a homestead they can call their own. This transience and the nomadic existence that follows has perhaps led to the loss of a need to preserve. Very few archives exist. Not only in visual terms, but in music and film and many other art forms. This absence, in a way, documents a mode of thought and a way of life, that perhaps tells more about Bangladesh than the missing photographs might have done.
Not every artist is featured, but every influence is present through what they, or others who were inspired by them, produced. The early work of Golam Kasem and the establishment of the Camera Recreation Club had a distinct influence. Manzoor Alam Beg?s steadfast role as a mentor and an organizer, held the community together for many years. The Ahmed brothers brought out the first book on photography, and Nawazesh Ahmed, an agronomist with a PhD, brought respectability to the medium and at least for him, an acceptance within academia. Anwar Hossain was the enfante terrible who brought immediate attention through his arresting images, his controversial statements, and his maverick lifestyle. Sadly he too lost the edge that was his hallmark and has largely retired into oblivion. Hasan Saifuddin Chandan and the string of fine photographers who produced evocative images in the early nineties, also lost their way, though the Map Agency, set up by Chandan and a few other talented photographers continues and has made a valuable contribution. Sayeda Farhana, Sanjida Shaheed and a few other photographers, mostly women, began to explore the edges of contemporary photography, using their training as social scientists, fine artists, and in other areas of learning to inject into photography, a tertiary value which the more straight laced, mainstream photographers had failed to achieve. But the moment still belongs to the young crop of photojournalists who have recently emerged from Pathshala. Abir Abdullah, GMB Akash, Saiful Huq Omi, Munem Wasif, Khaled Hasan and other emerging photographers, all photojournalists of exceptional talent, made the world sit up. The wealth of exceptional photography emerging from this small nation has taken the photojournalism world by storm. There are those who feel there is a sameness in their approach that they would like to question and Shumon Ahmed and Momena Jalil are amongst the photographers who have ventured outside the tried and tested path to find other modes of expression. But this incomparable strength in photojournalism cannot be denied. Many of these former students are now the new mentors. The traditional forms of apprenticeship might have been lost over the years, but a more classic form of pedagogy has led to a learning environment that will surely take the world by storm.
Shahidul Alam:?Curator
Written for the catalogue of “Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh” 21 January 2010 – 11 April 2010 Galleries 1, 8 & 9 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Photographers Naibuddin Ahmed and his younger brother Nawazesh Ahmed, passed away between the time this article was written and when it was published.

RAB's Photo Sessions and the Visual Construction of Criminality

By Rahnuma Ahmed

The title of my column is somewhat misleading, I think it’s best to state that right away. Intrigued by the press briefings that RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) offices hold every so often where `criminals’ are displayed alongwith crime artefacts laid out on long rows of tables?guns, machettes, grenade-making equipment, stolen cash?as evidence of their criminality, images which are served up on the news of all private TV channels, which are printed a day later in the newspapers, I had thought of conducting research on these photo op sessions. I had wanted to examine these as `sites’ that are organised and arranged by the organs of the state, by the functionaries of the state, ones that construct criminality through visual means, i.e., still photos and video recordings of criminals, their tools, the loot. RAB, for the few who may not know, falls under the jurisdiction of the ministry of home affairs, its members are seconded to the battalion from the army, navy, air force and police, a measure which, according to its critics, eases in the carry-over of its culture of gross abuses and impunity to other parts of the security forces.

RAB photo opRAB Photo Session

My interest in RAB and its activities, as many of my readers probably know, is not new. It re-surfaced recently, however, because of several incidents which gave rise to thoughts, ones that not only refused to go away but dug deep into the soil and grew shoots.
It surfaced as I poured water over a waterproof camera that Shahidul Alam, my partner, held underneath. He was working on re-creating images of water-boarding for his upcoming photo exhibition on torture. I concentrated on carrying out his instructions, on not thinking about how I would have felt if an actual head had been in the bucket. It surfaced languidly as I heard Nurul? Kabir ask third year students of photography?he is currently teaching a course on Media and Politics at Pathshala?to reflect on how the Bangladeshi media participates in non-violent means of ruling. On how it seeks and gains people’s consent to ideas which work against their interests. Drawing instances from how the media had significantly contributed to making Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, women with no political experience, into `national’ leaders, on how intellectuals, writers and journalists gratuitously offer the view that the nation’s problems would be solved if only the two women would meet and talk to each other, Kabir moved on to a discussion of ideological state apparatuses (the ISA’s, as those familiar with the French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser’s ideas, know). While listening to him, I thought of RAB’s crossfire deaths and how it had simultaneously constructed, and cashed in on an idea of meting out instant justice in a situation of deteriorating law-and-order and a failing criminal justice system, a situation for which the government, of course, was ultimately responsible. I then thought of how it was increasingly becoming difficult for crossfire deaths to garner public support, even of people who supported the government on all other counts. But what about RAB’s press briefings? What did they construct, and what did we consume by watching images of these on television, or through seeing printed pictures?
Mug shots, or photographic portraits of arrested people, taken by police photographers at the police station is not something that is practised in Bangladesh. The genre of photography and framing that has developed since RAB (inaugurated in March 2004) began its press briefings seems unique to Bangladesh, and to its visual history. Through my network of photographer friends I got hold of about sixty photographs, and sat looking through these, scribbling notes while I did: RAB officials conducting security searches on buses. Squad dogs snarling at each other. A pair of startled eyes of a young man, the alleged criminal, in front of whom lay a table full of machettes. He seemed to have been hauled up and planted in front of the table. Three young men, guarded on either side by two RAB officials, but although they seemed to be in the middle of a forest, strangely enough, they had A-4 sheets with their names, computer-composed and printed, hanging on their shirt fronts.
I then turned to dozens of photographs of press briefing sessions. These invariably, with one or two slight variations, had `criminals’ standing behind a long table, covered with a white table cloth, a banner behind announcing the number of the battalion (twelve in all), the alleged criminal or criminals guarded by armed RAB members on either side, criminal artefacts in front. The names of those caught, `Mohd Rafiqul Islam, illegal woman trafficker,’ a meticulous description of what was recovered, `125 bhori gold ornaments,’ `ten thousand US dollars,’ often neatly affixed. To the person. To the object. Reminiscent of colonial inventories.
I spoke to a photographer who has covered nearly a hundred RAB events in the last 4 years. He spoke to me on condition of anonymity. So what happens, I asked. Well, the press, from the channels, from the dailies, we all go at the appointed time. We go to a large room, a hall room. There are chairs for us. It takes about half an hour, the criminals are brought, we are briefed on the crime, what happened, who was caught, with what. We take photographs. I prodded and he said, well, what the RAB official says, and what the alleged criminal says seem to be based on the same script. Does anything ever untoward happen? Have you seen any such thing happen? Oh no, he replied. It’s all very neat, very well-organised. No ruffles, none whatsoever. So, why do they do it? Why do they go to the trouble? I think because they get free publicity. I wondered to myself whether it had made crime reporters and investigative journalists lazy. So, you mean, it’s a package? Yes, his eyes lit up. It’s all pre-packaged, you get everything all at once. Sometimes, he said, I think, it is arranged to divert attention. Whose? Well, the media’s, and thereby that of the public. For instance? If you remember the whole Yaba thing, when it blew up, most of those who were paraded before us were Yaba addicts, there was such a big circus over it but none of the really big fish were caught. So, what makes you think it’s stage-managed? Well, two things. If we see something happening on the street, and RAB is there, in action, and we go up to take photographs, they behave very badly. They’ll snarl and say, `Do you have any permission?’ They beat up a Jugantor photographer once. But then the next thing you know, they’ll organise this elaborate press briefing at their offices and parade these so-called criminals with ten-or-so Phensedyl bottles laid out on the table. And they also offer us tea, snacks. We don’t want their nasta, we want to work, I want to take photographs because I think I am accountable to the public. As he spoke I thought to myself, surely, these staged photo ops violate constitutional rights? What does one call them, a sort of media trial, held in what, RAB’s court? Aloud, I asked, what strikes you as most odd about these sessions? Well, when they put on their sunglasses, I mean we are inside the building, inside a room, there’s no sunlight but these guys put on their dark glasses just before we start taking photos.
I return to examining the photographs. There is one set missing, I think. A set that none of us will probably ever get to see. Those that RAB officials are said to have taken of New Age’s crime reporter F Masum after they beat him up outside his house for failing to open the gate with alacrity. According to him, they later dragged him into his bedroom, placed six Phensedyl bottles in his pillow case, stood him beside it. The camera clicked.
First published in New Age on Monday 16th November 2009.
High Court orders government to explain killings.

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.

20 Years of Drik

Twenty years.

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How does one articulate a history spanning two decades in a few lines? The truth is, you can’t. Which is why we are sharing with you some of our proudest moments in the best way we know how – with images.

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This exhibition is not about the number of years that have passed, but the milestones achieved and the battles won. It is about the new paths we have forged from the unlikely location of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

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While we try to show cherished snippets of our past, there are others that we have to keep in our memory. The people who have helped us, the mistakes we made, the things we had to believe in with all our heart – these things are more challenging to visualise, but just as important.

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Drik was set up to be a platform for voices from the majority world, and on this special occasion, we are proud to introduce the first in the Golam Kasem Daddy Lecture Series.

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Twenty years.

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For some, it could seem like an eternity. For us, this is just the beginning.

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For the government, by the government

My assistant Irfan just informed me that my permanent accreditation as a journalist was not being given, as I had asked awkward questions to the advisor during the Musee Guimet affair, The assumption that a journalist’s job is to ask ‘safe questions’ is a stark reminder of the perceived role of journalists by governments. The following piece was written exactly seventeen years ago. This ironic reminder of ‘consistency’ in certain sectors is worrying. We had worried about possible repercussions and had discussed strategies had we come under attack. As it turned out, the letter, published in leading newspapers, was simply ignored. They have other ways of controlling us.
An open letter to the honourable
Prime Minister
The People’s Republic of
The 27th March 1992
Dear Prime Minister,
As a citizen of a nation with a democratically elected parliament, I write with some concern my feelings regarding the appropriation of Bangladesh Television by the government. A media which is paid for and rightfully belongs to the people.
After the fall of the Ershad regime one had expected to see a change in the traditional propaganda that had been passed as news. Last night’s news was a blatant and sad reminder that nothing had changed.
What happened at Suhrwardy Uddayan on the 26th of March 1992, might not have been in the interest of the ruling party. There may be a debate over the validity of the trial, but it is surely impossible to deny that probably the largest public gathering since 1972 had taken place. For a democratically elected government it is shamefully hypocritical to deny that the people had made a statement.
The news last night mentioned the parade in the morning, a small march past in Ghazipur, violence in distant lands, even the man of the match in a game of cricket. Nowhere was there a reference to the fact that almost a million people had gathered that morning for a public trial of a war criminal.
At a time when we are trying past perpetrators for misappropriation of public funds, making people accountable, stealing the voice of an entire nation is a crime beyond redemption. Whatever we may call what television is showing today, it is certainly not “The Whole Truth”.
It is a trying time in our land. The problems are many and the resources slender. What we need most now is national unity. That can surely not be achieved by alienating the people, by withdrawing trust.
The national television is a valuable resource. It can teach, it can inform, it can entertain. Never was it intended to be used as a propaganda machine. It is a powerful medium, and through objective journalism can play a vital role in a nation struggling to rebuild. By shredding away the last vestiges of plausibility it has been reduced to a shameful mockery. Even the truth will now be questioned.
I believe that it is a time for reconstruction, and that the new government must be given a chance. I believe it is time to forget our differences and rally together to rebuild this land that so many have sacrificed for. For that to happen there must first be honesty, and a government of the people must never turn against the people. The government must establish its credibility. For people to believe, the truth must be spoken. Then only can there be a real dialogue.
For this nation to succeed we need a responsible government, a responsible opposition and a responsible citizen. Surely the government can lead by example.
This nation is in economic shambles, millions live below the poverty line, today hunger is our greatest enemy, yet we mark our day of independence with a vulgar, and quite meaningless show of military strength. We trade schools and hospitals for guns and bullets, guns that have too often in the past been turned against us. On our day of independence we forget to once mention the father of the nation, instead we celebrate the weapons that have nurtured autocrats.
The VIP’s from their exclusive seats watch their latest expensive toys, bought with the taxpayer’s money. While the national TV is turned into a home video set. It is true that there are members of the public who like watching the show, that there are little kids who wonder in amazement, but tell them prime minister, how many kilos of rice that aircraft is worth, how much was spent for your expensive seating, you know too well what they will choose.
There is still time, give back to the people what you have wrongfully taken. Let the truth be known, and in time the people will forgive you. Develop the trust that has been torn asunder and the people will rally with you. It is the people who brought you into power, do not turn their strength against you. Do not forget the harrowing nights in March ’71. Do not forget the streets you walked in December ’90. Do not forget the millions who walked with you.
This struggling nation expects a lot from its leader. It needs your strength, your courage, your sensitivity. Above all it needs your sincerity.
Do not disappoint us.
I wish you well.
Bangladesh Zindabad.

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.


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
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?
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