I should state at the outset, in the interests of full disclosure, that Shahidul Alam and I have been friends since childhood. Even as we charted our own paths, journalism and the media has remained an arena into which we gained our own different perspectives, and over the years we have remained in touch and often got to compare notes on its evolution. I can recognize the tendency, one may even say the instinct, in Shahidul that drove him to get on his bike and get out on the street to cover the protests and what was happening in the streets himself, like an embedded citizen journalist or photojournalist. You get a hint of it in the title of his extraordinary book ‘My journey as a witness’, that a former picture editor of LIFE magazine called “the most important book ever written by a photographer”.
It’s not often that a Bangladeshi’s work gets described in quite such glowing terms. Yet Shahidul is undoubtedly someone who has risen to the very top of his field and in doing so gathered universal acclaim. At the very same time he has remained rooted to the land that produced him, and dedicated a vast portion of his work to improving the lives of the people of Bangladesh, towards realizing the dream of Bangladesh. Almost anyone who knows him will tell you, how he is driven by a deep sense of social justice and how he is committed to ensuring it for the people of Bangladesh, if not the world. The institutions he has founded and led - and they are many ranging from Drik to Pathshala to Chobi Mela - have all reflected his worldly values, and are a credit to the nation.
It is nothing if not misguided, to believe or suggest Shahidul Alam’s motivations were in any way malafide, as he waded into the students’ protests in August to provide his own eyewitness accounts, taking advantage for the first time of that remarkable new tool that has emerged for all storytellers to do so: social media. Now we all recall vividly how the ruling party student front’s involvement, coupled with police reticence, served to cultivate a toxic atmosphere around those protests at one stage, particularly on August 4-5. With protesting groups spread out across the length of the country and restrictions on mobile networks implemented by the authorities, tensions were really running high as information, credible information that is, was hard to come by. At the same time a general perception that the media has long been compromised under this government in its duty to inform the public contributed to people more readily turning to alternative sources, mostly found on their Facebook newsfeed, to try and learn what was truly happening.
Taking advantage of this situation, a coordinated and somewhat sophisticated campaign to spread disinformation did originate on different social media platforms, and unfortunately a lot of people did fall for it. At its worst, there were the alleged murders and rapes taking place at the Awami League office, an atrocious lie that most experienced observers saw through, in everything from its composition to the lack of corroboration. This is something that we increasingly have to deal with in Digital Bangladesh, as the prime minister herself has acknowledged. But here is the point of this article: Shahidul Alam was never a party to these rumours, and certainly not the source. Nothing he reported in a series of Facebook Lives, tweets, emails and photographs corresponded with these blatant untruths, and anyone can go and check the record on his social media pages to verify this. Nor did he share, retweet or even ‘like’ any such rumour.
Undoubtedly the authorities would be doing the public a great service if they succeeded in identifying and dismantling the nefarious networks that sought to ramp up the tension. It will require a more astute strategy with very specific targeting tools, rather than high-profile arrests of individuals who had nothing to do with it, such as Dr Alam. Arresting those who merely fell for it and shared such information, as the authorities have also done, is likely to prove equally useless to suppressing the real bad actors. In other words, they must target the originators, rather than those who were merely misled.
Shahidul of course was neither. If you go through his updates from the field on August 4-6, you will see he is far from the rabble-rousing rumourmonger the authorities are trying to paint. His observations are factual, restrained and at times beautifully poignant, such as when he captures the sight of a day-labourer catching an afternoon nap on the roadside, oblivious to the chaos ensuing around him as police clash with protestors. Even in the much talked-about interview with Al Jazeera, he does not raise any unfounded allegations. He is of course critical of the authorities and the malign role played by Chhatra League, but in this he merely gave vent to views held by many of his fellow citizens. On the one question of the government’s legitimacy, he is harsh in bringing up the last election but the interviewer did ask a leading question, and in any case that answer cannot be construed as fomenting violence or any other subversive activity. At most, one may disagree with him.
That is what has defined Shahidul’s work across four decades now, his great journey on which we have been fortunate to witness through him some of the most monumental events in our nation’s history. He has always presented before us what he objectively witnessed - agreeing or disagreeing has remained our prerogative. But his testimony is essential. The sooner he is free to provide it again, the better it is for the goal of an informed society in Bangladesh. There are those who fear even if he is released, his work will not be marked by the same tenacity and courage. That would be the greatest pity, if the witness is forced to turn his eyes away. Knowing Shahidul, somehow I doubt it. The urge to be the witness always won out in him. The sooner his journey is allowed to resume, the better-placed we will be, to gauge our nation’s direction.
Enayetullah Khan, Editor-in-Chief, Dhaka Courier & UNB