CPJ is honored to present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Bangladeshi journalist Shahidul Alam.
Alam is a renowned photojournalist and commenter, and the founder of the Bangladeshi multimedia training organization the Pathshala Media Institute and the Drik Picture Library Ltd. He also co-founded the photo agency Majority World and the Chobi Mela Festival, a pioneering photography festival in Bangladesh. His photographs of life in Bangladesh, as well as of protests and the environment, are well known in his country and around the world.
In August 2018, Alam was detained by a group of about 40 men who said they were from the detective branch of Dhaka police. Security guards at the journalist’s building said the group pushed the photographer screaming into a car. Later, the journalist said, “When I got picked up, I didn’t know if I would live or die.”
Hours before Alam was detained, he was interviewed by Al-Jazeera and posted a video on Facebook about protests by Bangladeshi students calling for safer roads after two children were killed by a bus in late July 2018. CPJ documented attacks on several journalists covering the protests, in which police used tear gas and rubber bullets.
The day after Alam was arrested, a court in Dhaka ordered that he be held for seven days pending investigation into allegations that he violated the country’s Information and Communication Technology Act by spreading propaganda against the government and spreading false information on electronic media, according to news reports. When Alam appeared in court, he was unable to walk without assistance and said he had been tortured. “I was hit [in custody],” he told journalists later. “[They] washed my bloodstained punjabi and then made me wear it again.”
CPJ publicly called for Alam’s release on the day he was taken into custody and four days later, signed a joint letter calling for the photojournalist to be freed. CPJ participated in a protest in front of the United Nations in New York, raised his case at a U.N. event on imprisoned journalists with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, and highlighted his detention in a #FreeShahidulAlam campaign. After CPJ raised Alam’s case before the European Parliament, the body passed an urgency resolution on the human rights situation in Bangladesh and called on authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the journalist.
In November 2018, 102 days after he was detained, Alam was freed on bail.
“Journalists speak truth to power,” Alam said in a #FreeThePress video CPJ published in April, calling on governments to release all jailed journalists in light of COVID-19. “That is why, generally, they end up in jail.”
The text of Shahidul Alam’s acceptance speech is below:
I first came across the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2001, when fellow award recipient Tipu Sultan was attacked and his arms and legs broken. Later, when Jahangir Alam Akash and Asif Mohiuddin were attacked, again it was CPJ which came to the rescue. In 2009, I was arrested by the Border Security Forces in India. They are a trigger-happy group, and had killed dozens of people in the previous months and weeks. I think it was the speed with which, and the vigor with which, CPJ and others protested that led to my release, which was within six hours.
In 1989, I set up Drik Picture Library as a platform for local storytellers to tell their own stories. Later I set up the school of photography, Pathshala, and later still the agency Majority World, which represents photographers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as Indigenous photographers, women photographers, marginalized photographers in the North. Collectively, they all work toward social justice.
Two years ago, I was alone in my flat uploading pictures when the police came for me again. I resisted. I screamed, I tried to delay things as much as I could. CPJ was the first, one of the first people, to come out with an alert on the 5th of August itself—the day I was picked up. I think it was the speed with which CPJ came out that led to me being alive today. What that campaign meant to us is indescribable. What it meant to my family. What it meant to me. What it meant to my fellow prisoners. We felt we were not alone. We felt that we were being supported. And in those dark days, that was very important.
The media is under threat worldwide, vigorously being attacked. I think it is important for the world to recognize the role of the media, the value it has, and the fact for those of us on the ground to recognize that we are not alone and that we’re supported, and that there are campaigns and people who in very practical terms can come to our rescue, stand by our side. It is important for the world to recognize the value of journalists, the value of media, what it means to the democratic process and to freedom. It’s the bail. I’m out on bail and I still potentially face 14 years in prison if convicted. The fact that I’m out. The fact that I can speak to you now is in no small part dependent on the campaign that CPJ and others played, and the vigorous campaign globally that they took up. That is very much part of the equation that allows me to be here speaking to you today. This award means a huge amount to all of us, and I think the fact that I’m here now owes a lot to this award.