NEW YORK– The arrest of award-winning Bangladeshi writer, photographer and activist Shahidul Alam for comments regarding recent student protests in the country is an intolerable affront to free expression, said PEN America today.

Plainclothes officers arrested Shahidul Alam, 63, at his home in Dhaka on the evening of August 5, hours after news outlet Al-Jazeera released an interview with the artist discussing recent student demonstrations in Bangladesh. Alam had photographed the student protesters in Dhaka and discussed the demonstrations on Facebook Live. Alam has been charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, a restrictive law regulating online speech that “tends to deprave or corrupt,” or opposes the state’s ideology.

Police cited Alam’s “provocative comments” about the demonstrations, where over 100 people were injured on Saturday when police used rubber bullets to control the crowd.  The student demonstrations, demanding that the government take action to improve road safety in the country, began after two teenagers were killed by a speeding bus on July 29.

“Alam’s arrest is more than an individual attack on free expression; it is an attempt to intimidate and silence voices of dissent in Bangladesh,” said Julie Trébault, Director of the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America. “As a photographer, Alam documents the truth so it may be shared with the world; his work and his voice matter now more than ever, and any attempt to punish him for voicing his opinion represents an unacceptable attack on the free speech of a world-renowned artist and activist.  It also highlights the broader dangers posed by Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which has been used repeatedly to crack down on artists, writers, and activists.  PEN America calls on the Bangladeshi government to respect the right to free expression and to immediately and unconditionally release Shahidul Alam.”

Bangladeshi media is under constant surveillance and pressure from the state, including through the use of Section 57. “We want justice, a state where people can place their demand to hold the government accountable,” said Ali Asgar, Queer Bangladeshi artist and former Artist Protection Fund fellow. “Bangladesh needs the global community to be aware of what’s going on and pressure the government to release all the detained and arrested protesters and social activists.”

Shahidul Alam is the founder and managing director of the Drik Picture Library as well as the creator of the Patshala South Asian Media Academy, a photography school in Dhaka that has trained hundreds of photographers. Alam has also written books including The Birth Pangs of a Nation and My Journey as a Witness. Alam is the recipient of a 2018 Lucie Award, acknowledging his exceptional contribution to photography and society.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

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Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org