On March 4, 2019, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police revoked permission for the Man Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy to stage her upcoming talk with Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam. The talk, called “Utmost Everything,” was scheduled as part of the tenth edition of Chobi Mela, the most important and prestigious photography festival in Asia, which opened on February 28. However, at the request of local police, the event was forced to relocate to another venue with just one day’s advance notice, leaving many questioning if Roy’s activism in support civil society issues, or Alam’s recent political arrest, were the underlying causes.
According to a Facebook post published at 2:36 am (local time) on Tuesday, March 5, Chobi Mela announced it would be canceling the event at the Krishibid Institute Auditorium in Dhaka, quoting a letter it had received from Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP). The letter stated that permission for the event was being withdrawn for “unavoidable circumstances;” no other information or reasons were stated by police, despite numerous outreach attempts by local journalists to get to the bottom of the matter.
However, the author’s scheduled conversation with eminent photographer Shahidul Alam, who himself has been subject to government censorship and repression in Bangladesh, eventually did take place at Midas Centre in Dhanmondi. After 24 hours of uncertainty, organizers of Chobi Mela finally held an event at the alternative venue, during which Roy read passages from her first fiction novel The God of Small Things and her first political essay “The End of Imagination.”
Alam is a Bangladeshi photojournalist, teacher and social activist who was arrested in August of 2018 shortly after giving an interview to Al Jazeera and posting live videos on Facebook that criticized the government’s violent response to the 2018 Bangladesh road safety protests. He was charged under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act with spreading “propaganda through social media.”
According to Reuters, a widespread culture of self-censorship exists in Bangladesh today, where dozens of journalists are being arrested and detained. The report states that since the introduction of stronger defamation laws in addition to the new Digital Security Act (DSA) last year, journalists and activists are facing stricter measures that have resulted in a “climate of fear in the industry.” The report — which is based on interviews with 32 Bangladeshi journalists and editors — says that these new laws restrict bail and allow arrests without a warrant. What’s more, journalists can now be detained for obtaining papers, information, or pictures from government offices without official consent, which, according to Asif Nazrul, a professor of Law at the University of Dhaka, “makes investigative journalism on corruption, human rights abuses and bad governance very tough, if not impossible.”
On December 30, 2018, General Elections were held in Bangladesh that resulted in a landslide fiver for the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina. The elections were marred by violence (17 killed) and claims of vote rigging. Human rights groups warn that Bangladesh is increasingly becoming an autocratic state, inclusive of intimation and clamping down on all forms of political dissent, including arts and journalism.
After winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things, Roy left the literary world and became involved in political protests instead. The work was criticized heavily in India, particularly by then-Chief Minister of Kerala (Roy’s home state), due mostly to its unrestrained depiction of sexuality.
It appears that the event seems to have hit a chord with government officials in Bangladesh keen on controlling speech and artistic expression. After the event was canceled, members of civil society and journalists penned an open letter condemning the “cowardly and unjustifiable withdrawal of permission.”
The signatories went on to state that they “believe that this undemocratic and arbitrary decision of withdrawal is a clear example of the shrinking space for freedom of speech, a key constitutional commitment and core value of the spirit of Liberation War of Bangladesh.”
“We are disturbed as the withdrawal of the permission by the police in the historically important month of independence of Bangladesh without giving any particular reason and on a flimsy pretext of ‘unavoidable circumstances’ is absolutely unacceptable,” they continued. “It demonstrates a gross abuse of power and cowardly intolerance of free speech.”
The signatories included M Hafizuddin Khan, Sultana Kamal, Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, Dr. Badiul Alam Mazumder, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, Dr. Shahdeen Malik, Prof. Anu Muhammad, Afsan Chowdhury, Robaet Ferdous, Dr. Chowdhury R Abrar, Shireen Huq, Meghna Guhathakurta, Dr. Asif Nazrul, Sara Hossain, Dr. Shapan Adnan, Zakir Hossain, Adilur Rahman Khan, Shamsul Huda, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Dr. Shahnaz Huda, Md Nur Khan, Sanjeeb Drong, Ilira Dewan, Jyotirmoy Barua, Omar Tareq Chowdhury, Rezaur Rahman Lenin, Manzoor Hasan OBE, Prof. Firdous Azim, Bashirul Haq, Masud Khan, Muktasree Chakma Sathi, and Anusheh Anadil.