Denied visa to travel to Delhi, Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam says media must hol...

Denied visa to travel to Delhi, Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam says media must hold governments to account

I was denied visa to take part in a Delhi event apparently for making comments on J&K, Mr. Alam says.

Denying visas to journalists has become “routine” in the subcontinent, particularly India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, says Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, who was denied a visa to travel to Delhi for an event last week at the British Council. Mr. Alam, who was arrested in 2018 for giving interviews that were critical of the Bangladesh government’s treatment of student protesters, says he appears to have run into trouble in India over comments about human rights in Jammu and Kashmir.

“It is commonly known that anyone asking for a journalistic visa would be given a hard time by Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. It is imperative that nations that call themselves democracies stop being so hostile to the media. It is up to all of us to hold our governments accountable, and a free and unfettered media is the best chance we have of establishing some form of accountability,” he told The Hindu in a written exchange.

Mr. Alam was due to attend an art festival programme called ‘Serendipity’ organised at the British Council in Delhi, and eventually made his appearance via ‘Skype’. While he said he had “no way of telling whether there were political reasons” for the visa denial, he pointed to other colleagues who had applied for and received multiple-entry visas, in far less time. Mr. Alam had been granted a visa to India when he won a journalistic award in Mumbai earlier this year, but showed correspondence to establish that even that had been issued a short-entry visa issued hours before his flight, with much difficulty.

“I have no way of telling whether there were political reasons [for the visa denial], but others from my office have applied for and received one-year multiple-entry visas in less time. I provided all the information needed and had fulfilled all the necessary requirements.” He said he had noticed that since he had made comments about “human rights abuses in Kashmir”, he had received social media comments that accused him of being “anti-Indian”.

According to his documents, Mr. Alam had applied on August 27 for the visa at the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, which was due to be processed in normal course. On September 5, when he went to collect his passport, however, he was told his visa was denied.

When asked, the Ministry of External Affairs said it was not possible to give reasons for each visa that is not granted. “No country does that,” said an official aware of the case of Mr. Alam, adding that the “application was under process as per established procedures”.

Organisers of the ‘Serendipity festival’ said the event Mr. Alam had been invited to attend had received artists from several other countries including Sri Lanka and Nepal. “Of all the people we invited, only Mr. Shahidul Alam’s visa was denied,” said an organiser who did not want to be identified, and said they hoped he could attend another event later this year. The British High Commission declined to comment, and said the British Council was a “venue partner”.

“When he was incarcerated, people around the world, and so many from India, had protested his imprisonment…it is ironic that he was denied the opportunity to come and speak here in person,” the organiser said.

Mr. Alam was nominated Time Magazine’s person of the year last year, after spending more than 100 days in jail for having “live-streamed” a protest by student activists demanding road safety reforms. Among his most famous works were his coverage of Bangladeshi protests against the military dictator General Muhammad Ershad in the 1980s, and he later won the country’s highest award for artists, the Shilpaka padak.

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