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Bangladesh: Chinese Pressure Censors Tibet Exhibition In Dhaka

Categories: East Asia, South Asia, Bangladesh, China, Arts & Culture, Breaking News, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, International Relations, Photography
Poster On Tibet Exhibition [1]

Poster Of Tibet Photography Exhibition

Students for a Free Tibet, Bangladesh (SFTBD), the Bangladesh chapter of the Students for a Free Tibet [2] organization, in partnership with Drik Bangladesh [3], has organized a photography exhibition on Tibet named “Into Exile | Tibet 1949-2009 [4]” at Drik Gallery in Dhaka which was scheduled to start today and run for a week. Drik Bangladesh [5] is an internationally acclaimed photo agency which is led by renowned photo journalist and blogger Shahidul Alam.

Phayul.com reports [6] quoting a spokesperson from SFTBD:

“On 29th October 2009, Qian Kaifu, Cultural Counselor, and Cao Yanhua, Cultural Attache, from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Bangladesh visited Dr Shahidul Alam to ask him to cancel the exhibition.”

“They brought Chinese gifts along with their request,” [..]

Unheard Voice Blog reported [7] on 31st of October, 2009:

It seems like China is surely paying attention. Tomorrow’s exhibition in Tibet seems to be in jeopardy with the organizers under serious pressure to cancel the event.

Yesterday a delegation from Chinese embassy came to meet the Shahidul Alam, director of Drik and ‘requested’ him to cancel the event.

An email from an activist reached us here: ‘They also wandered around Drik and asked employees number of questions….

Alam bhai told them not to advise him what to do on his own property. So the exhibition is going on, but we are expecting huge lines of dgfi (military intelligence) and what not on the opening day on Sunday.

Not only was the exhibition targeted, but also the activists as the post elaborates:

As of 6 pm tonight, Special Branch officers reached Drik under the operatives of a certain SI Mijan and demanded to know the name of the contact person for the exhibition. The movement leaders also previously reported various visits to the home of the activists over the past three weeks by the same SI.

Shahidul Alam posted this message [8] on Twitter:

7:04 PM Oct 31st: khairul kabir and palash from special branch currently at Drik. want to know names of organisers of Tibet show. I've refused to give it.

And today (Sunday) the inevitable happened. Shahidul Alam tweeted [9] this afternoon:

The heat is on. OC Shah Alam just phoned me again telling me to stop the show. Threatened to send police if we refuse.

Later reports came in [10] that police finally [11] prevented the event:

An hour before the launch, scheduled for 5pm, police shut the gates preventing public from entering the gallery, said Drik authorities.

Drik managing director Shahidul Alam said Bangladesh Police Special Branch spoke with him and asked him to stop the exhibition citing a “government order”.

Alam said, although the police officers could not produce any document of the order, they threatened to shut down the show by force if the organisers did not do so willingly.

Now let us learn about the turn of events from Shahidul Alam's blog post [12]:

When Mr. Kaifu, instead of showing interest in our sole Chinese member Jessica Lim in the library, insisted that we find a quiet place to talk, I realized it was more than a courtesy call.

He got straight to the point. “We would like you to cancel the Tibet exhibition” he said. Reminding me that Tibet was a part of China, he went on to explain how the Bangladesh China relationship would be affected if the show went on. He also spoke of the many things we could do together, the exhibitions we could bring. About how such a famous organisation like Drik would find many partners in China. It seemed churlish to remind him that my recent application for a visa when I was to judge the TOPS photojournalism contest in China, had been rejected.

As politely as I could, I reminded Mr. Kaifu that ours was an independent gallery. I asked him how he felt he had the right to tell us, what we could show. I invited him to the show and assured him that he would be free to present his own opinion at the opening. We would be happy to show a Chinese exhibition, if the quality was right. He wanted to see the gallery and a colleague showed him around as I went back to the meeting.

It was evening before the phone call from the ministry of culture came in. “China was a friend, you mustn’t show pictures of Dalai Lama” the high ranking official went on. “No no we are not talking of censorship, but…” This was followed by some artist who spoke as if he was a friend. I couldn’t place either of the callers, though I could place the ministry official by his rank. I could see it was to be a multi-pronged attack.

Shahidul Alam commentates on the images in a live web stream after the exhibition had been closed. Image courtesy Media Helping Media [11]

Shahidul Alam commentates on the images in a live web stream after the exhibition had been closed. Image courtesy Media Helping Media

The Special Branch do like me. They came to visit again. [..] The initial cordial conversation, turned sharp when I refused to divulge the contact details of the organizers. They reminded me of how it would become difficult for Drik to operate in the future if we didn’t take the side of the government. I reminded them that I was siding with the law. That the law applied to the police, was an unknown concept to Shah Alam.

Pictures of the turnout of events are available on the DrikNews [13] site which appears to reported at as an attack site. You can ignore the sign (its safe) and see the pictures.

Rob Godden at The Rights Exposure protest [14] writes:

The Chinese government’s increasing interference into other states is a worrying trend. Not satisfied with running their own complex censorship system they are attempting to make it transnational. These tactics work best on small countries such as Bangladesh, or Nepal where I am now, and smacks of bullying. [..]

The Chinese government obviously thinks that it has jurisdiction over any content that relates to China where ever in the world it may be displayed. If pressure from the embassy does not work an unofficial cyber attack will be on its way.

Bangladeshi netizens have already started protesting. Habibullah Mizan wrote in the Facebook page of the event [4]:

Are WE living in BANGLADESH or CHINA??? WHO runs our elected government??? WE or the CHINESE???? We can’t even allow any exhibition? Really shame, shame, shame.

Shada Kalo Blog is also not happy with the government's decision and asks it to show a little spine [15]:

Comrades, why are you kow-towing to China and repressing freedom of speech in Dhaka? Yes, I know the old jokes about it raining in Peking and opening umbrellas in Dhaka. But seriously, this was not a government sponsored event. The worst Beijing could have done if you said sorry, we can not intervene, was NOT sell you some more lead-tainted toys.

We thought you took an oath to protect and follow the constitution of Bangladesh first (which includes protecting the freedom of speech of its citizens), not the geopolitical aspirations of China when this really does not matter to Bangladesh.

Sorry, now we know better.