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Since his youth, Ahmed Kabir Kishore has been unafraid to skewer corruption and incompetence through his satirical cartoons – but that moral courage has come at great personal cost

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Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore posts to social media in his apartment in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, this past August, just over a year after police stormed in to arrest him as he lay napping.Photography by Shahidul Alam/The Globe and Mail • Cartoons by Ahmed Kabir Kishore

This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.

On the afternoon of May 2, 2020, Ahmed Kabir Kishore lay down for a nap. Just before sunset, a group of plainclothes security agents broke down his front door. He was told to get dressed while they went through his computers, confiscating his hard drives containing years of research. Another dozen or so agents arrived and Kishore was blindfolded, handcuffed and driven to a holding area that smelled heavily of gas, where he alleges he was assaulted. Still blindfolded, he was transferred to an air-conditioned building that stank of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. Twelve hours into his ordeal, his blindfold was finally removed and the reason for his detention revealed: His cartoons depicting Bangladesh’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic had upset the authorities.

Kishore (like many cartoonists, he goes by only one name), has published four books of satirical cartoons in his native Bangladesh, where his work has appeared widely in periodicals, and around the world online. His cartoons, which offer a fierce critique of intolerance and corruption and lampoon powerful people, unsurprisingly do not sit well with a thin-skinned government.

The highest purpose of laughter, its sacramental reason for being, declared writer Philip Roth, is to bury wickedness in ridicule. Perhaps this can explain why a posse of 17 men had been dispatched to deal with a cartoonist. Kishore’s problems, however, were only just beginning. The beatings continued for two days. A blow to the side of his head burst an eardrum and he lost hearing in the ear. He was not given regular medication for his diabetes. And being diabetic left him vulnerable to infections – a wound turned septic.

Three days after his arrest, Kishore was brought together with his friend, the dissident writer Mushtaq Ahmed. He, Kishore and nine other individuals had all been arrested under the government’s draconian Digital Security Act and accused of spreading misinformation on Facebook about the coronavirus. The act has been widely criticized by human-rights groups. Instituted in theory to address cybercrime, it has been wielded unscrupulously by the government to muzzle its critics. Mr. Ahmed had also been tortured, Kishore said, with electric shocks to his genitals.

The two detainees were handed over to the Rapid Action Battalion, a shadowy paramilitary group accused of carrying out hundreds of extrajudicial killings since its formation in 2004. They were transferred to Keraniganj Central jail, where they were placed in 15-day quarantine with six other detainees in a six-by-eight-foot room. One of the men had a hacking cough. None was tested for the coronavirus. From there, Kishore and Mr. Ahmed were moved to different cells.

Ten months of detention followed. The two men were denied bail on six occasions. It was only after Mr. Ahmed died in custody on February 25, 2021, at the age of 53, that Kishore was granted bail. He emerged from prison in poor health. His reprieve may well be temporary – Bangladesh ranks 152 out of 180 countries on a global index of press freedom.

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Kishore's work lampoons Bangladesh's most powerful people and institutions, and he's been targeted under draconian security laws for doing so.

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This cartoon deals with Bangladeshis' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government accused him and others of spreading misinformation about the virus on Facebook.

Kishore’s brother, Ahsan Kabir, has written that Kishore acquired meningitis as an infant and needed surgery for complications from the infection, saying his sibling was “free-spirited” since his youth. Kishore, however, describes a happy childhood, growing up with five sisters and his brother in a loving family that prized the arts.

His school curriculum was supplemented by the eclectic literary tastes of his father, who introduced him to the novels of Maxim Gorky, James Joyce and John Steinbeck, among many others. When Kishore and his siblings excelled at school, they were rewarded with MAD Magazines and the Asterix and Tintin comic books. Thus began his love of cartoons. So enamoured was he of the characters that he began copying them, encouraged by his brother and with help from his father, a skilled artist.

The childhood idyll came to an abrupt end, as it so often does, with the demands of the adult world. Kishore had gained admission to university to study architecture, but the family’s precarious finances meant that he had to leave his studies after his first semester to find work. He chose the one employer that guaranteed a good, steady wage and the opportunity for upward social mobility, joining the Bangladesh Defense Force and entering the navy. He obtained his bachelor of science degree through the navy and was awarded the “Captain’s Cake” for his outstanding artistic ability. A photograph captures the award ceremony – Kishore in his immaculate all-white midshipman’s uniform shaking the hand of Bazlur Rahman, commandant of the Bangladesh Naval Academy, the beribboned boxed cake between them.

Kishore’s brief naval career, however, quickly unravelled after that, scuppered by his love of cartoons. Just before his passing-out ceremony, a number of caricatures that Kishore had drawn of his superior officers, including Commandant Rahman, came to light. His punishment was swift and severe – and a harbinger of what lay in wait for him should his talent again provoke those in power. After being forced to lug around a pack of eight bricks to the point of exhaustion, he was summarily dismissed.

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Kishore's discharge from the navy allowed him to pursue his creative talents.

After completing a business management program through Dhaka University, Kishore put his artistic abilities to work. Over the years, he worked for a number of advertising agencies as a copywriter and creative director, only to resign each time over what he saw as their questionable ethical practices. His moral compass was better suited to the NGO world, where he has done work for Oxfam, ActionAid International, USAID and the Population Council, among others.

Imbued with a strong idealism, and coming from a family that prized education – his ex-wife and five sisters are all educators – he left Dhaka in 2017 and founded his own school in Khulna, his birthplace. It was to be a place of learning that recognized and nurtured the innocence and creativity of children, free of what Kishore saw as government-driven cultural suppression. He poured his own resources into this endeavour, but his passionate intensity was not enough to keep the school going.

Looking back over his life and the course it has taken, Kishore has come to see his social activism as something he “inherited.” As a child, he had accompanied his father to protests against drug dealers pushing yaba, colourful pills of amphetamine and caffeine, to the youth in their neighbourhood. During his brief stint at university, he recalls being affronted by the coercive, bullying behaviour of members of fundamentalist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party. He joined protests against them, which were successful in having the group removed from campus.

Religious sensitivities surfaced again in 2007 when Kishore came to the assistance of fellow cartoonist Arifur Rahman, whose cartoon had shown a boy calling his cat “Muhammad Cat” because of the Muslim custom of putting “Muhammad” before a male given name. Published in a satirical supplement to the daily newspaper Prothom Alo, the cartoon provoked outrage among Muslim groups, leading to large protests against the newspaper, the firing of the supplement’s deputy editor and Mr. Rahman being taken into custody and charged with damaging religious sentiment.

Kishore repeatedly visited his colleague in custody during his six months of detention and ultimately helped him leave Bangladesh for political asylum in Norway. When Mr. Rahman’s mother took gravely ill while her son was in exile, Kishore organized, at considerable personal expense, a two-day cartoon exhibit to raise money for her medical care.

Given Bangladesh’s reputation as a plutocracy, there are rich pickings for a cartoonist. In particular, Kishore has highlighted a recent scandal involving the Farmers Bank and its chairman, Chowdhury Nafeez Sarafat, in which vast sums of money have disappeared. Mr. Sarafat, who is well connected to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, reportedly is known as “the Bank Eater of Bangladesh,” and Kishore’s powerful cartoon shows the decidedly portly chairman with his vest rolled up, exposing a large belly with a navel that has been replaced by the combination lever to a bank vault.

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'I am Chowdhury Nafeez Sharafat, who knows the ins and outs of eating up a bank,' reads the caption above this caricature of the Farmers Bank chairman.

While holding down his day job, Kishore kept at his cartoons, using them as a vehicle for supporting social issues, such as LGBTQ rights and the plight of the hijras, Bangladesh’s transgender community. The dangers of doing so were painfully exposed by the murder of a colleague, Xulhaz Mannan, the editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBTQ magazine, Roopbaan.

Kishore has also focused on the grave hazards faced by his country’s secular blogger community, which has faced vicious killings by religious fundamentalists – some hacked down in machete attacks on the streets, often in broad daylight.

Kishore says that his cartoons are visual representations of current events. He is at pains to emphasize that he sticks to the facts, and does not fabricate them by claiming artistic licence. His work ethic calls to mind a couple of Will Rogers’s witticisms: “I don’t make jokes – I just watch the government and report the facts. There is no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.” In Bangladesh’s case, the humour is dark more often than not. Death hovers.

Kishore’s work has made an impact not just in his home country, but around the world. He was recognized by Unmad, Bangladesh’s only satire magazine, with their first Unmad Medal in 2005. In 2020, he received the Robert Russell Courage in Cartooning Award from the non-profit Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), which recognized his contribution to social engagement and the defence of human rights.

While in detention, he was supported by Amnesty International, which paid his legal costs. CRNI also supported him financially after his incarceration. After his release in February, he was given an artist-in-residence position at Drik (or “vision” in Sanskrit) Picture Library in Dhaka, founded by photographer and writer Shahidul Alam, who has also been detained and tortured for his commitment to social change.

When Kishore’s friends, concerned for his safety, tell him to take a break from his activism, he responds by asking them, “Until when?” Having concluded the government will not change, his work continues, driven by his conviction that “the world must become more human.”

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Kishore lives alone and fears that his family will be targeted because of his work.

Kishore’s moral courage has come at great personal cost. “I don’t belong to this country. I don’t belong to my family,” he said pointedly. He lives alone now, separated from his ex-wife – the couple divorced last year when he was in jail – and their six-year-old daughter. He no longer has contact with his five sisters and minimal contact with his brother. He believes their telephone calls are monitored, and one of his greatest fears is that his family will be targeted as a way of getting to him.

Kishore is a kindly, compassionate man with a creative gift. The material world means little to him. He has shown boundless generosity to friends and strangers. His principles, which reveal a naiveté both touching and at times self-defeating, are the antithesis of the path followed by conniving, corrupt and cynical politicians. An intolerant government wielding vast powers under cover of a dubious law has set out to silence this gentle soul. They have succeeded in undermining his fragile physical health. Prolonged detention and beatings have left him psychologically traumatized. But there is one aspect to Kishore’s being that appears impervious to the malign forces arrayed against him: his moral courage.

Kishore’s core beliefs have never wavered. Out on bail and facing an unpredictable, dangerous future, the one certainty is his steadfast moral compass. Give him a pencil and some paper, and he will follow his lodestar. This is what punitive authorities know and fear. Moral courage does not lessen his own fear. And knowing all of this, we fear for him, too.

About the photographer

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One of “The Guardians” named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018, photographer, writer and curator Shahidul Alam’s work has been exhibited in the most prestigious galleries worldwide. Mr. Alam founded the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala Media Institute and Chobi Mela, Asia’s first international photography festival. He was chair of the World Press Photo jury in 2003, and has received numerous accolades, including the Shilpakala Padak, Bangladesh’s highest artistic award. He was arrested and tortured in 2018 for criticizing the Bangladesh government’s violent response to road safety protests and spent nearly four months in jail, but was released on bail after a massive global campaign.

Moral Courage: About the series

Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.

Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.

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