Operators of Bangladeshi online news portals expressed fears Friday their websites could go dark after the nation’s information minister announced that they must register with the government to maintain coverage.
Rokonuzzaman Roni, general secretary of Bangladesh Online News Portal Association (BONPA), said he had been hearing concerns from scores of journalists.
“The entrepreneurs and journalists working for the news outlets are worried by the minister’s announcement,” he told BenarNews. “I have been receiving hundreds of calls from our members who are concerned they will be unable to be registered.”
Information Minister Hasan Mahmud announced on Dec.1 that his ministry would begin processing registrations next week, adding some portals filed applications years ago.
The government announced in 2015 that all news websites, including online versions of newspapers, would be required to obtain registration documents.
“According to the draft policy for online newspapers, a commission for registration of online news portals was supposed to be formed, but it wasn’t,” Rokonuzzaman said. “Now the minister is saying that they have scrutinized applications and will give registrations to some portals.
“We don’t know what the government is going to do. They did not discuss it with us,” he said, adding he hopes to meet with ministry officials on Sunday or Monday.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Hasan said news portals must be registered and steps will be taken for those continuing their operations without the proper documentation. He did not elaborate.
Hasan and other officials involved in the registration process did not respond to BenarNews requests for comment.
Rights activist: ‘It is not possible to register portals’
Analysts and rights activists told BenarNews they were concerned for Bangladesh media.
“This is certainly a press freedom concern,” Faruk Faisal told BenarNews. He is the regional director for Article 19 in South Asia, an international human rights organization that promotes freedom of expression and information.
“This is an improper effort by the government and it cannot be implemented. It is not possible to register portals, which are run from home or abroad,” he said.
If the government shuts down the Bangla-language portals operated in Bangladesh, he said, publishers will operate their news outlets abroad.
“The expatriates can register the portals in other countries and maintain offices in Dhaka, showing it as a foreign media,” he said.
Meanwhile, Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, called for the government to slow the process.
“Before closing the news portals, the government should form a committee of stake holders to observe for at least for six months to determine whether the portals are maintaining news ethics,” he told BenarNews.
Operators said the government’s reports on the number of applications were confusing.
Earlier this week, Hasan said 3,595 had applied – far less than in July when he said more than 8,000 news outlets had filed applications. The minister said a few hundred applications had been checked but did not say if they would receive registrations.
BONPA’s Rokonuzzaman said many members have responded to the government’s request.
“We have formally submitted about 1,500 applications in two phases, while many of our members submitted the petitions individually,” he said.
At least 1,800 BONPA members have sought registration, along with many others who are not members, he said.
Other media affected
Hasan said the registration requirements would affect other media as well, pointing out that television stations will need government approval before airing translated foreign drama series.
He also said mobile phone companies are improperly creating video content for social media sites containing advertisements.
“They received licenses to operate mobile networks only. We have already written to the Telecommunication Ministry to take legal steps in this regard as we are committed to bring discipline in this sector,” he told reporters.
“Some websites, newspapers and television channels are posting videos online. This also is not acceptable and we are trying to bring all these things under the law,” he said.