Updated at 8:29 a.m. ET on 2016-08-09
Bangladeshi officials said they arrested three journalists because their news website reported about the rumored death of the prime minister’s son, even though the reporting debunked the rumor published by another site.
The Sunday night arrests of two editors and a reporter for banglamail24 came a few days after Bangladeshi telecommunication regulators blocked online access to 35 websites – including news sites aligned with the opposition – for allegedly making “objectionable comments” about the government.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) took the three into custody while raiding the Dhaka offices of banglamail24, and they would be produced before a court within the next 24 hours, RAB-3 commander Lt. Col. Khandker Golam Sarwar said Monday.
They were arrested for “spreading the rumor about the death of the prime minister’s son,” Sarwar told BenarNews.
The three – Executive Editor Maksudul Alam, Editor Shahdat Ullah Khan and Pranta Palash, a reporter – could all be charged under section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006, Sarwar said.
Those tried and convicted under the clause can be sentenced to between seven and 14 years in prison.
Sarwar said authorities were also looking to implicate Fazlul Azim, the publisher of banglamail24, in the case. A former MP from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Azim could not be reached for comment on Monday. His whereabouts were unknown.
The raid took place soon after banglamail24.com published an article about the rumored death of Sajeeb Wazed Joy in a plane crash. The rumor was first reported by a little-known website, todaynews71, which shared its report on Facebook. But in reporting about the rumor, banglamil24 made clear that it was false, Sarwar conceded.
“They criticized the rumor, but … they also became part of spreading rumors on the death of the Honorable Prime Minister’s son, who holds an important government post,” the RAB commander said.
‘Very sad to see’
Joy is the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and serves as her adviser on information and communication technology. He is considered a potential successor.
In April, Bangladeshi police arrested Shafik Rehman, the editor of pro-opposition magazine Mouchake Dhil, on charges that he allegedly conspired with others to kidnap and kill, after Joy accused Rehman of being part of an assassination plot against him.
Hasina’s government has been criticized over the case, and it has also drawn international criticism from free-speech advocacy groups for pursuing criminal defamation cases against other prominent Bangladeshi editors.
In the case of banglamail24, the PM’s deputy press secretary, Ashraful Alam Khokon, told BenarNews that he had called the website’s chief reporter on Sunday night to ask Banglamail24 to take down the story.
“But they did not. I cannot say what happened next,” Khokon said, adding, “the news was completely against journalistic ethics and standards.”
However, the president of a press association that is backed by the ruling Awami League party, criticized the arrests of the three journalists.
“But this is very sad to see editor and journalists arrested under the ICT act. The government, on the one hand, has banned the arrests of journalists under the Penal Code, but they arrest journalists under the ICT act. This is contradictory. We have been fighting for a guarantee so that the section 57 of the ICT act is not applied to journalists,” Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), told BenarNews on Monday.
According to Shahjahan Mahmood, chairman of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the agency that blocked domestic online access to 35 websites last week, all of the sites remained blocked on Monday. Many of these sites were accessible from abroad.
Both banglamail24 and todaynews71, whose internet addresses were not on a list of the 35 blocked sites, could not be accessed via computers in Bangladesh on Monday.
Government officials have yet to disclose whether these two sites have been blocked as well. Representatives of both websites could not be reached for comment.
On Monday, international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement demanding that the government lift the block on the dozens of websites, saying the block flouted basic freedoms enshrined in Bangladesh's constitution.
“This wave of administrative blocking by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government represents a significant escalation in its policy of suppressing news reports and opinions critical of the government,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk.
“Previously, the government seemed to think any reason – national security, public order, preventing the spread of hate messages or preventing messages that could incite violence – was legitimate. But now it no longer even bothers to explain its flagrant violations of freedom of information.”