Exposé about op-eds by dubious writers shocks Bangladeshi journalists

Ahammad Foyez
Exposé about op-eds by dubious writers shocks Bangladeshi journalists A man reads a print newspaper in the Rajarbagh area of Dhaka, July 31, 2023.

Leaders of the Bangladeshi press expressed shock after an Agence France-Presse investigation found that hundreds of articles written with a pro-government slant and penned by authors with possibly fake credentials had slipped through local editorial scrutiny.

Commenting about the report that came out earlier this week, Bangladesh officials on Friday vehemently denied that the government had recruited writers to spread disinformation or content favorable to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladeshi newspapers and publications abroad. 

But experts and journalists said that the contrary likely was the case in the country, which is heading to polls in December 2023 or January 2024.

“We can easily deduce that a group paid by the government to advocate for them created these articles. I was shocked to discover that many of the writers are fictitious,” Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, the chief editor of Daily Manab Zamin, a Dhaka-based vernacular newspaper, told BenarNews.

AFP reported that many of the articles it identified as part of its investigation were staunchly pro-Beijing and fiercely critical of Washington, which increasingly has been at loggerheads with the government in Dhaka about the state of democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.

Local press reported last September that Bangladesh’s foreign ministry had told a parliamentary committee about its plan to launch a branch to counter “propaganda and make a positive campaign for Bangladesh.” 

The ministry also sought the committee’s recommendations as it was trying to hire “good columnists,” according to a report in the New Age newspaper that cited a member of the committee.

A flurry of dubious articles followed that development, although AFP in its report did not state that the two events were linked.

The France-based news agency said it had analyzed more than 700 articles published in at least 60 domestic and international news sites with bylines attributed to 35 names – and all of them appeared online in 2022. 

“While it was not possible to prove if the 35 names investigated by AFP are real, no online presence apart from their articles could be found, none has a visible social media profile, and none has published research papers in academic journals,” the news service reported about its findings.

“At least 17 of the 35 claimed links to major Western and Asian universities but AFP’s digital verification reporters found no records for them,” it said.

A group of men read newspapers glued to the walls of a bus stand in Dhaka, Sept. 1, 2023. [BenarNews]

Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who had told AFP he was too busy to comment on its investigation, dismissed the suggestion in an interview with BenarNews on Friday.

“My government has never hired any writer to write any article favoring the Bangladesh government. There is no necessity to hire any writer when our achievements are visible and people are aware enough about the anti-government propaganda,” he said.

“We have never created any wing in this regard. There is no writer panel for us,” he added, referring to the earlier reports about launching an anti-propaganda unit within the ministry and hiring opinion writers.

Muhammad Faruk Khan, a lawmaker from the ruling Awami League who heads that parliamentary committee, said the committee had “not yet” sent its recommendations about columnists that the ministry sought.

“We consider propaganda as a bad thing, whether it is in favor of the government or against. We don’t know why fake writers wrote articles on Bangladesh’s policies. Our government has no connection with such campaigning,” he said.

‘A big mistake’

Zafar Sobhan, the editor of Dhaka Tribune that published some of the op-eds, said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that the newspaper was “in the process of confirming the names and removing them from our website.”

Another Bangladeshi editor, whose newspaper published some of the pieces, said, “We have made a big mistake.” But he asked not to be named, and refused to elaborate on the statement, to avoid “further complications.”

Even outlets with a regional and global presence – including Xinhua, Asia Times, and Foreign Policy – were duped by the seemingly independent experts with false academic credentials. 

BenarNews reached out to some of the regional publications but did not immediately hear back from any of them.

The unknown authors appeared to have sent the same articles to multiple outlets at the same time, and AFP’s report noted that the same pieces often appeared on more than one outlet.

“We get a dozen of these each week in our inbox,” Naresh Fernandes, who edits the Indian news outlet Scroll, said on X.

BenarNews also received unsolicited contributions from authors with stated expertise in Bangladesh but never published any of the pieces. When editors followed up on the emails, they never received a reply.

‘We have become blind’

Fahmidul Haq, a journalism professor at Dhaka University, said the episode showed the perils of the media acting in haste in an age of “post-truth.”

“It’s surprising that some media outlets published articles with the intent to serve the government’s propaganda objectives without verifying the identity of the authors,” said Haq, a visiting scholar at Bard College in New York state.

Chowdhury, of Manab Zamin, also described the incident as “dangerous” to local journalism.

“We have become blind just so we can get some advantages from the government,” he said, referring to some of his pro-government colleagues in the media. “This incident may help us open our eyes.”

Robaet Ferdous, also a journalism professor at Dhaka University, said Bangladesh had a history of intelligence agencies meddling with or coercing the press. 

In the past, he said, media outlets published news reports supplied by spy agencies under pressure. “Now we see they published articles without even verifying [the authors’ identity],” he said. 

The professor said a possible motive for the dissemination of such articles was to “repeat a lie often enough so it becomes the truth” -- referring to an infamous quote attributed to Nazi propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels.

Sohan Sobhan, a cultural activist in Dhaka, said the revelations that were exposed were “deeply unsettling” to him as a reader. “Many tend to use newspaper articles as a reference. This incident presents a new challenge for researchers.”

Mahbubur Rahman, who works at a financial company in Dhaka, said, “regardless of the government’s claims, it’s evident that they played a role in it because they benefited from it.”

“But as readers, we feel deceived.”


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