Bangladeshi officials say they have arrested a publisher who used fake news sites that masqueraded as established news platforms to make money and spread anti-government propaganda.
A Dhaka court ordered Noor Mohammad jailed on Wednesday, a day after Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) police arrested him in connection with a complaint filed in late 2018 under the Digital Security Act, the nation’s internet law. Noor Mohammad acknowledged the crimes, a RAB statement said.
“When asked why he hosted a Prothom Alo look-alike fake domain, he said they host domains of fake portals that look exactly like prominent national news portals to spread antigovernment propaganda,” the statement said.
“He said fake portals that look like prominent news portals get more shares and likes in Facebook, therefore better income … [I]f a post gets more than 1000 views, likes or shares, then Facebook pays 250 to 300 taka (about U.S. $3) which they get through their bank account as domain owners,” it said.
A lawyer for Mohammad denied the allegations, while international human rights groups raised alarms over the jailing.
“The allegations are false. We are preparing to appeal for his bail,” attorney Mojahidul Islam said.
“We are worried over his arrest under the Digital Security Act, which is a draconian law. The arrest of the publisher under this law creates another bad example,” said Faruq Faisel, South Asia Coordinator of Article 19, a London-based NGO that advocates for free speech worldwide.
‘Vulgar, false and fabricated’
Mohammad is the managing director of Guardian Publications, which publishes books in Bangladesh about Islamic culture and religion for general readers.
He was one of 14 people named in the police complaint filed under the Digital Security Act on Nov. 24, 2018.
The complaint alleges that Noor and others spread rumors, defamed the government, and tried to topple it by manipulating public sentiment during mass protests in Dhaka in 2018 that demanded safer road conditions and a reduction in government jobs reserved for minorities.
“The accused floated some websites and published vulgar, false and fabricated contents about Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her son Sajib Wazed Joy and other ministers of her cabinet,” the complaint says.
In November 2018, Facebook and Twitter shut down nine pages and 21 accounts on its Bangladesh platform, saying they were imposter news sites posting pro-government, anti-opposition content ahead of a looming general election.
“Our investigation indicates that this activity is linked to individuals associated with the Bangladesh government,” said a statement released by Facebook at the time.
The clones of leading news and information sites, viewed by BenarNews at the time, including Prothom Alo and BDFactCheck.com, typically contained real news stories as well as false ones and a single extra character in their URLs.
A representative of the ruling Awami League party promptly denied that the Bangladesh government was involved in spreading fake news on accounts and pages disabled by Facebook.
It was not immediately clear if the sites disabled by Facebook were the same as sites listed in the 2018 police complaint or the RAB statement on Mohammad’s arrest. None of the links are currently operational.
BenarNews could not immediately confirm RAB claims in its Feb. 12 statement that Noor Mohammad had been a fugitive since November 2018.
RAB arrested him on Feb. 11 from Basila, a residential neighborhood of Dhaka, RAB spokesman Jahid Ahsan told BenarNews.
But Noor’s lawyer and relatives claimed he was picked up in another area of the city about 10 km (6.2 miles) away.
The conflicting versions are of note in a country that, according to rights activists, has a high rate of enforced disappearances and alleged abuses by security forces.
“RAB are saying that Noor was arrested from Basila, though he was arrested from Hatkhola,” Mojahidul told BenarNews.
“A group of plain-clothed people picked Noor Mohammad up at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday from Hatkhola. He was staying at his office at Hatkhola at that time. Later we came to know that there was a case against him under the Digital Security Act,” a relative of Noor told BenarNews. The relative requested not to be named, fearing harassment by law enforcement agencies.
Meanwhile, critics of the Digital Security Act said it was aimed at clamping down on freedom of speech in the run-up to the 2018 general elections.
“Noor Mohammad, a book publisher in Dhaka, is now facing criminal charges for allegedly defaming the Prime Minister and her family, and he remains in custody. We are seriously concerned by the violation of Mohammad’s rights and the risks he faces in detention,” said a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an American NGO.
It noted that under the act, people could be arrested without a warrant and imprisoned up to 7 years for vague “crimes” such as publishing information that “tarnishes the image of the nation.”
In its annual assessment of human rights in the country, the Bangladeshi NGO Odhikar said that a total of 42 people had been arrested under the Digital Security Act last year.
The cases were filed against people who criticizing the leaders of the government and ruling party on social media sites, Odhikar said.