A front-page ad that ran in Bangladesh’s major newspapers last week and contained controversial statements about how to identify “radical Muslims” has raised questions about who paid for it and whether coverage of the matter led the government to block a popular online news site.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), for the first time on Wednesday, confirmed that it had blocked the site but did not say why. The poriborton.com website has been blocked since Sunday morning, in the latest move against the press by a government known for restricting free speech and going after journalists who criticize it.
“The site was blocked is what I know. I cannot specify the causes that led to its blocking,” BTRC Chairman Jahurul Haque told BenarNews. “Usually we block sites at the instruction of the authorities for state security issues.”
Abu Sufian, poriborton’s managing editor, said the site had been dark since 11 a.m. Sunday. It can be viewed in other countries.
“We went to the BTRC and other agencies, but nobody could clarify why our site is blocked,” he told BenarNews.
The BTRC blocked poriborton over the publication of a story that reported on the controversial ad published in Bangladesh’s biggest newspapers on May 12, according to a Facebook post by Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist who lives in exile in Sweden.
The ad spelled out ways to detect “suspected radical indicators.”
These included details such as maintaining a beard or wearing pants that stop above the ankle. Many Muslims, as part of their faith, wear beards and their pants above their ankles and have not been radicalized.
In addition, the ad listed Sampriti Bangladesh, a civil society organization, as its sponsor.
At a press conference on May 17, Sampriti Bangladesh official Pijush Bandapadyopadhyay said his organization was not responsible for, nor did it pay for the advertisement.
“We have no link with the publication of such an advertisement. This is an evil attempt of the anti-Liberation forces to mislead the nation through dissemination of false information about our organization,” he told BenarNews, referring to Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
In his Facebook post, Tasneem said poriborton had raised an important question about the source of money for the ad.
“Who financed the advertisements if Sampriti Bangladesh did not spend the money? I have heard that access to poriborton was blocked for raising this question,” Tasneem wrote.
Newspaper officials did not release details about who paid for the ads, or what it cost to publish them, and Pijush denied having any role in poriborton’s shutter.
54 sites blocked
Poriborton joins a list of 54 news portals and websites that the government has blocked in recent months, citing security concerns. In March, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government blocked the Al Jazeera website, after it published an article alleging that a senior Bangladeshi government official was involved in the disappearances of three men.
On Wednesday, the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) and Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) called on the government to immediately unblock all of the news sites including poriborton.
Top officials from both unions issued a joint statement calling the blocking of poriborton an “autocratic and reckless” decision by the government. They demanded that the government remove “all visible and invisible barriers” for free media.
The government has used strict laws to shut down free speech and silence Hasina’s critics, rights groups have complained over many years.
Hundreds of people, including journalists, were arrested or charged for defamation under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006.
The government last year strengthened the nation’s defamation laws with the Digital Security Act (DST), which Human Rights Watch and other groups slammed for retaining the most problematic provisions of ICT.
Last week, poet Henry Sawpon was arrested for allegedly defaming Christians under the Digital Security Act, while human rights activists Abdul Kaium and Imtiaz Mahmood were arrested for online defamation charges under the ICT.
The Home Ministry’s parliamentary standing committee met on Wednesday to discuss their arrests.
“I told the meeting that common people are concerned because of the arrests of the three human rights activists including poet Henry Sawpon,” Pir Fazlur Rahman, a member of the standing committee, told BenarNews
“This is not a good sign for freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” he said about the meeting attended by the home minister, home secretary, the inspector general of police and other high officials.
“The police should be cautious when arresting people on charges of online defamation,” he said.
Shamsul Haque Tuku, a former state minister for home affairs and chairman of the standing committee, told BenarNews that police responded to Rahman’s question about the arrests but did not offer any clarification.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal did not speak to reporters after the meeting.