Bangladesh Blocks 35 Websites for Criticizing Government

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2016.08.05
Dhaka
Share on WhatsApp
Share on WhatsApp
160805-BD-websites-620.jpg A Bangladeshi pedestrian passes tripods belonging to media personnel outside Bangladesh Nationalist Party headquarters, during a nationwide strike in Dhaka, March 27, 2013.
AFP

Bangladeshi authorities say they have blocked 35 websites – including many news sites and those that back the opposition - for making “objectionable comments” about the government.

The mass blockage of domestic access to the dozens of websites is a first, critics say. It marks the latest move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to restrict free speech in a country fraught by political tensions between rival parties and fears of growing militancy and terrorism –  which the ruling Awami League has pinned on the opposition.

“In line with the instruction from the government high ups, we have closed down 35 news portals. What I can only say is that we closed these sites for making objectionable comments about the government,” Shahjahan Mahmood, chairman of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), told BenarNews on Friday.

Human rights activists and editors from some of the affected websites shot back, saying the move represented yet another blow to the people’s right to free speech.

“We have not done anything contrary to public interests or safety. We have a very small set up. The reason is the government does not like us. They gagged us over fear, lest we become a problem for them in future,” Zahed Chowdhury, the chief news editor of Amardeshonline, one of the blocked sites, told BenarNews.

“We have not published any controversial item on the police operation against the militants. We did what the other media did. One news pro-government TV channel aired many controversial items to catch viewers. Why was that channel not shut down?” he added.

His website is among several online news outlets considered as part of the mainstream media in Bangladesh.  The 35 sites, which were blocked over the course of Thursday and Friday by the commission, according to Mahmood, include Sheershanews, RTNN (Real Time News Network), Dinkalonline, Amrabnp, and Haquekotha.

The sites can still be accessed online from abroad.

Mahmood gave no indication about whether the blockage was temporary or permanent.

“No statement was issued either from the information ministry or other agency of the government. I have seen the closure order that writes the sites will be closed for ‘public interest and safety.’ ‘Public interest’ is a vague term,” Zahed Chowdhury said.

Ekramul Haque, editor of Sheershanewsbd.com, told BenarNews that his site was blocked suddenly and without clarification from the government.

“This is unprecedented that so many online portals were blocked. Democratic practices and values and our constitution do not allow closing down media houses for criticizing the government,” Ataur Rahman, a political science professor at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.

Growing hostility

Bangladesh’s press has been operating in an increasingly hostile atmosphere in recent years, and the government has drawn international criticism from free speech advocacy groups lately for charging prominent editors for alleged criminal defamation.

In April, a government commission recommended amending the Press Council Act of 1974 to allow one-month suspensions for any newspaper that prints content deemed to be false or defamatory.

This week’s move by the BTRC to block 35 websites may have been the largest in scale, but not the first.

Following the executions of two opposition leaders on war-crime charges in November, the government imposed a three-week block on several social media and mobile phone communication services including Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber.

Earlier this week, the government tested its ability to shut down the internet and mobile phone services in specific locations. The idea was to determine if it could disrupt communications among terrorists during the course of terrorist attacks, such as the one that took at the Holey Artisan Bakery café in Dhaka on July 1.

Sohel Haider Chowdhury, general secretary of the Awami League-backed Dhaka Union of Journalists, said the government had a right to resort to blocking websites.

The government should tolerate criticism from the media but it could shut down a media house for violating journalistic standards and committing defamation – a criminal offense in Bangladesh, he said.

“If any media house violates ethical standards or defames the government, the authorities can first take legal action. Sudden closure of media house is not acceptable. My personal observation is some online portals go beyond their limits,” he told BenarNews.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.

View Full Site