Bangladesh government fails to counter ongoing disinformation

During the past more than fifteen years, Awami League government and its various organs have miserably failed in addressing adverse campaign in the international media. It is well anticipated, following January 7 general elections, while main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) shall focus on international media once again with much wider plan of media assault targeting Awami League, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other prominent figures in the government. At the same time, Muhammad Yunus shall also use his connections in the international media – directly and through PR agencies with the target of proving – the ongoing legal proceedings against him are “politically motivated”.

In the 11th National Parliamentary elections held on December 30, 2018, the Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina, secured a decisive victory. A total of 39 registered parties, including the “Moha Joot” (Grand Alliance) and “Jatiya Oikya Front” (National Unity Front) alliance led by the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), participated in the electoral process. Following the announcement of the election results, Kamal Hossain, the leader of the “Jatiya Oikya Front”, criticized the outcome and demanded fresh elections under a neutral government, although international community, including the United States are against the concept of unelected caretaker government. Subsequently, until the 12th National Parliamentary elections held on January 7, 2024, the BNP and its supporters have been persistently propagating domestically and internationally, denouncing the legitimacy of the Awami League government thus labeling it as “illegal” and “authoritarian”.

Since 2018, certain specific cybercriminal activists associated with the BNP and their likeminded Islamist forces have been residing in various countries have been running vile propaganda against Awami League, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other members of the ruling party, including members of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman family, as well as high-ranking military and civilian officials, established businessmen, and media personalities and been making frantic bids in demonizing them. Unfortunately, there is no effective measure from the ruling party or the state machinery against such heinous activities those cybercriminals.

Several cabinet members of the Awami League, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself, are aware of the matter.

In the past, the Prime Minister has repeatedly emphasized the need to take necessary action against those propagandists who are spreading disinformation against Bangladesh. During the question and answer session of the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) session on November 2, 2022, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, “Those (staying abroad) engaged in anti-government activities, making provocative and fabricated statements while staying abroad, the government is actively working to bring them under the law and ensure punishment”.

Additionally, during her speech, the Prime Minister indicated the willingness of her government to take necessary measures against individuals spreading anti-government and anti-country slander. Plans were discussed to regularly publish factual news and articles in the international media to counteract slanderous narratives.

Despite the Prime Minister’s assurance and directives, efforts to counter the identified cyber terrorists on online propaganda have proven ineffective. On the contrary, media reports have surfaced indicating that a group of cyber terrorists allegedly supported by the BNP has hired lobbyists, spending millions of dollars to influence Hunter Biden, the son of US President Biden, in order to gain leverage within the White House and the State Department. Additionally, it has been alleged that Mushfiqul Fazal Ansarey, former Deputy Press Secretary to BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, has been playing significant role in exacerbating tensions between Bangladesh and the United States. Mushfiqul Fazal Ansarey purportedly presented various false and misleading and negative information against the ruling government during daily press briefings at the White House and State Department. These allegations unfortunately have been prominently published by a section of newspapers in Bangladesh with the ulterior motive of generating confusion and doubts.

The domestic media’s interest in issues critical of the government and the country consistently remains significant. An “investigative report” by AFP, which was written by an employee of the French news agency who also is an activist of Jamaat-e-Islami garnered attention from all the local electronic and print media outlets. According to the AFP “report”, “Hundreds of articles written by ghostwriters lauding the government of Bangladesh have been featured in national and international media publications in recent times”.

AFP’s “investigative report” claimed that a majority of the authors of these articles were fictitious. Their photos fabricated, and their identities were highly suspicious. Even AFP expressed suspicion stating many of these authors may not even exist.

The news agency analyzed over 700 articles distributed across at least 60 domestic and international news platforms, all purportedly authored by 35 individuals. Strikingly, none of these authors have been observed writing online prior to the last year. These articles predominantly present the viewpoint of the Bangladesh government unilaterally. Furthermore, some of these articles have even been found on the official website of the Bangladesh government.

Many of these articles exhibited pro-China sentiments and expressed strong criticism of the United States. It is noteworthy that Washington consistently pressures Dhaka to uphold free and fair elections.

AFP’s investigation revealed that none of the 35 authors attributed to these articles were authentic. They lack any online presence beyond these few articles and absent from social media platforms.

Among the 35 purported authors, at least 17 claimed affiliation with renowned Western and Asian universities. However, AFP’s digital verification reporters did not find any connection between these individuals and the mentioned universities. Notably, eight universities mentioned in the articles, including the University of Delaware, University of Toronto in Canada, University of Lucerne in Switzerland, and the National University of Singapore, confirmed that they had never heard of these alleged authors.

It may be noted that in September 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh urged proficient columnists to contribute their writing to counteract perceived “propaganda” against the government and the country. However, the outcome was rather counterproductive, as anonymous and fictitious writers produced letters of praise for the government, which not only failed to enhance its image but also raised doubts and questions. This situation reflects the wisdom of the Bengali proverb, “The work of a blacksmith is not given to a potter”.

Similarly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has inadvertently demonstrated its own incompetence through such naïve actions.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the efforts of the Awami League and its affiliated organizations to curb the ongoing anti-government propaganda by the BNP and its staunch supporters have proven unsuccessful. The BNP and its allied Islamist forces boycotted the 12th National Assembly elections held in January of this year. Furthermore, the BNP and its allies are attempting to undermine Bangladesh’s diplomatic relations with India by advocating for a movement to boycott Indian goods. These efforts are allegedly sponsored by identified cyber terrorists. However, the government is currently facing challenges in implementing effective measures as it did previously.

On March 9, 2024, during a reception organized by Bangladeshi expatriates in Abu Dhabi, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh addressed attendees, emphasizing the responsibility of expatriates to actively participate in halting anti-country and anti-government campaigns abroad, while also refraining from engaging in activities that undermine law and order. He underscored the government’s determination to identify individuals involved in conspiracies, spreading propaganda, and maligning the country from abroad, stating that appropriate action will be taken against them.

My sincere query is whether the government is still procrastinating in taking action. To my understanding, the relevant law enforcement agencies and various intelligence departments under the government of Bangladesh are already aware of the contacts of those propagating anti-country and anti-government sentiments. There seems to be no necessity to compile a new list. What we require now is the sincerity of the government and the ruling Awami League, which I find doubtful. Despite the Prime Minister’s acknowledgment of the need for necessary measures against anti-government and anti-national slanderers during the National Parliament session, it has been nearly two years since we have seen any visible action taken against identified cyber slanderers. Furthermore, there has been no media coverage of such successful actions.

Moreover, there have been cases where government-backed media outlets have chosen to overlook particular news stories. For instance, when Nobel laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment by the labor court in Bangladesh, prominent Western and European media outlets released critical news pieces, placing responsibility for the sentencing on the ruling Awami League government. Notably, two international news outlets, namely ‘The Daily Express’ from the United Kingdom and ‘Sputnik’ from Russia, published articles scrutinizing the actions of Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank and criticized his financial wrongdoings.

The article published in The Daily Express on January 19, 2024, highlighted- “The unexpected radical Islamist support for Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus is not just a domestic affair but signals a disconcerting trend that could have far-reaching implications, especially in light of the upcoming elections in Bangladesh.

“This trend underscores the manipulation of public opinion and the narrative by opponents of the ruling party, predominantly radical Islamist factions, representing a dangerous attempt to contaminate public discourse.

“Such strategies, limited for now to distant shores, have the potential to be exported to other nations, including the UK, which is also on the cusp of significant political change”.

Similarly, on January 26, 2024, the widely circulated Sputnik news agency published a news article centering Muhammad Yunus. The article was titled “Two-Faced Yunus: US Democrats Show Hypocrisy In Backing Controversial Bangladeshi Tycoon”.

However, unfortunately, Bangladesh’s government-owned news media outlets such as Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) and Bangladesh Television, along with government-supported electronic and print media, did not pay any attention to these news reports. It can be asserted more candidly that they chose not to give importance to these reports because they did not align with the interests of any government ministry, the Awami League, or any organization under the control of the ruling party.

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