Dhaka, Bangladesh – Authorities in Bangladesh have blocked at least two popular vernacular news websites in the past month.
Access to Poriborton.com was blocked on May 19, while Bangla.report was blocked by the government last month without any explanation.
Abu Sufian, the managing editor of Poriborton.com, told Al Jazeera he was still in the dark about why the website was shut down.
“No reasons were given to us. We contacted Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), but they said they didn’t block access to the website. We are still contacting other authorities to find out,” said Sufian.
The editor of Bangla.report, Rafiqul Ranju, said the website was “probably blocked as an incumbent minister threatened to shut it down unless the website pulls a particular report”.
“We didn’t remove that news and within hours access to our website was blocked,” said Ranju.
“So we have considerable reason to believe that it was shut down with the order of that minister.”
In recent months, authorities have shut down 54 news portals and websites, including that of the main opposition party, citing security reasons.
Access to Al Jazeera is still blocked in the South Asian nation.
Citing a “Bangladesh media industry source”, AFP news agency reported that a government security agency issued the order to block Poriborton.com after it published a report raising questions about the financing behind a newspaper advertisement against Muslim “militancy”.
Muslim groups condemned the advertisement, saying it described some signs of the Islamic faith as marks of radicalisation.
On May 12, the advertisement, titled “Identification of terrorists”, was published in a number of Bangladeshi newspapers. A citizen platform called Sampriti Bangladesh was cited as the source behind it.
Sampriti Bangladesh, however, denied any link with the advertisement in a press conference held on May 16.
“Publication of such an advertisement is an evil attempt of the anti-Liberation War forces to mislead the nation through disseminating false information about our organisation. We have no link with this advertisement,” claimed its convener Pijush Bandyopadhyay.
Based on the coverage of that press conference, Poriborton.com published a report titled “If not Pijush, who published the advert?” on May 16, following which access to it was blocked.
In the case of Bangla.report, Al Jazeera received two recorded phone conversations between one of the site’s reporters and Bangladesh’s Minister of Post and Telecommunication Mustafa Jabbar.
In the first recorded conversation, Jabbar asked the reporter to remove a particular report from the website, threatening to take “legal measures” if it was not done.
The report – Kamrul comes back from BPO summit with heavy heart – talked about a person named Kamrul who wanted to meet Minister Jabbar at the BPO Summit but his attempt was thwarted.
In the second recorded conversation, the reporter asked the minister why access to the website was blocked.
Jabbar replied: “I did what I needed to do. I have nothing more to say.”
“There are laws in the country and if the government wants, it can take legal measures against a news website if it feels it publishes any news that goes against any law. But such blocking of websites can’t be accepted,” said Ranju.
However, Jabbar told Al Jazeera the BTRC has the power to shut down access to any website.
“If the website publishes news that goes against the state interest, then that website could be shut down,” said Jabbar. “I am the minister of Post and Telecommunication, so I, of course, have my say on the matter.”
Bangladesh was ranked 150th out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, dropping four places from last year’s list.
Sweden-based Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil told Al Jazeera that Bangladesh was increasingly becoming a police state where government agencies were arbitrarily deciding what sort of news and commentary people could access.
“Blocking access to Poriborton.com is the latest case of brazen censorship in which the agencies do not bother to serve a notice or show a cause for their actions,” said Khalil.