Netra News was blocked in Bangladesh within 72 hours of publishing the story about Obaidul Quader, Bangladesh’s minister of road transport and bridges.
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The story, which was based on a tip from a whistle-blower and photos from Quader’s verified Facebook page, raises questions about his collection of luxury watches from brands including Rolex, Louis Vuitton, and Ulysse Nardin.
Readers in Bangladesh contacted Netra News to complain that they could not access the website without using a VPN, an editor of the online publication told Al Jazeera.
Jahurul Haque, chairman of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) – the government agency that controls the web access of the country, told Al Jazeera that he did not receive “any official order from the government” to block the website.
However, he indicated that Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) – the intelligence agency of the Bangladesh armed forces – also has the capacity to block a website.
DGFI declined to comment on the issue.
Netra News told Al Jazeera in a statement that they had been able to independently verify that their website is blocked by the defence agency.
A source close to the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) in Dhaka told a Netra News editor that “the agency was behind the block”.
The article, published on December 26 with the headline, A wrist of luxury, questioned how the minister could afford such expensive accessories.
Qauder is also the secretary-general of the ruling Awami League in Bangladesh and is considered the second most powerful man after party chairman and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Tasneem Khalil, editor-in-chief of Netra News, told Al Jazeera that Quader has a declared annual income of about $36,000 while just one of his Rolex watches has a price tag of $34,000.
“We questioned if the minister bought these watches himself or received them as gifts in exchange for awarding lucrative contracts. And for this very basic act of journalism, our website has been blocked in Bangladesh,” he said.
Al Jazeera tried contacting Quader several times. His secretary said he was not available for comment.
Mahbubul Alam Hanif, a spokesperson of Awami League who holds the rank of joint secretary-general, said: “I can’t comment on Quader’s watch collection. It’s not my duty to look after his [Quader’s] wrist.”
In its recent election manifesto, Awami League said it would adopt a zero-tolerance approach against corruption.
“There is no definite proof that Quader was involved with any corruption,” said Hanif, who refused to give a reason behind the news website’s block.
Netra News also published a story about an influential Bangladeshi security official, the prime minister’s security adviser, and his alleged role in the enforced disappearance and death in custody of a retired army captain.
Al Jazeera published a story on this development in March, after which Al Jazeera’s website was blocked in Bangladesh.
“This affront to press freedom is unfortunately neither new nor surprising. With this brazen act of censorship, Netra News joins an increasingly long list of websites which include Al Jazeera English (Qatar) and The Wire (India) which were blocked in Bangladesh for reporting on topics that irked the upper echelons of power in the country,” said Khalil.
He said Netra News was set up to tackle media censorship in Bangladesh.
“In seeking to block its website, the Bangladeshi authorities are confirming how important it is for independent journalism platforms like Netra News to exist,” said Khalili.