BANGLADESH: Muzzling press freedom triggering risks on livelihood of Information Technology professionals

Bangladesh’s incumbent government, headed by Sheikh Hasina, continues curbing civic space and muzzling freedom of expression. The latest target has been Netra News – an investigative news portal launched from Sweden on 26 December 2019. Bangladesh government blocked access to the news portal within 72 hours of its launching with a report entitled “A wrist of luxury”.

The report quoted an undisclosed ‘whistle-blower’ to reveal luxury watch bribery of Mr. Obaidul Quader. He was Minister for Road Transports and Bridges in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet and General Secretary of the Bangladesh Awami League – the ruling party of the country since 2009. The report, quoting the whistle-blower, alleged that the high profile minister had “received a luxury brand watch in exchange for awarding a lucrative contract”.

In fact, blocking and shutting down news outlets has been a pattern in Bangladesh under the Sheikh Hasina administration. The incumbent government has previously shut down The Daily Amar Desh – pro-opposition national daily – in April 2013, Diganta Television and Islamic Television in May 2013 without any legitimate justification. In 2018, the authorities blocked Al-Jazeera English news website after it published a report on enforced disappearances by the country’s infamous intelligence agency – Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). A number national news portals including Poriborton Dot Com – a vernacular news website, was blocked in May last year.

Netra News, presuming the potential threats of being blocked by the authorities of Bangladesh, equipped itself with a mirror website in Google Cloud Firebase Storage so that the viewers are able to access to the portal’s content if the main site is banned. Bangladesh government’s muzzling spree did not end with banning the main site. Rather, the regime blocked both the main website and the mirror site. In order to block the mirror site the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has blocked the entire google firebase storage system, which is used by numerous Android App Developers based in the country. As a result, the app developers of the country’s information technology (IT) sectors have been facing tremendous technical problems to accomplish their professional works involving an IT industry of USD 100 million. On January 6, the government reportedly lifted the ban from the google firebase storage system; however, the main website of Netra News still remains blocked by the authorities.

Sheikh Hasina’s government, which claims to make the country ‘Digital Bangladesh’, has fired one of the biggest blows to its IT sector for hiding the corruption stories of one of its powerful ministers. The livelihood of hundreds of android developers came under serious threats while the authorities blocked such key platforms of google.