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Shutdown of Opposition Newspaper by Bangladesh Government Draws Criticism

Journalists of the Dainik Dinkal publication hold a rally to protest against the government's order to halt its production in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Feb. 20, 2023.

The government closure this week of the only newspaper of Bangladesh's main opposition party has triggered outrage across the international media rights community.

The Dainik Dinkal, a Bengali-language daily broadsheet, was forced to stop publishing Monday after its printing license was canceled.

Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a statement Tuesday that the "shutdown of Dainik Dinkal is a blatant attack on media freedom ahead of Bangladesh's January 2024 national election."

The newspaper suspended its operations after the Bangladesh Press Council, a quasi-judicial, government-funded body headed by a former high court judge, rejected its appeal for publication against a government shutdown order, its managing editor, Shamsur Rahman Shimul Biswas, told CPJ.

In December, the local administration in Dhaka accused Dainik Dinkal of violating the law because its publisher, Tarique Rahman, the London-based acting chairman of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is a convicted criminal.

Biswas told CPJ that the newspaper had filed documentation to the press council explaining that since 2016 Rahman had not been the publisher of Dainik Dinkal.

Rahman, son of Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh’s former prime minister, was convicted of several criminal charges by courts in Bangladesh and has lived in exile since 2008. The BNP claims that the charges against Rahman were politically motivated and were part of a conspiracy to prevent him from participating in Bangladesh politics.

Emails and text messages from VOA seeking comment from the press council have not received a response.

Shutdown 'unabashedly fascist'

In Bangladesh, most media outlets are controlled by pro-government business groups, and they rarely publish news stories showing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's administration and the ruling Awami League in a poor light.

Launched about four decades ago, the Dainik Dinkal, a voice of the BNP, often ran reports critical of the current administration, including a recent police crackdown on opposition activists that triggered concerns among global rights groups.

"This shutdown of the Dainik Dinkal is a blatant crackdown by the government on the right to speak. The government cannot tolerate even the slightest dissent," Biswas told VOA.

In January, the government ordered the closure of 191 news portals, accusing them of spreading "propaganda against the state."

In recent years, during the administration of Sheikh Hasina, hundreds of people, including journalists, have been arrested after being charged under the Digital Security Act of 2018, which criminalizes a broad range of electronic speech, including anything likely to “prejudice the image of the state."

The action by the government of Bangladesh to shut down the Dainik Dinkal has been condemned by rights groups.

"Closing a newspaper violates the democratic principles purportedly espoused by the Awami League-led government, and we call on the Bangladesh Press Council to review its order and uphold the free flow of information," Serna said in the CPJ statement.

'Brutish and brazen attack on press freedom'

Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist living in exile in Sweden, described the government action against Dainik Dinkal as "clearly part of an ongoing onslaught against the main opposition party."

"The government is gearing up for the upcoming national election and has launched a multipronged crackdown on the BNP. A few weeks ago, we saw how the police entered the party's headquarters in Dhaka and shot unarmed party activists and leaders sheltering inside. And now the party's official mouthpiece has been silenced on very flimsy grounds," said Khalil, editor-in-chief of Netra News, a Sweden-based investigative and public interest journalism portal focusing on Bangladesh.

"The shutting down of Dainik Dinkal is a brutish and brazen attack on press freedom," he told VOA.

Journalists of the Dainik Dinkal publication hold a rally to protest against the government's order to halt its production in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 20, 2023.
Journalists of the Dainik Dinkal publication hold a rally to protest against the government's order to halt its production in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 20, 2023.

Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Center, said the media of Bangladesh are mostly owned and managed by pro-ruling party affiliates.

"These owners and editorial heads have clear track records of standing against universal freedom of press and the freedom of expression," Ashrafuzzaman said.

"The government's move to shut down the pro-opposition newspaper clearly indicates that the next election period under the Sheikh Hasina government is going to be extremely unbearable for the dissidents and the political opposition in Bangladesh," he added.

Angelita Baeyens, vice president of international advocacy and litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said that free and fair elections are not only about the absence of violence on election day or the participation of opposition candidates in the electoral process.

"Free and fair elections require an open civic space and a free media, including media that has an opposition editorial line," Baeyens told VOA.

"By shutting down the last pro-opposition newspaper, the Bangladeshi government is actively eroding the conditions for open and genuine elections, and that will affect the credibility of the electoral results."