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Netra News, TIB and the costly wrist watches

Published : Wednesday, 15 January, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 428

Nizam Ahmed

Nizam Ahmed

Sweden-based investigative journalism website Netra News has alleged that Bangladesh authorities have blocked the website after it carried a story on corruptions of an influential minister of the country late last month.

Subsequently the US - based Human Rights Watch (HRW) acknowledging the allegation said last week that the blocking of the online news site was a violation of the right to free speech and access to information. The HRW also said the government had adopted advanced methods to block or conduct surveillance on internet traffic and regulate online news sites without a sufficient legal framework to protect rights to privacy, expression, and access to information.

The HRW also said Bangladesh authorities have previously blocked access to international news sites like Al Jazeera and The Wire for publishing articles that criticized the government. They have also arbitrarily blocked Bangladeshi news websites.
The rights body said Netra News was blocked within Bangladesh after it published a report alleging corruption by Obaidul Quader, an influential party leader and the Roads and Bridges Minister in the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Netra News in its report said Obaidul Quader has a trove of world's expensive watches bribed by builders of mega structures in quest of deals worth of billions of dollars. It is a known fact that Bangladesh has been building several mega projects like 6.15 km long Padma Bridge over the Padma River, not only in the communication sector, but also in power and energy sectors. As the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina began its consecutive third and the fourth term in January 2019, it could complete some of the planned projects and several more are nearing completion.

The article, published by Netra News on December 26 with the headline, 'A wrist of luxury, questioned how the minister could afford such expensive accessories.' The report carried seven pictures of Quader wearing different costly wrist watches. It also mentioned the brand and prices of the wrist watches.

Tasneem Khalil, Editor-in-chief of Netra News, later 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," Tasmeem Khalil said. Al Jazeera tried contacting Quader several times. His secretary said he was not available for comment.

The Netra News editor, Tasneem Khalil, said he had information that intelligence agencies had blocked access to the site. Bangladesh telecom authorities told Al Jazeera that there was no official order to block Netra News but indicated that the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) had the capacity to block websites.

Previously, in order to block a website, security agencies needed to notify the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, which then sent a request to all internet providers. But in 2019, the government required all internet service providers to install Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment, an advanced method of network monitoring that can be used to block or surveil internet traffic, said HRW.

Obaidul Quader on January 9 told reporters that all costly wrist watches he uses were gifted by his wealthy supporters and activists, some of whom are doing business abroad. "They give me, because they love me. For God's sake none of the watches was bought by me," Obaidul said. He categorically said he never received any amount of money from any local or foreign contractor. Obaidul also said on January 8, a person brought in three luxury watches for him from Singapore.

Obaidul said he could swear to say he had taken nothing from any contractors. Even during the election when contractors wanted to give an amount to meet electioneering expenses I refused," he said adding my electioneering expenses were borne by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Following the clarification given by Obaidul Quader, the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) in a statement issued on January 10, asked why the wrist watches received as gifts were not deposited to state treasure house. If he was willing to retain the gifts, he should have deposited an amount worth of the value of the gifts to the state coffer, TIB said. The statement also asked whether the gifts included other valuables, besides wrist watches and whether there are other ministers who received such costly presentations. The TIB has asked the government to inquire the issue and make a public statement.

"Whatever be the source, the Minister should have deposited the gifts to the treasure house of the state, according to a rule adopted in 1974, by the then government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman," TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said in the statement. The rule was later updated in 2012, in the second consecutive and the third term of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Iftekharuzzaman said the clarification given by Obaidul to the media is not satisfactory rather it has aroused many more questions. As a responsible Minister he should have taken legal action against the contractors who wanted to bear his electioneering expenses.
However, it is not clear who has blocked the Netra News site in Bangladesh. But it is sure that access to the news site is not possible from anywhere in the country. Before the allegation of blocking the site, Netra News was unknown to most digital bugs in Bangladesh. But after the alegation it has come to the centre stage prodding the world fame entity like HRW to take up the issue.

With the involvement of HRW the main purpose of the Netra News report has been accomplished and the news portal has become widely known across the globe. As a result most people in Bangladesh have come to know about the weakest point of an important and famous political leader of the country. So long he had a cleaner image when most of political leaders are smeared of indulging in various immoral ventures.

But after blocking the site and the subsequent eruption of discussion on this issue, many people have started smelling rat in Obaidul Quader. Especially his political opponents are spreading the issue in order to size him up as he has been most vocal against the corrupt leaders in the ruling Awami League and some tainted officials in the government.

The Netra News issue perhaps has come up as a matter to think for the relevant authorities who take steps against media in a bid to block some news, which they think detrimental to the government. It has been proved again that by blocking any newspaper, news portal, television channels and even social media no authentic news can be stopped from being circulated fast. At the same time fake news fail to get circulation as people except the vested quarter ignore those.

It is true that there are some international powerful media, television channels and rights groups which often interfere in some internal issues of Bangladesh, like war crimes trial, prosecution against political and religious terrorism, without taking the country's past history into account. They do not want to know the history of transition from East Pakistan to Bangladesh through a liberation war in 1971, when three million people were killed and two hundred thousands women were violated by Pakistani Occupation Army and their local lackeys. For this reason some media and few televising channels like Al Jazeera often questioned the prosecution of war criminals in the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal and subsequent execution of some convicts.

People hope in the year of birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladeshi authorities amid celebrations at home and abroad will make the people, mainly those from the mainstream global media to revisit the history of Bangladesh and its Liberation War of 1971, so that they recast their views on Bangladesh.

Tasneem and Netra News with Obaidul Quader's wrist was issue have left a mark of a true investigative journalism, when Bangladesh vibrant media and the Talk-show Stars enriched Television channels failed to read whose wrist wears which watch.

The author is Business Editor,
The Daily Observer

















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