Why did the media in Bangladesh wake up late to the Cumilla attacks?

From a media blackout to carrying government handouts, Bangladeshi media’s coverage of the recent communal violence is a reflection of declining press freedom.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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A little after 2am on October 13, the eighth day of Durga Puja, a man walked into the puja venue at Nanuardighi in Cumilla, Bangladesh. The main idol was curtained off for the night, but near it was an idol of Hanuman. The man placed a book near the Hanuman idol and left. In the morning, the local police received a call that said a Quran, the Islamic holy book, had been found near the Hanuman idol. By the time the police arrived at the venue, a young man was filming the scene and he streamed the police removing the Quran on Facebook.

In no time, news of the incident spread across first Cumilla, and then Bangladesh. Video clips and photographs of the Quran in the Durga Puja venue popped up on messaging platforms and social media. At Nanuardighi, local Muslims demanded the puja be stopped. When the puja organisers refused, a gathered mob vandalised the idols. Tension and unrest spread like wildfire both online and on the ground, triggering some of the worst communal violence that Bangladesh has witnessed in years. Over the next one week, Hindu religious sites, businesses and homes would be vandalised across the country. Seven people would be killed and more than 450 people would eventually be arrested.

Yet if you were looking for news about the Cumilla attacks in mainstream Bangladeshi media on October 13, there was practically nothing.

Media blackout

“In the beginning, most media houses didn’t pick up the story,” said Munware Alam Nirjhor, an independent journalist based in Bangladesh who is a consultant with China Global Television Network. Over in California, Bangladeshi journalist and researcher at the University of California Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism Nazmul Ahasan wondered why mainstream coverage of the Cumilla attacks was so muted even while information and misinformation were being widely circulated on social media. He got in touch with journalists in Bangladesh and two of them told him “government agencies'' had told their media outlets to “exercise restraint”. Another journalist said while their publication had not received explicit instructions from the government, editors had decided to play it safe and be judicious in their coverage. “The self-censorship usually comes when something is not in favour of the ruling party,” Ahasan told Newslaundry. “Maybe they thought there was an impression the government failed to contain the violence.”

Reports of the communal violence started appearing in mainstream media on October 14. Journalists told Newslaundry it was difficult to report on the incidents. “The media coverage on October 13 was like there was a blackout; October 14 was very poor too. Most of the police officers were not talking to the press initially as they were busy controlling the mob, so there was no official confirmation,” said Muktadir Rashid, a reporter at New Age, an English language daily. Rashid also said that it was possible that on October 13, Bangladeshi media houses hadn’t expected the Cumilla attacks to make headlines because minority issues are usually not considered ‘big news’.

Newslaundry looked at prominent newspapers and news portals to examine the media coverage.

One of the few places that did mention the unrest in Cumilla on October 13 was the website of United News of Bangladesh (UNB). At 7.23pm, it published a statement from the state minister of religious affairs, Md Faridul Haque Khan, who urged citizens to “exercise restraint and not take law into their own hands”. There wasn’t much about the causal incident.

A few hours later, UNB carried a statement from Cabinet minister and general secretary of the ruling party, Bangladesh Awami League, Obaidul Quader. Quader issued a “warning” to those involved in the desecration of the Quran as well as those attacking Hindu temples, saying they would be brought to justice.

However, Subir Bhaumik, former BBC correspondent who has worked in Bangladesh, said that he believed the Bangladesh media covered the attacks “very freely and in great detail.” According to him, there was no censorship, except the government requesting Facebook to block accounts that circulated alleged fake news that instigated the violence.

The wave of fake news

Meanwhile, social media and messaging platforms were rife with photos, videos and calls to violent action. Inevitably, much of this was misinformation that amplified the violence. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a journalist from Dhaka said unverified news updates on social media had gained prominence due to the general loss of trust in journalism in Bangladesh. “People rely on social media, which is a hotbed for fake news, because we can’t report what we generally want due to pressure from above,” said the journalist.

As news of vandalism and anti-Hindu violence spread October 13 onwards, a Twitter account named “Bangladesh Hindu Unity Council” (@UnityCouncilBD) started posting photos and videos of the attacks. Although it’s got Twitter’s blue tick of verification and has been used as a source by leading Indian news organisations like Times Now, India Today and The Print, @UnityCouncilBD is a fake account and AltNews found out that previously, the handle’s username was @HindusarmyUnity.

As unrest raged in Bangladesh, @UnityCouncilBD tweeted a video that it claimed showed a temple in Rangpur being set ablaze by a Muslim mob. Actually, it was a video of a fire that had broken out in Mara Cherra Bazar in Tripura, but by the time it was fact-checked, the video had already drawn over 1 lakh views.

On October 18, a graphic video that claimed a man being killed by rioters in Bangladesh started doing the rounds on social media. It was circulated widely and among those who shared it was Devdutta Maji, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member in West Bengal and president of Singha Bahini, a Bengali Hindu organisation. Boom later verified it was a clip from May 2021, showing a man being hacked to death over a land dispute in Dhaka.

There are several such examples of misinformation, including one in which an eight-year-old video was circulated as a recent incident and another that showed a man smashing an idol in a temple, which turned out to be an unrelated incident from over two years ago. Another bit of fake news was a photo that did the rounds of social media on October 16, falsely attributing a communal quote to Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh’s former Prime Minister. The quote says Bangladesh is not a secular nation, but an Islamic one; and if Hindus and Buddhists want to live safely in the country, they should either convert to Islam or go to India. This was debunked as fake news by Boom.

Perhaps more damaging than the outright false reports were the exaggerations. For example, posts on Facebook claimed between 100 and 500 homes in Rangpur were burnt to the ground. In reality, 25-30 homes had been torched. “There was violence, but the level is amplified on social media. This is the general trend: before journalists can reach the ground or confirm the news, the fake news is all over,” said a journalist on condition of anonymity.

The government speaks

On October 14, news of the communal violence started to find space in Bangladeshi media.

Prothom Alo, a popular Bangla daily in Bangladesh which also publishes news in English on its website, carried a statement by Quader on October 14. The tone was far more conciliatory, emphasising communal harmony in Bangladesh, than the statement carried in UNB the day before. Later on October 14, Prothom Alo carried a press note from the government which said it was investigating the incident involving the desecration of the Quran.

Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), Bangladesh’s national news agency with pages in English, did not report on the incident on October 13, but that night, they carried a story in which the state Minister for Information and Broadcasting Dr Md Murad Hassan said, “Bangladesh is now a safe heaven for all people irrespective of religion and caste as communal harmony exists in Bangladesh.”

On October 14, BSS published a statement by a minister who described Bangladesh as a “unique example of communal harmony as people have been observing their respective religious festivals with liberty for long.” It also carried stories on Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) being deployed to keep the “law and order situation stable during Durga Puja,” as well as statements by ministers. There was also a story on a committee formed by the district administration to investigate the incident of “alleged demeaning of the Holy Quran coinciding with the Hindu religious festival of Durga Puja.” On the night of October 14, BSS carried a story reporting the death of four people in a clash between “police and bigots” in Chandpur.

The daily newspaper Business Standard carried a single column story on the Cumilla attacks on its front page on October 14. The story was from a government handout and said the government was “investigating the reported desecration of the Holy Quran in Cumilla.” On October 15, Business Standard carried the Prime Minister’s statement as its lead story and said BGB had been deployed in 22 districts. An editorial commented on the causal incident, lamenting that it was “easy to manipulate the mob mind using the omnipotent social media”.

The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest circulating daily English language newspaper, carried a single-column story on October 14 about the “police-mob clash” in Chandpur where three people were killed following reports of the Quran being demeaned in Cumilla. The next day, the newspaper’s lead story was the Prime Minister’s statement on the communal violence. Another story was on security being beefed up in certain areas in the country.

On October 14, New Age reported six puja mandaps had been attacked in Cumilla and on its second page, there was a story about BGB being deployed. The next day, it carried four stories on the front page about developments regarding the communal violence and an illustration featuring a hand holding F (to indicate Facebook) that was ablaze along with places of worship.

UNB, which had mentioned the violence in Cumilla in its reports on October 13, carried stories about troops being deployed for safety measures during Durga Puja and more statements by ministers on October 14.

The stranglehold of the Digital Security Act

Speaking to Newslaundry about the media coverage of the Cumilla attacks, Ahasan said, “It was surprising that the media was initially muted because the current government is known as a party that is sympathetic to minorities. But then again, Bangladesh is very accustomed to self censorship, especially after the draconian Digital Security Act.”

Introduced by the government in 2018, the ostensible intent of the Digital Security Act ranged from curbing cyber crime and misinformation to enhancing digital security. Journalists describe the act as draconian as it gives arbitrary powers to law enforcement agencies, allowing them to conduct searches and arrest individuals without a warrant. The Digital Security Act has been used against journalists who speak against the government and to silence dissent.

Earlier this year, writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in jail. He had been arrested 10 months earlier under the Digital Security Act for criticizing the government’s response to Covid-19 on Facebook. According to Article 19, an organisation that monitors press freedom and freedom of expression, 172 cases were filed under the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh between January and August 2021; and 308 people were charged under it, including 41 journalists.

“In the last few years, journalism in Bangladesh has come to a standstill. When you write against the government, there is fear that you will be arrested under the Digital Security Act,” Nirjhor said. “So media houses don’t investigate stories on their own. It is done based on what the police, government and ministers say.”

Ahasan said most news outlets in Bangladesh are owned by entrepreneurs whose main earnings come from businesses in other sectors. This makes the owners more vulnerable to government pressure. “The government has been in power for more than a decade and the Opposition party is barely there. In a borderline authoritarian climate like this, journalism can’t thrive,” said Ahasan. He added, “Independent news outlets not toeing the official line are often targeted — not just directly, but also through legal measures and [by] pulling back advertisements, which are a major revenue source for newspapers.”

A report by the Center for International Media Assistance from April 2021 said that despite significant growth of Bangladesh’s media sector in the last 20 years, media freedom in the country had been steadily declining.

Reports of the Cumilla incident have been more prominent in the media since the police made over 450 arrests and identified Iqbal Hossain, a long-time drug addict and mentally unstable man, as the one who had placed the Quran at the Durga Puja venue. Hossain was arrested on October 14. Ahasan said, “Now the media is publishing everything as the police have been making progress.”

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