Indian news website Scroll forced off-line over article on Bangladesh prime minister adviser, Gowher Rizvi

The popular Indian news and analysis website Scroll.in appears to have become the most recent victim of what increasingly looks like an ongoing Bangladesh government dirty tricks operation intent on closing down, censoring or harassing news websites based outside the country that publish articles critical of the Awami League government.

On March 12th, Scroll’s site host took the website offline. The only way Scroll’s technical team was able to get the site back up quickly was to temporarily remove an article about Gowher Rizvi, the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s foreign affairs advisor. The article was restored six days later.

The suspected government backed operation involves creating dummy websites and using them to upload stolen articles, in order to then falsely claim copyright against the original publishers of the same articles.

Because of the way the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act works, the legitimate news website is required on receiving a complaint from its internet provider to either immediately remove the article in question or face getting their site taken off-line.

Netra News has reported on a number of other similar false copyright claims that have targeted not just websites but also YouTube channels which publish journalism critical of the Bangladesh government. In a number of cases, this has successfully resulted in YouTube channels being blocked, websites taken off-line or articles getting removed.

It is suspected that these false copyright claims are made by the same or similar sub-contractors employed by the Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency DGFI who were recently found responsible for similar activities in relation to Facebook. The social network giant recently published the outcome of an investigation into how two Bangladesh groups “collaborated to report people on Facebook for fictitious violations of our Community Standards, including …intellectual property infringements ….” Both of these groups — Don’s Team and CRAF — are known to be linked to DGFI, the Bangladesh military intelligence agency.

The article which got Scroll into trouble was published on February 20th. Titled “Development over democracy: Why Bangladesh’s foreign policy advisor has such a difficult job”, the article was written by the Bangladesh journalist, Faisal Mahmud. The article was neither sympathetic towards Gowher Rizvi nor the Bangladesh government, which according to one commentator quoted in the article, has an “abysmal record of human rights violations” — which Rizvi has the difficult task of defending.

On Friday, March 12th, Scroll suddenly went off-line. Scrambling to find out the reason, it unearthed an email sent from its website host, telling Scroll that the host company had received a complaint from another website, basherkella.online.com, claiming that the Indian website had infringed its copyright by re-publishing the Rizvi article. The complainant website claimed that it had first published the article on February 9th — allegedly before the article was published on Scroll 11 days later. The email went onto say that as a result Scroll should either remove the article or the whole site would be taken off-line. Scroll knew that it had not infringed anyone’s copyright in publishing the article — — that it was an original article written by Faisal Mahmud — but was forced to remove the article in order to keep the website running.

There were a number of clear indications that the complaint was fake — had the website hosts cared to consider the matter.

First, the phone number provided by the complainant, “Mahmadur Rahman” was not operative.

Second, the website, Basherkella.online.com was new — created just a few months earlier on November 19th 2020. It is also clearly not a properly populated website.

Third, the Gowher Rizvi article on the “basherkella.online” website was dated February 9th — a day before the Tim Sebastian interview with Gowher Rizvi broadcast on Deutsche Welle, which is quoted in the article and which was the trigger for it being written. How could an article quote an interview before it took place? It was clear that this is a fake date.

Fourth, the basherkella.online the article provides a picture of the person who supposedly wrote the article, “Mahmadur Rahman” — who is not the author of this article. This is in fact a picture of the well known Bangladesh editor, of the same name, who currently writes for the UK edition of the dissident news website Amardesh (itself also, notably, taken down through false copyright claims). Rahman has confirmed to Netra News that he never wrote this article and does not write for this dummy website.

And fifth, the name of the website — basherkella.online — is a giveaway. This name appears to be mimicking the well known social media page “Basherkella”, which publish political material and is linked to the islamist Jamaat-e-Islami group. The website that mimics this page — basherkella.online — however mostly contains random lifestyle articles along with a few political stories, a clear indication that it’s a dummy site. The political organisation, Basherkella has confirmed that this dummy website does not belong to them.* Interestingly, a number of the other fake copyright claims involved dummy websites with names that seek to ape other well known sites, including Netra News itself.

“It was only when we read the Netra News report [“Copyrighted — by the Bangladesh state?] that we realised that this was part of a well-thought-of pattern to try to silence voices that are deemed undesirable by the establishment,” said Naresh Fernandes, who runs Scroll.in. “I hope that service providers recognise this strategy and stop being party to these attempts at censorship.”

Apart from this apparent campaign to close, censor or harass websites based abroad , the Bangladesh government continues a policy of blocking foreign based dissident websites, making them inaccessible from Bangladesh. This includes the Netra News main site (though the mirror site remains available at the moment) and the Medium blog site — where this article is published.

Changes

* Following publication of this post, Basherkella confirmed this to Netra News. In addition, the word “islamist” was added to more accurately describe the fundamentalist nature of the Jamaat-e-Islami party

//David Bergman

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Netra News

Netra News

Netra News - a new independent and impartial online media platform publishing investigations, analysis, and opinion on Bangladesh politics and society