On a recent morning, Bangladesh woke up to the ‘news’ that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been selected the “world’s second best prime minister” by an “internationally reputed’ research organisation”. The ‘news’ was broken not by any local or international source, but by the government itself, when the country’s cabinet secretary Mohammad Shafiul Alam informed journalists that the prime minister has been congratulated by the cabinet for winning such a ‘great honour’.
According to a Dhaka Tribune report on the subject:
“Singapore-based research firm ‘Statistic International’ in its survey report said Sheikh Hasina was selected as the second best prime minister for her competent leadership, statesmanship, humanity, decision-making and their implementation at the international level. The Cabinet on Monday congratulated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on her being ranked the second best prime minister in the world and for her dynamic, prudent and strong leadership that led Bangladesh’s graduation to a developing country from the LDC Group.
Cabinet Secretary Mohammad Shafiul Alam said this while briefing reporters after the weekly meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office with Hasina in the chair.”
Almost every media outlet in the country reported on the government’s claim without further scrutinising it. Only Prothom Alo, the leading Bengali-language newspaper, preferred to skip the issue.
Later, the whole thing turned out to be fake – exposed by BDFactCheck in great detail. They revealed that not only was no such research or survey conducted by the so-called ‘reputed’ Statistics International, there is also no organisation by the name of Statistics International.
This is not the first time Bangladeshi authorities have celebrated a fake piece of news which favours the ruling party. On several occasions last years, Bangladesh parliament congratulated Hasina for her ‘achievements’ that were later found to have originated from fake news sites.
In almost every case, the source was Bangla Insider, a portal founded by a pro-government journalist. The first of this kind of fake news began circulating after Bangla Insider, in September 2017, claimed Hasina has been short-listed (among ten candidates) for Nobel Peace Prize of that year. Some mainstream news outlets also reported this fake story without quoting any valid sources.
Often, government authorities exaggerate even false claims and the media publishes them without cross-checking. One such example is the Dhaka Tribune news story mentioned above.
Cabinet secretary Alam, in this case, falsely claimed the United Nations Committee for Development Policy had “declared Bangladesh a developing country.” According to the Dhaka Tribune report.
“He [cabinet secretary Shafiul Alam] said the United Nations Committee for Development Policy on March 15 last declared Bangladesh a developing country as it attainted all the three criteria considered for the graduation from the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs).”
The United Nations website, however, clearly states:
“Bangladesh, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar met the graduation criteria for the first time but would need to do so for a second time to be eligible for consideration.”
However, the prime minister, members of the cabinet and top Awami League leaders have for the last two weeks been celebrating in rallies and on social media that “UN declared Bangladesh a developing country.” The same is being propagated in majority of the newspapers and TV channels in the country. BDFactCheck also reported on this propagation based on distorted information.
In another development, pro-government websites were found involved in spreading misinformation against key opposition figures. Bangladesh parliament discussed an unfounded claim of corruption by BNP leader Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique Rahman.
The news – later debunked as fake by Bdnews24, a leading online news portal in Bangladesh, and by prominent journalist and editor of a weekly newspaper, Golam Mortoza – claimed that Khaleda Zia secretly invested $12 billion in 12 counties including Saudi Arabia. However, Prime Minister Hasina told a press conference on December 7, 2017, that the amount is 12 billion taka (not dollar).
While pro-government propaganda based on fake news is on the rise, opposition forces have also found reasons to orchestrate a false campaign against the government. In such attempts, some rumours made their way into the social media landscape – most later debunked by fact-checking websites.
Extremism is a growing threat in Bangladesh and it has been widely reported that extremists have used fake news as a tool to incite people.
In 2012, an unprecedented series of attacks were carried out in the Ramu village of Cox’s Bazar after a photograph depicting a burnt Quran was posted on the Facebook account of a Buddhist youth. It was later found that the youth had nothing to do with the incident. Disinformation was blamed for some other attacks on minority groups of the country in recent years.
The editor and publisher of the largest-circulating English newspaper in Bangladesh, The Daily Star, recently stated that the spread of fake news poses a real danger and could incite even more violence in a country that is already experiencing a spike in bloodshed.
Mahfuz Anam, in an interview with The Sunday Times in June last year, said fake news was already being used by religious extremists to target liberal voices and incite mobs.
In such a scenario, if the government and other responsible groups promote fake news for scoring some extra points, one question could be raised – are the authorities actually encouraging the extremists or other groups to spread false information?
Bangladesh recently approved a controversial law dubbed as the ‘Digital Security Act,’ which states in its ‘SECTION 25’:
“A person may face up to three years in jail or Tk 3 lakh fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast in the website or electronic form something which is attacking or intimidating or which can make someone dishonest or disgruntled; knowingly publish or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to annoy or humiliate someone; knowingly publish or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to tarnish the image of the state or to spread rumor.”
It means creating or spreading false and distorted information online is a punishable act by law. However, the government itself is promoting false news and spreading distorted information when it is deemed beneficial.
What is mainstream media doing?
This is an embarrassing question for journalists in Bangladesh. Media outlets here are actually doing nothing to counter fake news or disinformation. Rather, as evidenced in examples mentioned above, media sometimes play a supplementary role in favour of misinformation.
In the case of Hasina being selected the ‘world’s second best prime minister,’ while the daily Prothom Alo did not carry the news, but it also did not counter the false information. The same practice has been in force for a long time. Different quarters’ appetite for spreading misinformation and mainstream media’s reluctance on the issue caused a boost of fake news in Bangladesh.
Qadaruddin Shishir is a Dhaka-based journalist and co-founder of bdfactcheck.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.