Centre for disinformation

At the centre of the attacks on Netra News and other government critics is an organisation run by members of the Bangladeshi prime minister’s family.

Centre for disinformation
Tonmoy Ahmed, head of the Awami League Web Team based at Centre for Research and Information (CRI) seen with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; her son and chair of CRI Sajeeb Wazed Joy; her nephew and trustee of CRI Radwan Mujib Siddiq Bobby and (bottom left) with state minister Nasrul Hamid Bipu, another CRI trustee.

There is corruption. And then there is cover-up.

Last week, Netra News published a major investigation, unveiling allegations of corrupt collusion against the state minister at Bangladesh’s Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, where the main minister is Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister herself.

The story showed how a company controlled by relatives and senior business aides of Nasrul Hamid Bipu, the state minister of power and energy, is part of a Japanese-led consortium which has signed a memorandum of understanding with the energy ministry itself to secure a public-private partnership deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

This appears to be in breach of sections 24 and 25 of Bangladesh’s Public-Private Partnership Act (2015), which stipulates that if any person involved in the evaluation of bids has a conflict of interest with any organisation or person associated with the project, he shall withdraw himself from the process. Failing to do so is  deemed a “collusive practice”, liable to prosecution under anti-corruption laws.

As yet, neither the state minister nor the prime minister  —  the minister in charge of this ministry —  has thought it necessary to respond to the allegations.

That is not to say that there has been no response. Immediately after a video  accompanying the story was posted on the Netra News YouTube channel, there was an attempt to disable it through a series of fake copyright claims  —  almost certainly made by government/ruling party operatives or contractors. YouTube saw through it , and the attempt failed.

Awami League’s social media warriors have also been very busy flooding Twitter and Facebook with attacks on Netra News. These appear to be centrally created messages that are pumped out on these social networks by Awami League acolytes and “bots”. These messages contain no response to the factual claims made in the article — in fact no-one has denied the relationship between the minister and the company involved in signing the memorandum of understanding   —  but instead simply spread vitriol, bile, disinformation and fake news.

A poster attacking Netra News typical of many disseminated by Awami League supporters.
Another example of disinformation and defamation against Netra News.

It is just worth repeating. There is literally not a single word which is true in these posts.

Where does this all come from?

While ad hominem attacks on Netra News editors have now become par-for-the-course, the chronology of these current attacks on Netra News provides some new hints. This is because these attacks began a few weeks before we had published the article on the alleged corruption, and involved a senior employee of the Centre for Research and Information (CRI). 

As Netra News has written earlier, CRI is no ordinary organisation. It is chaired by the prime minister’s son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy and vice-chaired by her daughter, Saima Wazed Putul. In addition, her niece, Azmina Siddique and nephew, Radwan Mujib Siddiq Bobby — the sister and brother of the UK MP Tulip Siddiq  —  are also trustees. That is four senior members of the ruling family. It is fair to describe the organisation as not just a ruling party think-tank (do note that CRI actually runs the “ALBD Web Team” —  ALBD standing for Awami League Bangladesh) but a ruling party family think-tank.

And there is another trustee of CRI. This is none other than Nasrul Hamid Bipu himself, the state minister at the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources who was the subject of the recent Netra News story on corruption. Hamid is in fact not just a trustee of the CRI, but is understood to be a major funder of the organisation  —  no doubt a key reason why he is a trustee!

Now, this is what happened.

On July 10th, about a month before publication, Netra News first contacted the state minister to get his response to the allegations.

WhatsApp message from Netra News to Nasrul Hamid Bipu on July 10th.

On that very day  —  shortly after Netra News communicated with the state minister —  the senior CRI staff member Tonmoy Ahmed began a campaign against Netra News by publishing a diatribe on his Facebook page full of fake and made-up information about the media outlet  and its editors. Tonmoy is the coordinator of the ALBD Web Team at CRI who describes himself  as a “politician” as well as a “Political Enthusiast & Party Worker of Bangladesh Awami League”. Among other things, Tonmoy’s post on July 10th claimed:

— that Netra News and its editors were involved in “spending crores [tens of millions] of dollars to spread anti-Bangladesh propaganda online” and involved in a “conspiracy” against Bangladesh;

— that Netra News is a “propaganda machine” with links to “Jamaat” [Jamaat-e-islami]  and is funded by “US intelligence agencies” to create the situation needed for “deposing governments of [targeted] countries”.

Tonmoy Ahmed’s first Facebook post attacking Netra News with false claims and allegations. The text in white reads: “Know who these people are” — the image has been edited to remove images of two people unconnected with Netra News, whom Tonmoy in his post claimed were involved.

It is again, worth reiterating, there is not a cent of truth in these allegations  —  shared 100 times on Facebook  —  but nonetheless they were made by the head of Awami League’s Web Team, based at CRI. 

This timing surely could not be a coincidence. Take a look at Tonmoy’s Facebook page. For over  two months he had posted nothing about Netra News, but on July 10th  —  the very day Netra News contacted a trustee of the organisation where he is employed for a comment about alleged corruption — the senior CRI staff member  and head of the Awami League’s “Web Team”  posted the defamatory and untrue comments about this news organisation and its editors. It surely is not too much to suggest that Hamid, on being informed that Netra News was in the process of writing an article about alleged corruption on his part,  instructed Tonmoy to start attacking it.

We put to Hamid this suggestion, but he has not responded.

Indeed this was just the beginning of a Facebook campaign against Netra News.

The following day, Tonmoy published another defamatory post accusing Tasneem and myself of being part of “BNP-Jamaat and Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI” and myself as “aiming to create public opinion in favour of [people who were] … murderers and rapists during Bangladesh’s freedom war”, as well as playing an “important role in managing various international institutions as lobbyists of Jamaat-BNP alliance.” As part of this, Tonmoy Ahmed, distorts and mis-describes an article written by Sarmila Bose which was earlier published on Netra News.

And on July 12th, he falsely claimed in another post that Netra News hoped that “millions” would die in Bangladesh as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Four days later in another untrue and defamatory post, he claimed that I had “served as lobbyists for war criminals at various times from 2013-14 to 2017” and been paid  “$ 200 million”.

On July 19th, he published a further post attacking Netra News’s Editor-in-Chief claiming “Tasnim Khalil and Netra (so-called) News operatives have tried  to incite division and violence in the armed forces of Bangladesh.”

On the same day, in a separate post, Tonmoy claimed that the only goal of Netra News was “to destroy the image of non-communal Bangladesh”.

And the CRI staff member continued five days later, on July 24th, when he republished a defamatory article titled, “Pulitzer for lies and faux pas for Khalil-Bergman duo” which included false claims about the National Endowment for democracy, the funder of Netra News, as being itself funded by “the US intelligence budget for regime change operations across the globe.”

This is, of course, totally untrue. Indeed, NED contributes funds to institutions including University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) , which is owned by the pro-Awami League  Ahmed  family , and the highly regarded Research Initiative of Bangladesh , which can in no way be regarded as anti-Awami League.

Then there was a gap of a couple of weeks, until August 11th, when the corruption investigation was published. On the next day, Thursday, August 12th he posted again about Netra News stating that “Be vigilant against this evil anti-national force.”

On August 14th, he wrote another post particularly directed against Tasneem Khalil stating: “Let’s take a quick look at the conspiracies they engaged in”

And it goes on. On August 17th, Tonmoy wrote another completely fabricated post claiming that Khalil “believes is a devout believer of Jamaat’s ideology” and “has long been working as a paid worker of the BNP-Jamaat’s ‘Rumor Cell’”.  

In fact, between July 10th and August 19th – about 40 days – he has published a total of at least 20 defamatory and inaccurate posts about Netra News on his Facebook page.

Tonmoy has not responded to our request to explain his role in the disinformation campaign or to provide any evidence in support of his defamatory and untrue posts. 

And all these fabricated posts get shared around Awami League’s social media universe. It seems that Tonmoy Ahmed – the Awami League Web Team Coordinator who works at the Centre for Research and Information, whose trustees include four members of the ruling party family – is himself a central player in all this. CRI claims that it creates “a platform for public discussion on important matters of national policy in Bangladesh” and produces “high quality research”. This is however only the organisation’s public face.

There is much talk internationally about Russian and Chinese government organised disinformation — but little criticism is ever heard about governments like Bangladesh whose Awami League government and ruling party are intimately involved in disinformation and smearing of independent journalists and critics. Most of this disinformation takes place in the shadows —  fake news websites publishing disinformation whose provenance is unclear — but Tonmoy’s activities on his Facebook page since July 10th shows the clear linkages between the most senior members of the Bangladesh Awami League government and campaigns of disinformation. 

Human Rights organisations and others should call out this aggressive Awami League campaign against Netra News, which is taking place from the offices of CRI, the organisation run by the prime minister’s family.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.