On August 21st, the London-based weekly Bengali newspaper Surma received an email from its web hosting company, Heart, informing it that a person named “Tasrik Hasan” was claiming copyright over a report that the newspaper had published.
The news article in question was published in Surma on August 19th, titled, “15 human rights organisations will protest in London on August 30” and referred to activities around the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
“Tasrik Hasan” however claimed “under penalty of perjury” that this article in Surma had originally been published on his website tasrikhasan.com earlier on the same day. Heart wrote to Surma saying that the report “must be removed from your website immediately” and that “failure to do so may result in your package or account being temporarily disabled.”
Surma did not remove the article — since they knew this was their own original reporting and that it was the website tasrikhasan.com that had copied it. Indeed, the editor of Surma had been present at the meeting referred to in the article.
Surma did not imagine that anything could happen. This was just one of many fake copyright claims that Surma news, a highly partisan anti-Awami League newspaper edited by Shamsul Alam Liton, a former Bangladesh Nationalist Party deputy press secretary, had received over recent months. But they were wrong. It was this particular fake claim that did the trick. Three days later Heart suspended Surma’s website, surmannews.com, and it went offline.
Netra News has reported before on how websites — and indeed YouTube videos — which carry content critical of the current Bangladesh government are subject to fake copyright claims under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This law requires hosting companies and intermediaries to ensure that copyrighted material is “taken down” from sites that they host. The system essentially relies on aggrieved parties, people whose copyrights have been allegedly infringed, making complaints. However, fake complaints are widespread and website hosts/YouTube often take content or entire websites down without rudimentary investigations into the claims.
As a result, the anti-Awami League UK publication, Amar Desh, was closed down for months in 2021; the Indian news website, Scroll, was taken offline temporarily after the publication of an article critical of the Bangladesh government adviser, Gowher Rizvi; and an attempt was made to close down the website, Hill Voice. These are just a few of many examples of false copyright strikes used against media critical of the Awami League government. Netra News has also been subject to similar fake complaints.
As soon as Surma’s website went offline, the newspaper contacted Heart and explained the situation and after Heart realised the nature of the fake complaint, it put Surma back on line on September 16th. It should not have taken Heart that long to realise it was fake, with the address given by “Tasrik Hossain” in Portsmouth UK not even existing. Perhaps less obvious, is that tasrikhasan.com appears itself to be an inauthentic website mocked upto appear to belong to a social media activist who goes by that name.
While at present there is no firm proof that Bangladesh government agencies or their sub-contractors are responsible for organising these fake copyright claims, it is very similar to the kind of activities that Facebook has found them to be responsible for, in relation to their social network, and it directly serves their interests.
Surma has, however, not been subjected merely to fake copyright claims which took down their site.
On September 13th, Bangladesh police in Noakhali, on “secret information,” raided the house of 59-year-old businessman Nurul Amin Chowdhury, the elder brother of the paper’s editor. Chowdhury is also involved in politics, but he is the president of the district branch of the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, a left wing but pro-government party.
A First Information Report (FIR) showed that after the raid, Chowdhury was subsequently arrested as it was claimed his mobile phone call list showed that he was “engaged in suspicious movements” and that, on the night before a violent incident the previous month, he had been “in touch with suspicious people… and did not spend the night at his home, but at an unknown place...". There was no mention of who these “suspicious people” were. The police also claimed that two of Chowdhury’s business partners are in Italy and that they are working closely with the suspect's brother [the editor of Surma] and “helping him carry out anti-government and anti-state campaigns and activities..."
This arrest seems very similar to what happened to the sister of the US-based anti-government YouTube journalist Kanak Sarwar. As the Bangladesh government authorities could not take any action against Sarwar, they arrested his sister on transparently bogus charges, holding her for over six months before she got bail. The purpose, it seems, was to try and silence the journalist living outside of Bangladesh.
The detention of the brother of the editor of Surma appears to be a similar move. Indeed a detective branch source told Tasneem Khalil, the Editor-in-Chief of Netra News, that Chowdhury’s arrest was aimed at ensuring “a smooth London trip” for Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina who was visiting the UK to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and was sending out “a message to all the trouble-makers abroad”. Chowdhury is also the brother of Hasina Akhter, host of the well known pro-opposition U.K.-based political affairs talk show Table Talk with Hasina Akhter.
However, it is pretty extraordinary that the authorities would go so far as to arrest a pro-government activist in order to intimidate his brother, an opposition activist.
Liton is a British citizen. Many may think that Surma is too strident and partisan, but — like UK-based Amar Desh previously — it is under attack from what appears to be a state sponsored targeting programme. And now the editor’s brother is arrested on what are very likely to be totally bogus claims.
Shouldn’t the UK authorities at least have a word with the Bangladesh authorities?●