Bangladesh’s YouTube dissidents

In the first in a series about Bangladeshi dissidents, Netra News looks at the most popular dissident YouTube journalists operating from outside the country.

Bangladesh’s YouTube dissidents

If you live in Bangladesh today, it is difficult to be a dissident and even more difficult to be a dissident journalist publishing critical commentary and analysis about the current government whilst remaining out of jail. As Netra News has previously reported, in relation to press freedom, a key focus of the Bangladesh government is seeking to block, remove or discredit critical journalism which is published from outside the country.

For the government, perhaps the most worrying criticism from outside the country is published on YouTube and this article — the first in a series on Bangladesh’s dissident journalists — looks at some of the  most popular dissident journalists posting videos on the platform.

It is however, important to note that while social media platforms like YouTube does allows expatriate journalists to escape the restrictions of authoritarian governments, it also means that the journalism produced is not subject to any proper editorial control, allowing the publication of content that is not necessarily substantiated and would not normally be published — often for good reason — in mainstream media.

While Netra News and others quite rightly criticise the disinformation and defamation produced by pro-government online media in Bangladesh, there is no doubt that some of the dissident YouTube channels mentioned below do, sometimes, produce their own brand of anti-government disinformation and false news, which is just as problematic as that produced by the government and its acolytes.

1. Elias Hossain (2 million subscribers)

Currently living in the United States, Elias Hossain has gathered a huge online following through his highly rhetorical video posts where he talks about social and political issues, often voicing majoritarian Muslim-Bangladeshi nationalistic sentiments as he criticises government and ruling party corruption.

A former Ekushey Television crime reporter and host, Hossain has 2.08 million subscribers on his YouTube channel with regular uploads that frequently gets a million views.

The videos feature Hossain’s opinions and analyses of current political incidents, as well as criticisms of mainstream Bangladeshi media and the law enforcement agencies.

He often expresses opinions that heavily insinuate or explicitly suggest that Hindu Bangladeshis are taking over positions within the government and/or law enforcement agencies, and they advance Indian interests.

Topics he covers include highly suppressed views in Bangladesh like Sheikh Mujib’s corruption, opinion pieces on political events like the BNP’s ongoing movement and commentary on published news.

The videos often feature claims without appropriate or any sourcing like the claim in the December 2022 video that air tickets to the US and Canada had become unavailable as Awami League leaders flocked to flee the country in fear of an imminent fall of the regime.

Hossain also does reporting through his YouTube channel. The reporting uses secondary sources as well as materials, such as video footage and interviews, acquired by the channel. The formats are inconsistent with some only showing compilation of footage without any explanations, and some carrying voice-overs.

Some of Hossain’s reporting shed light on issues that the mainstream Bangladesh media avoids. One of these was an investigative report on the June 2016 murder of Mahmuda Akter Mitu, which seemingly unearthed a conspiracy that involved the high-ranking police official Banaj Kumar Majumder.

Currently head of the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI), Majumder may have been involved in manipulating the murder investigation to make Mitu’s husband and former superintendent of police (SP) Babul Akhter the prime suspect in the case, leading to Akhter’s prosecution.

Unlike many of Hossain’s other videos, in which Hindu subjects like Banaj Kumar Majumder are often treated as traitors, the report was careful to not reach hasty conclusions and seemingly proved at least serious discrepancies in the official versions of events in the murder case, using credible sources. Most importantly, the story reasonably established Majumder’s conflict of interest as an investigative officer, because he had previously been implicated in a case that Akhter investigated when he was an SP.

Published on September 3rd 2022, the video, which currently has 3.1 million views on YouTube, had such a big impact that the PBI was forced to call a press conference two weeks later. A case under the Digital Security Act against Hossain was later filed for publication of the piece.

Hossain recently started a new YouTube channel called the “Bangla News channel”.

2. Pinaki Bhattacharya (850,000 subscribers)

With a large viewership on his YouTube channel, where he now posts daily videos and has over 800 thousand subscribers, Pinaki Bhattacharya has become one of the most prominent Bangladeshi dissident figures living abroad.

When Bhattacharya was forced to flee the country, fearing arrest or enforced disappearance in 2018, he had already been a well known critic of the Awami League government through his writings on Facebook.

He continued his online activism while in exile in France and began uploading videos regularly in April 2021, which focused on politics and philosophy. By November 2021, his uploads became much more frequent and later in 2022 he started to post daily videos.

The daily uploads of the monologue-style think/analysis pieces became laser-focused on politics, moving away from his other interests, and seemed to have been drawing an even bigger audience. The videos attract between approximately half a million to million-odd views for each posting, with thousands of comments praising him for voicing critical views. There have been concerted attempts to close his channel down.

The videos talk about government repression on the BNP, corruption by the Awami League government, Bangladesh-India relations, and other related topics that are current.

His ability to explain political issues, including international/regional geo-politics affecting Bangladesh, to his audience in a plain and often humorous language, has made him a trustworthy source to many Bangladeshis.

Although not entirely free of outlandish speculation, that is also a feature of some of his dissident peers, Pinaki Bhattacharya has become known for basing his analyses on facts and relying on credible mainstream sources.

In one of his latest videos, for example, that talked about the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu’s Dhaka visit, he cites a new US legislation called the BURMA Act of 2021 and refers to analyses articles published in The Diplomat website to conclude that Lu’s visit was likely primarily to advance the US interests in Myanmar.

In addition to this, his experience as a former Communist Party Bangladesh (CPB) activist who was deeply involved in the country’s traditional politics and participated in the anti-Ershad movement, make his insights particularly interesting.

He has also authored numerous books, some of which earned the ire of Awami League supporters. His latest book, which was on Bangladesh’s political history, became hugely popular and was effectively banned in the country.

Soundness of his analyses aside, Bhattacharya has a tendency to maintain a populist appeal. In one of his recent videos, he criticised the inclusion of the theory of evolution in the mandatory school science textbooks, claiming that the reason for introducing the topic had a connection with an intent to demean Islamic beliefs. Previously, school biology textbooks in Bangladesh did not teach the theory of evolution, the widely accepted scientific explanation for the origin of life on earth. In another video, which also criticises a school history textbook for alleged inaccuracies, accuses authors of the book of holding Hindutva ideologies.

3. Abu Saleh Naeb Ali (817,000 subscribers)

“The name of the most corrupt man in Bangladesh is Salman F Rahman” or “The current government in Bangladesh is a thieving government…” — these are the kinds of contentious allegations and claims Abu Saleh Naeb Ali can afford to make from his 816 thousand subscriber-strong YouTube channel PeacefulTV, thanks to his status of being an expat Bangladeshi.

The US-based YouTuber and social-political commentator began posting monologue style videos on the channel in 2017 and has since gathered a large viewership that appreciates his fierce criticisms of the ruling party and commentary on other topics.

The content and the clickbait style titles of the videos are often intensely contemptuous of the ruling Awami League with thumbnail titles like “Hundreds of thousands of empty chairs gather at Awami League’s Narayanganj meeting”.

The topics Ali talks about can range from alleged crimes committed by ruling party leaders, current political events like the US sanctions on Bangladesh law enforcement officials to critiques of religious preachers.

A lively presenter in front of the camera who speaks with a clear diction, Ali is a devout Muslim who presents an Islamic point of view on many subjects he discusses and has become popular with an audience with a religious perspective.

Always beginning his videos with Islamic greetings and supplications in Arabic, Ali has opposed creating communal tension between Hindus and Muslims. The channel’s regular video uploads have high-engagement with tens of thousands of views on average, with  his most popular videos having as many as 1.5 million viewers.

Unlike his regular format of videos, Ali recently reported from outside the Bangladesh consulate in New York, where activists had gathered to protest against the arrest of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami president Shafiqur Rahman.

4. Saifur Sagar (678,000 subscribers)

Started by the programme’s host and producer Canada-based Saifur Sagar, “Face the People” has over the last couple of years become a big platform for airing dissenting and critical voices, often featuring heated debates between political opponents. A few short clips from these videos, containing raging and screaming speakers, have on occasion gone viral on social media.

Sagar’s YouTube channel has over 600 thousand subscribers with daily videos getting thousands of views. Views on the most popular videos on the channel range from hundreds of thousands to a million. The videos on the channel are generally titled provocatively, aiming to pique the interest of viewers.

“Face the People” also has an online news portal where it publishes Bangladesh-focused news content. The Facebook page of “Face the People” has over a million followers.

In May 2022, Muktijuddho Manch’s (The Liberation War Platform) general secretary Al Mamun filed a complaint with the Shahbagh Thana police against Sagar for a statement by a guest on one of his shows. The complaint was made under the Digital Security Act and it described Sagar as “Jamaat-friendly”.

The talk shows and interviews feature current political affairs including discussions on elections and opposition activities. Sagar often interviews political leaders, activists and members of organisations who are generally absent in mainstream media.

This includes people like Hasanath Ali of the Ahle Hadis Andolon, an Islamist organisation whose supporters are sometimes considered as an important vote bank. Recently, Awami League MP A K M Rahmatullah has controversially said during a parliamentary speech that he has control over 2 crore of Ahle Hadis voters who will vote for the ruling party.

5. Kanak Sarwar  (466,000 subscribers)

A former journalist at the Bangladeshi television station ETV, Kanak Sarwar fled the country in April 2016 after he was accused of broadcasting a speech by BNP leader Tarique Rahman.

Sarwar’s journalism, posted online since he moved to the US, has angered the Awami league government. Consisting mainly of longform interviews with government critics, Sarwar’s videos on Facebook and YouTube are highly popular to an audience clamouring for voices that face government censorship within the country.

In 2020, Sarwar published a sensational interview with the retired Lieutenant General Chowdhury Hasan Sarwardy, where Chowdhury criticised the army chief, and the government’s failure to hold free and fair elections.

The Bangladesh government went after Sarwar by trying to shut down his channel through copyright strikes and later arresting and detaining his sister on false allegations.

Government critics that appeared on Sarwar’s YouTube show included Farhad Mazhar, Pinaki Bhattacharya, Elias Hossain, and Mahmudur Rahman.

One of his latest interviews was with the Amar Desh editor Mahmudur Rahman covers the 1/11 military backed government and the recent visit of Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.

6. Nazmus Sakib/Nagorik TV (324,000 subscribers)

Started by expat Bangladeshis, Nagorik TV’s YouTube channel did not focus on politics when it began seven years ago, but three years ago in 2019, political content began to appear more frequently. Since then, the channel has rapidly evolved to focus heavily on political topics with its Editor-in-Chief, Nazmus Sakib at the helm, who also has become the channel’s most known presenter.

Currently with 324 thousand subscribers on its YouTube channel, Nagorik TV is based in Canada and the US with a corporate office in New York and a studio in Canada’s Québec. It is a separate and unconnected entity from Bangladesh-based TV channel of the same name, which is owned by the Mohammadi Group.

Tito Rahman is another presenter and editorial contributor who now appears less frequently on the channel with Sakib presenting much of its content. The channel publishes interviews, commentary and reportage, marred by a distinct, sometimes comical lack of journalistic rigour or standards.

In a “special report” published recently, for instance, Nagorik TV raised extremely serious allegations against former Awami League minister Asaduzzaman Noor and his company Asiatic 3sixty. Presented by Sakib, the report accuses Noor, Asiatic 3sixty and other associated companies of “looting thousands and thousands of crores of taka from the country’s advertising market” among a slew of other similar allegations.

Aside from the fact that the report does not offer any material evidence to support these claims, the title to the video itself states, for inexplicable reasons, that Sara Zaker, another owner of the company, is engaged in an affair with Noor, further increasing the absurdity of the report. The video also shows images of Noor where he is identified as a “serial killer”.

Despite providing an important and necessary platform for opposition voices, the channel’s consistent failure to create content to an acceptable standard and extreme bias, Nagorik TV could be a source of serious misinformation.

7. Hasina Akhter (111,000 subscribers)

The YouTube channel “Table Talk with Hasina Akhter” broadcasts talk shows that regularly host opposition leaders, activists and dissenting figures.

Hosted by the UK-based journalist Hasina Akhter, the YouTube channel currently has 111,000 subscribers and its Facebook page has over 300,000 followers.

Started five years ago by Hasina Akhter, who previously worked at Channel I Europe as a talk show host, the YouTube channel began uploading political talk shows in August 2020 and has slowly grown bigger over the last couple of years.

With the channel’s most popular videos getting over a hundred thousand to three hundred thousand views, the talk shows features guests from across the political spectrum, including BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and Awami League central leaders and spokespersons.

The longform shows, ranging from one to two hours, allowing speakers to talk uninterrupted and at length with the host Hasina Akhter mostly introducing the topic of discussion and generally providing no commentaries.

Akhter, however, does ask critical questions, notably to ruling party leaders, and pushes back against claims. Topics of discussion frequently include the opposition movement, ruling party corruption, elections and other current political affairs.

Despite daily uploads by the channel of full talk shows and smaller clips from them, individual videos do not have as large an audience as the bigger channels mentioned here. The channel, however, remains a notable platform for views and discussions which would not be normally permitted to air on mainstream Bangladesh media outlets.

The channel is also associated with the UK-based and Bangladesh-focused online news outlet The LondonMirror, which posts the talk show videos on its site.●