Qadaruddin Shishir, A fact checker based in Bangladesh. Courtesy: New Age,

ON FEBRUARY 1, 2022, Bangladeshis were greeted with ‘good news’ that the United States has ‘no plan to impose sanctions on Bangladesh’. At least this is what was reported in Bangladeshi media. The deshi media outlets quoted the US Congressman and chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Gregory W Meeks as making this statement among other things. The statement, as reported, has particular significance in the aftermath of US sanctions on Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion and some of its current and former officials in December 2021.

Some of the top Bengali and English language newspapers and television channels attributed the news to a reputed private news agency of the country, while others credited it to the Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, the state-owned news service. It turned out the private news agency (which I will not name in this article) copy-pasted a press release, which was later retracted, issued by the Bangladesh embassy in Washington DC. The three-hundred-word press release was reproduced as ‘news report’ in that private news agency with only seven additional words in the fifth paragraph and these words are, ‘said the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington DC’. The state-owned BSS did the same.
Then top newspapers, popular online portals and TV channels who love to identify themselves as ‘independent media’ again replicated the embassy’s press release in the form of an outsourced ‘news report’ published by the BSS or that private news agency.

Now we can have a look at what the embassy release says. On January 31, the embassy issued a press release on a speech made by the US Congressman, Gregory Meeks who was addressing a fundraising event organised by some Bangladeshi origin US citizens, some of whom turned out to be leaders of ruling Awami League’s America unit. As participation by foreign nationals and entities in electoral fundraising is prohibited by law in the US, the event in the Queens area of New York was not attended by any representatives from the Bangladesh embassy, confirmed a pro-Awami League news portal.

Ignoring the legal and ethical question of whether a foreign embassy in the US can publicly report, while in absentia, of what was discussed in an electoral fundraising event by a Congressman, the Bangladesh embassy summarised Meeks’ speech in the press release and published it in their website. Later Bangladesh’s foreign ministry also reposted the same press release on its website. It quoted Gregory Meeks as saying: ‘We are not putting any embargo against Bangladesh. The sanctions were imposed on some individuals of an organisation, not the entire organisation… we are looking into the scenario there.’

However, a cursory glance of the full speech of Gregory Meeks and the question and answer section of the event that was broadcast live on Facebook by an attendee shows that Meeks obviously talked about sanction on RAB as ‘the entire organisation’. He is heard in the video saying: ‘We want to make sure that you are clear. It’s not a sanction against Bangladesh. We are still working with the government and the people of Bangladesh. So it’s not a sanction against Bangladesh. It’s RAB.’

Later on February 4, in the wake of misleading reports, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a statement to clarify its chair’s stance regarding sanctions on RAB. The statement quoted Meeks, ‘I strongly support the Biden Administration’s designation of the Rapid Action Battalion and several of its current and former members under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act for human rights violations.’ Following the US statement, the Bangladesh embassy quietly removed the press release from its website. However, a copy of it is still available on the webpage of Bangladesh’s foreign ministry.

A mistranslation of a paragraph of the press release by Bengali media outlets adds another layer of misinformation on the issue. ‘Meeks also replied to a question about a vested quarter, from inside and outside Bangladesh, who is strongly lobbying for imposing sanctions against more officials and the politicians as well’, the press release mentioned. However, a majority of the news media in Bengali turned the question of an attendee into a quote of the congressman himself. Some newspapers ran headlines on this fake remark of the US leader.

As the embassy and the ministry did their part and the media largely was complicit in this game of misinformation, the government ministers and ruling Awami League leaders along with their cronies on the social media rushed to establish a narrative — one that makes the US sanction appear less significant and create room to accuse the opposition political parties of ‘hatching conspiracies against the nation’.

Days after the embassy press release was reported, several articles were published in top newspapers maligning oppositions (‘a vested quarter, from inside and outside Bangladesh, is strongly lobbying for imposing sanctions against more officials and the politicians as well’). On February 3, at least eight newspapers and online portals published an article titled, ‘The conspirators are on retreat’ written by Awami League central leader Dr Selim Mahmud.

Facebook profiles and pages known for their pro-ruling party stance were relentlessly posting fake and misleading quotes attributed to the Congressman. Dollars were spent to spread some of the misleading posts to more audiences, according to the data viewed by this writer in Facebook Ad Library.

Such coordinated effort to misinform the general people where the media knowingly or unknowingly play into the hands of misinformation campaigners is not new to Bangladesh. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns are now a global concern. In ailing democracies, such attempts can be confronted by strong and independent media. Sadly, Bangladeshi media on various occasions failed to play the role.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *