On April 27, 2021, a 21-year-old college girl took her life in an upscale neighbourhood in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The police indicated that she had lived alone in the rented apartment and was in a romantic relationship with a wealthy married business tycoon, Sayem Sobhan Anvir.
Anvir’s family owns the Bashundhara Group, arguably the largest conglomerate in the country, whose concerns range from cement to real estate, shopping mall to convention centre, liquefied petroleum gas to fast-moving consumer goods.
Soon after, the girl’s sister filed a case against Anvir, accusing him of abetment to suicide, an offence that can result in up to 10 years of imprisonment in Bangladesh.
However, Bangladesh’s mainstream press suppressed the news and blacked out facts as basic as the name of Anvir and the conglomerate his family owns in their reports, all the while disclosing the photographs and identity of the deceased girl in full.
Reports that initially offered hints as to who the businessman or the conglomerate may be were swiftly removed or replaced with innocuous details. A top-rated TV channel, Somoy TV, ran half a dozen stories focusing on the girl with disturbing titles, raising questions about the number of boyfriends she might have had and how she could afford to live in a posh city apartment.
A collage of video clips of major news presenters referring to Anvir merely as “a leading industrialist” in unison went viral on Facebook. However, few surpassed Channel i, one of the oldest broadcasters, in this awkward race of victim-blaming: the outlet blurred the businessman’s face while retaining that of the suicide victim, whereas it should have been the other way around. (Channel i subsequently apologized, citing “technical error”.)
As the local media engaged in self-censorship, photographs of the girl with Anvir, an alleged phone conversation between them (in which ‘he’ used abusive language) and a copy of the police complaint filed against him by the victim’s sister was heavily circulated on Facebook. These Facebook posts, uncensored and unfiltered, rendered the whole censorship manoeuvre ineffective, making it pointless at one stage to conceal Anvir’s name any longer. A simultaneous uproar on social media over the treatment of the story forced a handful of the outlets to correct their behaviour, shifting the spotlight from the girl to the businessman.
Even then, some of the media outlets found the courage to finally reveal Anvir’s name in connection to the story only after a court set a trial date and issued a travel ban on him. The fact that it took three authoritative statements — the police statement, the criminal complaint filed by the victim’s sister and a court order — for some outlets to even utter the name of the tycoon, speaks volume about the extent of influence the corporate world wields over the media in Bangladesh.
A female journalist recently had to leave her position as the business editor of an English newspaper, owned by a business group that has concerns in education and grocery, following the publication of a story implicating another conglomerate. She did not want to be named because she feared a public disclosure would harm her future employability.
“The story was taken down from the website on the day of its publication without any consultation with me,” she said in a recent interview with me. “When I raised the matter with the management, I got the impression that the instruction came from the very top.” She kept pressing for an answer but was none the wiser. The following morning came her marching orders.
And in return for retracting the report from its website that gets monthly hits of about 1.5 million, the newspaper managed a rolling advertisement from the sprawling conglomerate, whose subsidiaries range from textiles to jute, building materials to infrastructure, real estate to home décor, automobiles to financial institutions.
She also told me that the owning group routinely interferes with the paper’s editorial and reporting process and plants stories favouring its business interests. During her stint, she was under tremendous pressure to run a report that had “no journalistic ground and was completely unethical” but forwarded the business group’s agenda. She shared a WhatsApp conversation showing how she fought against the paper’s editor pressuring her to commission a report, which would have argued that the central bank should extend the Covid-19 moratorium on loan payments, a decision that would benefit large conglomerates such as the newspaper’s owners.
“It would have been career suicide for both the reporter and me. We would have lost face had we run the piece,” she said. “I managed to talk my way out of that situation, but the unreasonable demands from the owners came in waves.”
A recent study has examined the ownership structure of 48 media outlets in Bangladesh and found 40 of them to be part of business or industrial conglomerates. That plausibly allows a tight-knit elite group of businessmen to exercise immense pressure on their peers who own newspapers or TV stations, which explain both the termination of the female editor and the media’s coverage of the suicide story.
“Most media outlets are owned by businessmen, who are directly and indirectly connected to politics,” Iftekharuzzaman, executive director at the anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh, said in a statement. “As a result, even professional journalists are forced to manufacture reports in the interests of the owners or conceal real stories. This not only prevents the growth of free journalism but also jeopardizes the wider credibility of the media.”
To be fair, Bangladesh’s news media is barely a stranger to self-censorship. Digital Security Act (DSA), an Internet law described as draconian and repressive by rights groups, has significantly been used against journalists. In 2020, as many as 75 journalists were prosecuted under the law, according to Article 19, a rights group that keeps tracks of the DSA cases. The country is ranked 152nd — worst in South Asia — in the press freedom index prepared by Reporters Without Borders.
Authorities also use coercive measures such as advertisement blockade to stifle the independent press and have a history of shutting down or hijacking media outlets originally owned by the ruling party’s political opponents. Editors and journalists routinely decry a lack of freedom to carry out critical reporting. The chilling effect created by the authoritarian government’s actions against the media has contributed to the overall decline in press freedom and a growing culture of fear, making the news media dangerously accustomed to knee-jerk self-censorship.
“I don’t believe that the Bashundhara Group made phone calls to every newsroom to censor the story,” said an editor of a news website, also part of a conglomerate-owned media group, whose owners forced him to remove three stories on the issue. “I think we got used to self-censorship so much that we start censoring ourselves automatically. The filtering begins from reporters, who do not bother to cover certain topics because they know their stories will not be run, then desk editors and senior editors to finally the owners themselves. In this case, too, I think that most outlets acted without external pressure, just out of fear of repercussions.”
If the Bashundhara Group did not ask news outlets explicitly to conceal its owner’s name in reports relating to the suicide, it probably did ask them later to disparage the victim’s character. Dilshana Parul, a lawyer with the prominent rights group Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), shared on Facebook how a concocted story targeting the girl’s reputation was supplied by the Group with newsrooms. At least two newspapers — whose owners have primarily real estate and land development businesses, sectors where Bashundhara Group is the leader — ran the supplied story in whole or part, exposing how elite businessmen are willing to protect each other.
The other reason that explains the media’s hesitancy in the suicide story is the fact that the Bashundhara Group is one of the country’s biggest, if not the biggest, advertisers. A broadcast journalist publicly stated that the group pulled its advertisement from his TV channel because it simply named Anvir in one of its stories.
Bashundhara itself operates the biggest media empire in Bangladesh, consisting of half a dozen news outlets, including the country’s highest-circulated newspaper and a top-rated news channel (all of which, by the way, kept mum about this whole episode). The reason why the Bashundhara supremo, Ahmed Akbar Sobhan, decided to build his media empire in the first place was because Prothom Alo and The Daily Star (two relatively independent sister outlets) doggedly covered a murder and a subsequent corrupt cover-up involving two of his sons, including Anvir, between 2006 and 2008. The Group successfully used its media arms against Prothom Alo and The Daily Star’s owners and editors, forcing them to back down from critical coverage of the Bashundhara. The Group’s success in silencing the boldest newspapers in Bangladesh serves as a reminder to other news outlets of the dangers of attempting to hold it accountable.
Facebook: ‘the Fourth Estate’?
Amid dwindling press freedom in Bangladesh, social media often takes charge of the issues shied away from by the mainstream media. Facebook is the platform with the highest number of Bangladeshi users, who often dictate day-to-day narrative when mainstream media under-report key issues.
“Social media is taking over the role of mainstream media,” Manjur A. Chowdhury, chairman of Center for Governance Studies, a budding think-tank based in Dhaka, says bluntly. “Social media is now our Fourth Estate.”
Months ago, when Al Jazeera released a scandalous investigative film implicating Bangladesh’s army chief in a scheme to shield his fugitive brothers from justice, Bangladesh’s media initially did not write a word about it. “We are facing the absurd situation of publishing the government response without publishing what the government is responding to,” The Daily Star wrote in an editorial at that time.
However, on Facebook, people ruthlessly mocked, criticized and ridiculed the government and the powerful army chief. Amid a similar outrage on Facebook over the mainstream media’s censorship, some outlets shifted their position to cover the story, albeit from a safe angle.
“Facebook has many flaws,” says Mubashar Hasan of Western Sydney University. “But there’s no denying that it offers a democratic medium to many Bangladeshi who could share critical information suppressed or censored by mainstream media.”