Bangladeshi authorities have been accused of blocking media advertisements, curbing press freedom in the process. Two of the country's leading newspapers have reportedly suffered a massive loss in advertising revenue.
Bangladesh's leading mobile operator Grameenphone has admitted that it has been forced to stop placing advertisements with two leading newspapers. The company, which is majority-owned by the Telenor Group of Norway, admitted it was under pressure from the authorities when responding to a request by DW for information on the matter.
Tor Odland, Vice President of the Telenor Group's Asia division, recently told DW that: "Grameenphone has along with several other major corporations, received an instruction from the authorities to stop advertisements in two leading newspapers in Bangladesh."
As a result of the instruction, the company has been unable to effectively maintain commercial communication with its customers via these newspapers, he added.
Media monitoring companies in Dhaka confirmed that the Bengali-language newspaper Prothom Alo and the English-language newspaper Daily Star have been losing advertisements from mobile operators and major corporations since the middle of August this year.
One of the companies, Ryans Archives Limited, has provided statistics to DW showing that the two newspapers have lost at least 25 percent of their advertising revenue.
Confirming the sudden drop in adverts placed with his newspaper, Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the Daily Star, said on October 28 that his paper would be in serious trouble if the trend continued.
"There is no commercial reason or change in the policies involved behind the sudden drop of the adverts," he says.
A report about an army operation
Human rights activists say both the newspapers published a report in August this year about an operation conducted by the army in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of the country in which five "indigenous" youths were killed. The region has been under strict military control since 1977 in response to demands by indigenous people living in the area for "autonomy," something the Dhaka government is not willing to concede.
Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and journalist living in Sweden, believes the army's military intelligence agency, known as DGFI, is behind the alleged ban on adverts for the two newspapers, both of which are renowned in the South Asian nation for their credibility.
"From what I understand by talking to advertising industry professionals in Dhaka, they (mobile operators and major corporations) have been instructed by the DGFI not to place their ads in the Daily Star and the Prothom Alo," he said.
'Despicable attack on press freedom'
Khalil fled Bangladesh in 2007 after being tortured by the security forces for his writings on extrajudicial killings. He had worked as a journalist for the Daily Star before fleeing the country. Khalil considers the alleged ban on advertisements with the two papers as an outright attack on press freedom in the country.
"The DGFI has a long history of attacks against the press, especially when it comes to coverage concerning the presence of the army in the Chittagong Hill Tracts," he noted.
Nur Khan, Director of the Dhaka-based Legal Aid and Human Rights Organization, ASK, echoed similar concerns. "An independent newspaper needs advertisements to sustain itself. If the authorities try to block that, I would consider it as an infringement of the freedom of the newspaper," he told DW.
DW's Dhaka correspondent Harun Ur Rashid has contacted the Inter Service Public Relations Directorate of the army for comment. But it has refused to respond to the allegations.
Newspapers critical of the government
Prothom Alo is the most popular Bengali newspaper in Bangladesh with daily sales of more than 500,000 copies. The Daily Star has a circulation of more than 40,000 per day, which makes it the most popular English daily in the country.
Both newspapers are known for their critical attitude towards the government. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and some members of her cabinet have criticized the papers on many occasions in the past for publishing reports that proved embarrassing to the authorities.
David Bergman, a British journalist based in Dhaka, thinks that the news and views published in these newspapers matter, since they shape public opinion. "Unlike much of the media, these papers operate at arm’s length from their corporate owners and seek to be independent from the government," he said.
However, according to Bergman, these papers also share many of the values of the current government including their criticism of religious extremism and support for secularism.
"At the same time, they do report on governance failures including election rigging, high-level corruption and general maladministration. The government does not like this, and politically is now in a position to intimidate them and perhaps even to close them down," Bergman said.
Government denies involvement
The Bangladesh government is aware of the fact that the newspapers have been losing advertisements on a significant scale. Ashraful Alam Khokon, PM Hasina's deputy press secretary, told DW, "We don't know who gave the order to stop giving adverts to Prothom Alo and Daily Star. The government has not made any attempt to put pressure or to control the media."
Meanwhile, Telenor, the majority-owner of Grameenphone - which has 52 million mobile phone subscribers in Bangladesh - says it hopes the situation will soon return to normal since the company has taken a significant number of steps to limit the overall impact.
The US-based democracy watchdog, Freedom House, mentioned in its recent report that a climate of fear has fostered self-censorship and mistrust in Bangladesh. The country is ranked at 146th among the 180 countries listed in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.