Disinformation as a tool against journalists
Intimidating journalists is something of a daily task for those in the power circles in Bangladesh. So, Matiur Rahman (the editor of Prothom Alo) or a reporter of his newspaper being sued for a news story is nothing new or shocking. But there is something new in the latest cases against these two Prothom Alo journalists following the March 26 news report about increased food prices and the agony endured by the public.
The allegation brought against Matiur Rahman is that his newspaper published "false news. The complaint filed on March 29 by a lawyer more specifically mentioned that Prothom Alo distorted a child's identity (Mohammad Sobuj) to introduce him as day labourer Zakir Hossain and attributed a much-talked-about quote to him, "What use is freedom if we are hungry? One breaks out into a sweat when at the bazaar. We need the freedom of [being able to afford] fish, meat, and rice."
But a simple reading of the Prothom Alo report clearly shows that these allegations are false and baseless. Matiur Rahman's newspaper did not distort the child's identity anywhere in its report. Rather, it clearly identified the boy as Mohammad Sobuj in the caption of the photo used as the featured image in the original news article. The quote that triggered debate was also not attributed to the boy named Sobuj in the Prothom Alo article, but to Zakir Hossain, a day labourer from Savar region. Not apprehending these facts even after going through the news report cannot be unintentional.
What Prothom Alo did was make the wrong move of creating a post based on the report and sharing it on their Facebook page. The Meta-owned social media platform reduces the reach of posts that contain external URLs. So journalists, who have been increasingly relying on social media traffic, have had to figure out some alternatives to disseminate their news stories to Facebook users. Making a social media post with an eye-catching photo, alongside an excerpt from the news article, and then putting the article's URL in the comment section serves this purpose.
The only wrong choice on Prothom Alo's part was that, in their Facebook post, they used the featured photo from the news report (that shows Sobuj standing outside the gate of the National Martyrs' Monument with a rose in his hand) and paired it with a quote from Zakir Hossain, the day labourer who was interviewed by the reporter. This could surely give any reader, who did not go through the full report yet, a misleading impression that the boy featured in the post may have given the accompanying statement. However, in theory, Prothom Alo neither identified the child as "Zakir Hossain" nor directly attributed the quote to the child in its Facebook post.
So, Prothom Alo did not, as claimed in the cases against Matiur Rahman and Samsuzaman Shams, misidentify Sobuj as "Zakir Hossain" or attribute the viral quote to the boy in its report or social media post. But still passively the poster has the potential of invoking a sense that the photo and the accompanying quote is correlated. This is a mistake and Prothom Alo realised it, so it removed the post immediately and issued a correction notice in the original report.
Going one step further, on its website, the newspaper removed the featured photo of Sobuj from the original report and also changed the headline. Before this needless modification, Prothom Alo had temporarily unpublished the story for hours – which is an unprofessional way of handling a controversy by an otherwise responsible news outlet.
But this was not enough for vested online activists and a section of the media. A disinformation campaign, led by Ekattor TV, was unleashed against Prothom Alo to claim that it had published a "fake photo and quote" on Independence Day "as part of a greater conspiracy against the state"!
That TV channel, on March 27, broadcast a report claiming that Prothom Alo had published a "fake" photo. A text version of the same report on Ekattor TV's website was headlined, "That photo published by Prothom Alo on Independence Day is completely fake."
The report mentioned that the newspaper "wrongly identified the boy (Sobuj) as Zakir Hossain and lured him with Tk 10 to give that quote." In reality, Prothom Alo did not identify the child as Zakir Hossain and also did not attribute the quote to him, neither in the original report nor in the Facebook post. Some other media outlets, including a top broadcaster, later took part in the campaign against Prothom Alo in a bid to proliferate the disinformation.
On March 29, two cases were filed against reporter Samsuzaman Shams and editor Matiur Rahman, both accusing the newspaper and its journalists of publishing a "false photo and quote" to "tarnish the image of the country." Both the cases referred to the report of Ekattor TV as "evidence" of Prothom Alo's "falsification," which is a textbook example of using disinformation to intimidate journalists in a bid to terrorise the country's media before the upcoming election.
The allegation against the journalist of paying the boy (for whatever reasons) is a different debate of morality to be had by media experts.
Targeting journalists and the critics of the Bangladesh government with disinformation to undermine their credibility and harass them has become a trend of late. In February, an investigation sponsored by the Asian Network for Free Elections documented how independent Bangladeshi journalists often came under the radar of the government's disinformation network, which consists of a string of social media pages and websites. What concerns us is that a section of the mainstream media is now acting in accordance with that disinformation network. We also have reasons to worry that tyrannising the independent media of the country with disinformation may become a common trend as the nation is preparing for the next general election in less than a year.
Qadaruddin Shishir is fact check editor at AFP News Agency.