Bangladesh authorities recently opened an investigation into exiled journalist Abdur Rab Bhuttow. (Photo by Bhuttow)

Bangladesh authorities open investigation into exiled journalist Abdur Rab Bhuttow, harass family members

On January 11, 2023, the Chawkbazar police station in Bangladesh’s southern Chattogram district opened a Digital Security Act investigation into U.K.-based Bangladeshi journalist Abdur Rab Bhuttow and the privately owned digital news platform London Bangla Channel, where Bhuttow serves as editor, according to news reports and the journalist, who spoke with CPJ by phone.

Police filed the first information report opening the investigation following a complaint by Masud Rana, a businessman who alleged Bhuttow had defamed Hasan Mahmud, Bangladesh’s information and broadcasting minister and joint general secretary of the ruling Awami League party, in a London Bangla Channel video published on January 4, according to a copy of the report reviewed by CPJ.

In that video, Bhuttow alleged that Mahmud had purchased a residential property in the United Arab Emirates using laundered money.

The complaint accuses Bhuttow and London Bangla Channel of violating five sections of the Digital Security Act: transmission or publication of offensive, false, or threatening information; unauthorized collection or use of identity information; publication or transmission of defamatory information; publication or transmission of information that deteriorates law and order; and abetment, according to the first information report.

Each of the first four offenses can carry a prison sentence of three to 10 years, and a fine of 300,000 to 1,000,000 taka (US$2,849 to $9,496), according to the law, which says that abetment can carry the same punishment as committing an offense itself.

Bhuttow said he did not know if any court hearings had been held in the case.

CPJ called and messaged Rana, Mahmud, and Manjur Quader Majumder, officer-in-charge of the Chawkbazar police station, but did not receive any replies. Mahmud’s personal assistant told New Age that the minister did not ask Rana to file the DSA case.

Earlier, in September 2022, Bangladesh authorities arrested Abdul Muktadir Manu, Bhuttow’s brother and a member of a local administrative unit with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Bhuttow told CPJ that he believed authorities arrested his brother in retaliation for his journalism. Prior to the arrest, Bhuttow had published two interviews with retired Lieutenant Colonel Hasinur Rahman, who received international attention for his allegations that Bangladesh’s military intelligence secretly detained him in 2011 and 2018.

Since his brother’s arrest, Bhuttow has received threatening calls and text messages from anonymous numbers, warning him to stop his reporting or face further investigations in Bangladesh, according to Bhuttow and copies of the messages reviewed by CPJ.

A first information report on Manu’s case accused him of working with Bhuttow to spread rumors and attempting to remove Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina from power. Authorities also accuse Bhuttow of encouraging his brother to attack police officers in 2021, during clashes between BNP factions in the town of Moulvibazar.

Bhuttow told CPJ that Manu was not involved in that incident, and he believed authorities sought to prolong Manu’s arbitrary detention and intimidate Bhuttow over his work. Manu was released on interim bail on September 21, 2022, and has to frequently appear in local courts for proceedings in the two cases, Bhuttow said.

Mohammad Zakaria, superintendent of the Moulvibazar district police, acknowledged receipt of CPJ’s request for comment sent via messaging app, but did not provide further information by the time of publication.

Since August 2022, police officers and officials with National Security Intelligence, Bangladesh’s civil intelligence agency, have repeatedly visited the homes Bhuttow’s family members, including his brother Abdul Hamid, a businessman in the capital city of Dhaka, and questioned them about their relationship with the journalist and his work, Bhuttow told CPJ.

CPJ called and messaged Roy Niyati, a Dhaka metropolitan police spokesperson, and National Security Intelligence Director-General Major General T.M. Jobair, but did not receive any replies.

CPJ has documented other instances of retaliation against the family members of foreign-based Bangladeshi journalists, including the March 2023 assault of the brother of U.K.-based journalist Zulkarnain Saer Khan, as well as the September 2022 arrest of U.K.-based journalist Shamsul Alam Liton’s brother and the October 2021 arrest of U.S.-based journalist Kanak Sarwar’s sister. Those journalists’ siblings have been released on bail, the journalists told CPJ via messaging app.