Spread of fake news 'can lead to more violence' in Bangladesh

Mr Mahfuz Anam (centre) out on bail in March last year over a defamation case filed against him by pro-government activists. International media and human rights organisations have condemned the cases brought against him as politically motivated and
Mr Mahfuz Anam (centre) out on bail in March last year over a defamation case filed against him by pro-government activists. International media and human rights organisations have condemned the cases brought against him as politically motivated and a means of muzzling the media, while hailing Mr Anam for making The Daily Star the country's most respected and trusted English language newspaper.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is already used by extremists to target liberal voices and incite mobs, says Daily Star editor

The editor and publisher of the largest-circulation English language newspaper in Bangladesh, The Daily Star, says the spread of fake news poses real dangers and could incite even more violence in a country that is already experiencing a spike in bloodshed.

Mr Mahfuz Anam said fake news was already being used by religious extremists to target liberal voices and incite mobs.

Bangladesh has seen high-profile murders of a dozen bloggers, writers and foreign nationals amid a government crackdown on far- right groups such as the Jamaat-e- Islami. In many of the cases, the victims were hacked to death with a machete.

Mr Anam, 66, said fake news had been used by religious extremists to go after bloggers, writers and other liberal voices who were "falsely accused of being anti-religious, by misinterpreting their writings".

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"So far, 'false news' has been mostly confined to the religious extremists who use it to intimidate liberal and secular thinkers... Thankfully, the mainstream media has been mostly free of this malaise," he told The Sunday Times in an e-mail interview.

Further illustrating the danger of fake news, Mr Anam said the "most tragic incident" in his country occurred in 2012 after a photograph showing a burnt Quran was posted on the Facebook site of a Buddhist youth.

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As fake news spreads faster and faster through social media, journalists should become more and more cautious about their own work. It is my belief that readers will be more critical of the fake news phenomenon in the coming days and will turn to traditional print media for authentic news, providing a big opportunity for us to retain our readership and even grow it.

MR MAHFUZ ANAM, editor and publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh.

Muslim mobs angered by the post burnt down Buddhist homes and temples. It was later found that the youth had nothing to do with the incident.

"This revealed the vulnerability of religious and ethnic minority groups who are targets of deliberate misinformation or false news,'' he said.

Mr Anam himself faces around 79 defamation and sedition cases in different courts in Bangladesh over stories published in his newspaper in 2007 based on information that was given at the time by the then caretaker government, which was backed by the military, against its political rivals.

The avalanche of cases were triggered by an interview he gave on a TV talk show in February last year, in which he said he regretted publishing stories of graft against Ms Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister, based on information from military intelligence officials.

International media and human rights organisations condemned the cases as politically motivated and a means of muzzling the media, while hailing Mr Anam for making The Daily Star the country's most respected and trusted English language newspaper.

Last year, he was given the Courageous Journalism Award by the East-West Centre - an institution for public diplomacy based in the United States.

The editor of The Daily Star, which has a circulation of 65,000 to 80,000 and is known for its liberal editorial line on many issues, said that its newsroom took great care to verify news stories.

"At The Daily Star, we have strengthened our normal procedure of verification and have become more alert to prevent lapses," said Mr Anam. "We have decided to 'err on the side of caution' and be late with stories rather than print stories about which we are not 100 per cent sure."

The Bangladeshi government has introduced tough Internet laws, including giving the police authority to arrest journalists without a judge's order. But he noted that this had also become a tool for curbing freedom of expression and clamping down on criticism against the government. Still, he noted that journalists had to be careful in an age where all types of news spread fast via social media.

He said: "As fake news spreads faster and faster through social media, journalists should become more and more cautious about their own work.

"It is my belief that readers will be more critical of the fake news phenomenon in the coming days and will turn to traditional print media for authentic news, providing a big opportunity for us to retain our readership and even grow it.''

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Spread of fake news 'can lead to more violence' in Bangladesh'. Print Edition | Subscribe