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Police, security forces, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Police, security forces, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Investigative reporting has become increasing difficult inside Bangladesh, due to the increased threat to press freedom from the police and security forces. Image: Shutterstock



How Investigative Site Netra News, Banned in Bangladesh, Is Reporting on the Country from the Outside

Sweden-based, Bangladesh-focused investigative newsroom Netra News launched with a bang in December 2019. Authorities banned access to the site in Bangladesh following its reporting on allegations of ministerial corruption. It was great publicity, Netra’s editor-in-chief Tasneem Khalil told the 2023 Global Investigative Journalism Conference.

Bangladesh is a tough place to do investigative journalism: it’s home to one of the world’s most draconian laws for journalists, the Digital Security Act, which allows the government to search and arrest journalists without warrants and hand out heavy prison sentences for journalism deemed as “negative propaganda.” The country ranks 163rd out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index.

Khalil, who has a background in human rights as well as journalism, has first-hand experience of this repressive environment. In 2007, he was taken by Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency, tortured, and later released without charge. He went into hiding and managed to flee from Bangladesh to Sweden with his family later that year.

In this interview, Khalil speaks about his experience as a journalist working from exile and the kind of stories he’s committed to publishing from outside Bangladesh.

2023 Global Shining Light Award winners GIJC23

Netra News was honored with a Global Shining Light Award Certificate of Excellence at the 2023 Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. Editor-in-Chief Tasneem Khalil (center) is seen here holding his organization’s award along with the other winners. Image: GIJN

Reuters Institute: Why set up Netra? What’s the idea behind it?

Tasneem Khalil: In the last few years, Bangladesh has been fast becoming a one-party, police state. The ruling party [the Awami League] uses different draconian laws to dictate what people can and can’t say. As a direct result, freedom of the press has suffered.

Investigative journalism is dead in the country. There’s an argument that it never took off to begin with, but whatever reporting was being done isn’t possible any more. We saw that there were lots of interesting stories to be told about corruption and human rights abuses by security forces in the country. No one was covering that.

In a democracy, you are supposed to have watchdog journalism organizations that monitor power structures and try to hold them accountable. We started from a different place: Bangladesh isn’t a democracy, so what happens if we have an investigative journalism outfit that works as a watchdog in a non-democratic society? Does it create some form of democratic space?

RI: What’s a typical Netra News story and what audiences are you trying to reach?

TK: We ran a live blog covering Bangladesh’s general elections in January. We were getting reports of ballot box stuffing. The official voter turnout figure was announced as 28% and we reported this. Later this figure was changed to 42%. We believe that our reporting contributed to the European Union and others deploying election monitoring teams in Bangladesh and asking for raw voting data.

In collaboration with [German public broadcaster] Deutsche Welle, we ran an investigation called Executioners Speak in which former officers of the Rapid Action Battalion [an elite police unit in Bangladesh] detailed the exact procedure of extrajudicial execution. This is one of the rare circumstances where you get to hear the perpetrator’s version within a human rights story.

Our number one audience in terms of influence and impact is the people inside Bangladesh. The security agencies are constantly monitoring us. Even if I post something to Facebook, the director general of the DGFI [Bangladesh’s military intelligence] is the first person to get a report on it. They are our most dedicated audience.

All of the current team are writers and that’s a huge challenge because we know the audience is on video. Our text reporting reaches maybe 100,000 people; if we do the same thing on video, it will get 200,000 views on the first day. Bangladesh is a huge video market.

I think we have something to add to national, social, and cultural conversations in Bangladesh on taboo issues in the country, such as LGBT rights and women’s rights. The space for independent media is shrinking so fast. I dread the day that we have to start doing daily news simply because other outlets have been shut down.

RI: What steps do you have to take to protect yourself in Sweden and to protect your reporters inside Bangladesh?

TK: Sweden’s strong press freedom laws afford us immense levels of protection. But as the publisher, I’m liable for everything on Netra News. If we’re not doing quality journalism, then I’m liable, even financially.

The most important thing for protecting our reporters is digital hygiene. We know the surveillance capacities of the state, so we have a clear routine. For example, we never use anything other than Signal to communicate and all the production work is done offshore. All our journalists in Bangladesh have cover day jobs, though this means we are not able to do very basic reporting like interviews in the streets.

I wake every morning thinking about my team in Bangladesh. Most of the time it feels like I’m running an intelligence agency — that’s not how an editor-in-chief of an investigative journalism outlet should feel.

RI: How is Netra News funded and how can offshore news outlets become sustainable?

TK: The National Endowment for Democracy is our sole funder and that’s wonderful, but we are always frantically looking for new funders that understand our mission. There’s a programmatic focus on different regions, which doesn’t consider the question of sustainability. Funders need to be aware of this.

A problem we identify in academic and donor-level discussions is that there are times when supporting free media in a country like Bangladesh logically involves supporting some media in your own region. It’s often impossible for independent media to even exist inside the country, but some models do focus on investing inside countries where the regulatory environment will stop the project from working. Europeans and Americans must realize that there are times when they need to follow the Radio Free Europe model.

You can use the press freedom or legal system in the external country and tap into technological advantages that this society has and report on issues in the target country that can’t be done by outlets which are operating inside.

RI: What advice would you give to other media outlets launching in exile?

TK: I don’t subscribe to the idea of exiled journalism. Perhaps it should be called offshore journalism, but there’s no word to describe what we are doing. There’s a long history of media working in this way, from the BBC World Service to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Technology has made things easier and we would not be able to cover the kind of stories that we do if we were in Bangladesh. Being in Sweden also gives a sort of protection to our sources. One military officer who often talks to me once told me that if I was in Bangladesh, he wouldn’t even look at me, but he’s more comfortable talking to me because he knows I’m out of reach of the powers that be.

That’s the kind of edge we have. There are obvious disadvantages of working from outside a country, but there are also strengths and you need to know them as a team and play on them.

This story was originally published by the Reuters Institute and is republished here with permission. 

Laura OliverLaura Oliver is a freelance journalist based in the UK. She has written for the Guardian, BBC, Euronews, and others. She is a regular journalism trainer for the Thomson Foundation and Thomson Reuters Foundation and works as an audience strategy consultant for newsrooms. You can find her work here.

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