Bangladesh opposition website shut down ahead of polls: party

Dhaka (AFP) –


Bangladesh's main opposition website has been shut down, the party said Saturday, amid accusation the government is muzzling dissent ahead of next week's general election.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said authorities had closed the site since last week when they shut 54 news portals and websites for what they claimed were security reasons.

"We've written to the Election Commission to open the website. But it has not been opened yet," BNP spokesman Nazrul Islam Khan told AFP.

The shutdown has hit the party's election campaign just days before the December 30 polls.

"We cannot communicate with our supporters," he said.

The BNP is part of the opposition National Unity Front alliance, which is contesting the polls after boycotting the 2014 election. It has emerged as the main challenger to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's bid for record fourth term in office.

Hasina's government has been accused by civil society and rights groups of drifting towards authoritarianism, silencing dissent and the press by using an onerous digital-security law.

At least six people have been killed in election campaign clashes between supporters of Hasina's ruling Awami League and the BNP, whose incarcerated veteran leader Khaleda Zia was last month handed another stiff jail term.

The Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission could not confirm whether the BNP website was among the 54 sites it blocked last week.

But commission chairman Jahurul Haque accused the website of bad taste. "It is obscene and indecent," he said.

In an email to the Election Commission, the BTRC, however, said the website was closed following orders from two intelligence agencies for containing "outlawed" materials, according to a report by the online edition of the mass circulation Bengali daily Jugantor.

BNP spokesman Khan rejected allegations that the website contained obscene materials.

Last week the government blocked more than 50 websites and news portals for what it said were security reasons, prompting an outcry from rights advocates.

BTRC spokesman Zakir Khan said the websites were "spreading propaganda" and "destabilising the state".

A BNP spokesman has said 18 of its online activists have been detained in recent months, including a former air force officer who was arrested on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said the arrests and the crackdown on free speech including widespread surveillance contributed to "a widely described climate of fear" ahead of the election.

"The authorities have used a number of broadly worded laws arbitrarily to constrain journalists, restrict the free speech of ordinary citizens, and target the government's opponents and critics," the New York-based group said.

"The government has ordered several units and agencies to censor the internet, monitor online communications, and detain users accused of 'spreading rumours' or 'anti-state activity'," it said.

This week Facebook said it had suspended nine pages and six accounts it had linked to "individuals associated with the Bangladesh government" and which posted anti-opposition content while masquerading as independent news sources.