Bangladesh shutters main opposition newspaper amid fears of free speech crackdown

The only newspaper run by Bangladesh's opposition party ceased publishing after the government suspended its licence, raising concerns about diminishing freedom of the press in the country.

The Dainik Dinkal, a broadsheet Bengali-language newspaper, which has been the mouthpiece of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for over three decades, did not print the daily on Monday.

The newspaper is said to employ hundreds of journalists and press workers, some of whom took to the streets in Dhaka in protest against the government's order.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been accused of muzzling dissent through arbitrary detention and use of brute force, which has led to western powers, including the US, expressing worries.

The newspaper initially suspended its publication on 27 December following an order from the Dhaka district administration, but resumed operation on 11 January after lodging an appeal at the press council.

The daily's licence was suspended under the pretext that it violated the country's printing and publication laws as the publisher Tarique Rahman was a convicted criminal and living abroad without handing over his job.

Mr Rahman, the acting chairman of BNP, took over the newspaper in 2002 while the party was in power.

He is the eldest son of former prime minister Khaleda Zia, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption charges.

Shamsur Rahman Shimul Biswas, the managing editor of the newspaper, claimed the publisher, who is now based in London, submitted his resignation and appointed his replacement. The authorities, however, did not accept the changes, he said.

According to the Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973, the permit of a newspaper would be cancelled if the publisher had been convicted of an "offence involving moral turpitude".

The press council of Bangladesh headed by justice Md Nizamul Huq Nasim upheld the district administration's order on cancellation of the printing licence after the daily's lawyers reportedly failed to present "sufficient arguments".

"This shutdown is all part of the government crackdown on dissenting voices and freedom of speech," Mr Biswas told AFP.

Rezwan Siddiqui, the acting editor, said the daily will seek other legal actions to resume the publication.

Two Dhaka-based journalist unions said in a joint statement that the decision was a "reflection of the repression of opposition voices".

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the decision showed "there is no press freedom in Bangladesh."

This is the second newspaper to be shuttered by the Hasina administration.

Meanwhile, information and broadcasting minister Hasan Mahmud said on Sunday: “Freedom of expression in Bangladesh is an example before many developing countries.”

Bangladesh ranked 162 in the World Press Freedom Index 2022 compiled by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.