Netra News, an investigative news website based in Sweden, became the latest target of the Bangladeshi government’s online crackdown on media organisations publishing critical content about the country.
The publication is known for its critical reporting on Bangladesh issues.
YouTube on last Thursday disabled the channel of Netra News for nearly 24 hours following a series of false and malicious copyright claims. YouTube later restored the channel after Netra News’s editor Tasneem Khalil mailed the social media giant about the false claims.
“We have determined that the copyright takedown request we received for [three videos] was invalid,” YouTube told Khalil in a message.
Khalil says that the false and malicious copyright claims were part of a cyber-attack on the channel.
“The false claims began to come shortly after we uploaded on YouTube a story detailing a potential corruption scheme orchestrated by close aides and family members of a state minister in Bangladesh on August 10, 2021,” Khalil told this correspondent.
The story detailed how a front company controlled by the family members and close associates of Nasrul Hamid Bipu, Bangladesh’s state minister of power, energy and mineral resources, had allegedly entered into a partnership with two major foreign contractors to secure a public-private partnership deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The entire production was carried out and executed by Netra News alone,” Khalil said. “The clip contained no copyrighted material beyond fair use.” He added that Netra News was previously subjected to similar attacks which attempted to manipulate Facebook with false copyright claims.
How can false copyright claims be made?
A Dhaka-based cyber security expert who asked to remain unidentified told this correspondent that there are two kinds of claims that can be made against a YouTube channel.
“Community guideline claims, which anyone can submit, and copyright claims, which can only be made by the copyright holder or someone on their behalf,” the expert said. “There’s a policy that states a channel is terminated after three strikes – a rule that some have started weaponising.”
The expert said the process of submitting copyright claims is not complex. One can do it by following a sheet of simple, foolproof instructions. “The YouTube reporting system is also way too easy to access and there are plenty of ways for hackers to set up bots and tools to do it automatically,” he said.
This explains how the attack on Netra News YouTube channel was made. The day after publishing the news on Bipu’s alleged corruption, Netra News received an email from YouTube which stated, “Due to a copyright takedown notice that we received, we had to take down your video from YouTube.”
In the mail, YouTube mentioned the name of the person who sent the takedown notice.
The YouTube email went on to state, “You now have one copyright strike. If you get multiple copyright strikes, we’ll have to disable your account.”
On August 12, YouTube sent two further emails stating that it had received additional “take down” notices claiming copyright over two other Netra News videos – one titled “Covid-19: Successful lockdown in Bangladesh will reduce mortality by about 90%” and the other titled: “Is this Bangladesh’s most worrying Covid-19 statistic?”
All three “take down” notices were made by the same person, Khalil said. He added that Netra News explained and gave proof to YouTube that the stories they posted had not violated any copyright regulations.
Khalil said he had considerable reason to believe that the false copyright claims are the work of contractors working for Bangladesh government authorities.
“In recent months, we have reported on how YouTube channels and websites belonging to journalists and others who produce material critical of the Bangladesh government have been subject to similar false copyright claims – apparently made on behalf of the Bangladesh government authorities – resulting in their temporary closure,” said Khalil.
In a report titled “Copyrighted – by the Bangladesh state?”, Netra News explained how this is being done. The report said the modus operandi of all these false complaints made about a website or YouTube channel critical of the Bangladesh government is the same.
First, a fake website or channel is created for the principal purpose of making false copyright claims. This new website or the channel then republishes an article already published on the original site or the channel – but showing date of publication prior to publication date on the original website or channel.
Displaying a prior date gives the appearance that the article or the video published on this fake site was the original article, and the original article or video published by the website or channel (critical of Bangladesh) as supposedly being the one that is copied. A complaint is then made to the company that hosts the website or YouTube claiming that the original website or the channel breached its copyright by republishing the particular article.
The Netra News report gave the example of what happened with the YouTube channel named “Kanak Sarwar Live”. Kanak Sarwar who worked in Bangladesh as a reporter and presenter at the television station ETV, started his YouTube channel in September 2010.
In March 2015, Sarwar was arrested – along with the owner of ETV – because the station broadcast a speech of the opposition leader Tarique Rahman. Soon after he got bail in November 2015, he was advised to leave the country and moved to the United States, which is where he now lives.
From about 2018, he started to post more videos on his YouTube channel, much of which were critical of the current Bangladeshi government. By July 2020, he had about 185 videos on his channel.
However, on July 2, 2020, YouTube wrote to Sarwar informing him that a website called Afreen-Music claimed to hold copyright over one of his videos.
Afreen-Music was established on May 28 2020. This new website uploaded 16 videos that had originally been posted on Sarwar’s YouTube. The website then claimed in a series of complaints to YouTube that it owned the copyright to these videos.
The Netra News report said it was easy to identify those claims as fake because Afreen Music’s website had dated the videos as having been published on its website in June and July 2010 – ten years before the website had been created. In addition, many of the videos dealt with subjects that only happened after 2010 and most of the videos involved selfie-video footage clearly taken by Sarwar himself.
David Bergman, Netra News’s English section editor, told this correspondent that the Bangladesh government has taken significant steps over recent years to silence critical voices within and outside the country.
“It has blocked hundreds of websites preventing those inside Bangladesh from accessing them and it has arrested dozens of journalists and hundreds of social media commentators because of their critical commentary,” he said. “Locally, television channels are highly restricted and print media significantly silenced.”
He also said that Facebook last December published the outcome of an investigation into how two Bangladesh groups “collaborated to report people on Facebook for fictitious violations of our Community Standards, including…intellectual property infringements...”
Alleged Bergman, “Both these groups – Don’s Team and CRAF – are known to be linked to the Bangladesh military intelligence agency.”
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka based journalist
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