ACC prosecutes bdnews24.com Editor-in-Chief Toufique Imrose Khalidi on charges of ‘illegal wealth’

The Anti-Corruption Commission has formally charged bdnews24.com’s Editor-in-Chief Toufique Imrose Khalidi with gaining “illegal” wealth, an allegation he consistently denies.

Staff Correspondentbdnews24.com
Published : 30 July 2020, 04:38 PM
Updated : 27 August 2020, 07:33 PM

Gulshan Anwar, a deputy director at the national antigraft agency, initiated a case against Khalidi on Thursday, citing the charges under Section 27 (1) of the Anti-Corruption Act of 2004.

The case claims Khalidi possesses Tk 420 million in accounts of four banks, but the ACC “could not find a legal source” of the money. The agency also alleges that he gained wealth “through fraud [and] in an illegal way by creating fake documents”.

The ACC opened an initial investigation into a Tk 500 million investment by fund manager LR Global in bdnews24.com in 2019. The case now claims the money was earned “illegally”.

Khalidi has asserted from the beginning of the investigation into his wealth that the allegations are “totally baseless”.

He says he always tries to follow the rules and has no “illegal wealth”.

In an immediate reaction to the latest development, Khalidi said on Friday: “I can only hope that the judicial process will be allowed to function properly. I have no doubt at all we will come out squeaky clean.”

Imrul Kayes, a senior special judge of Dhaka, fixed Aug 23 for the submission of the investigation report, according to ACC Court Inspector Md Zulfikar.

HOW IT UNFOLDED?

Khalidi appeared in the ACC twice in November 2019 after receiving a letter, which stated that the agency was examining his wealth.

The letter received by Khalidi on Nov 5 said his statement was required in connection with the allegations of “transferring a huge amount of money” by “hiding location by himself and bdnews24.com”, and “earning wealth inconsistent with his known income through illegal activities”.

In reactions to the ACC letter, Khalidi had said: “We did stories that hurt a very powerful lobby, and are paying the price for what I believe is good, exemplary journalism done by my colleagues.”

The authorities moved swiftly after bdnews24.com announced the investment by LR Global in a report on Oct 13 saying it will spend the money on the expansion of news automation and creativity.

The disclosure first prompted a decision from the Securities and Exchange Commission to “halt” the deal. For its part, the ACC soon afterwards weighed in, leaving certain bank accounts of Khalidi and bdnews24.com frozen.

In an article published on The Opinion Pages of bdnews24.com on Jan 25, Khalidi wrote that blocking the FDR accounts “(especially the ones held by the company) meant we could not take those crucial steps that would increase our revenue and eventually strengthen our medium- to long-term financial position, thus depriving both parties of the investment dividends”.

His article, “All for journalism!”, also sheds light on what Khalidi believes prompted the regulators to pile the allegations against him.

“Both BSEC and ACC acted very fast. One motive, apparently, was to stop LR Global and punish it for being a rival to a certain company,” he wrote.

“The second was to ensure bdnews24.com did not benefit from the investment. Because certain individuals want it to sink and die a slow, painful death as they couldn’t lay their hand on it or control it editorially.”

The ACC case states that Khalidi sold 20,000 of his shares in bdnews24.com for Tk 250 million and raised another Tk 250 million from issuing another 20,000 shares to LR Global CEO Reaz Islam.    

The commission alleges that the actual value of the 40,000 shares is Tk 4 million, but each was sold at Tk 12,500, with Tk 12,400 as premium.

But Khalidi said BRAC EPL valued bdnews24.com at Tk 3.71 billion.

The case alleges the asset valuation report was “fake” and out of the Tk 500 million investment, Tk 420 million was deposited into accounts with HSBC, Eastern Bank, Southeast Bank and Mutual Trust Bank.

“Toufique Imrose Khalidi obtained the movable asset in an illegal way, which is inconsistent with his known income.”

In the January article, Khalidi also detailed the circumstances under which bdnews24.com entered the deal, where the money was, why he himself sold some of his shares and what happened after the deal.

“The small — yes, small given the requirement of Bangladesh’s largest news publisher for its stability, growth, expansion, upgrades and above all liabilities accumulated over the years due to hostile treatment by a section of the advertisement industry operatives who wouldn’t budge unless you responded to their PR requests as well as others I would rather not specify at this stage — investment meant a lot to us. That would explain why a share valued at Tk 37,100 was dispensed for only Tk 12,500. We needed to clear unpaid salaries of colleagues, for many of whom the company was several months behind regular payment schedule,” he wrote. 

Negotiations with LR Global began in full swing on Sept 12, with an updated BRAC EPL information memorandum valuing bdnews24.com at Tk 3.71 billion. In the article, Khalidi narrated chronologically detailed events that led to the deal and the ACC inquiry. 

Earlier, an NDA was signed with BRAC EPL on Apr 3, 2017 to start initial work. An information memorandum produced after months of work between the bdnews24.com board or management and the BRAC EPL team valued bdnews24.com at $46 million (Jan-Feb 2018).

Khalidi expressed frustrations over the ACC’s handling of the investigation into the allegations.

In the article, Khalidi wrote: “If some people get this perverse pleasure in stifling the growth of the first 24/7 news outlet in Bangladesh, the world’s first internet-only national newsgathering operation, its struggle to survive as an independent news provider, shall we let them?

“We at bdnews24.com not only tried to pursue ethical journalism, we attempted to modernise the way it has been practised in Bangladesh. Our rogue rivals and enemies may not appreciate or realise it that we at bdnews24.com, despite resource constraints, are actually doing our best to help the media in Bangladesh regain, to some extent, its long lost respectability.”

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher