All for journalism!

Published : 24 Jan 2020, 01:58 PM
Updated : 24 Jan 2020, 01:58 PM

I have always been reluctant to use this space for my personal opinion on matters of importance or no importance. We serve news/analysis and I am happy to leave it to the readers/viewers to form their own opinion, barring a very few exceptions when I failed to restrain myself. In this particular instance, things came to a point when I felt I owed an explanation to millions of our audience. The speed at which the regulators moved after our investment deal (with Bangladesh's second largest asset management firm) disclosed through a news story on bdnews24.com was astonishing — and paradoxically, from a different point of view, commendable indeed. The mid-October afternoon story triggered an instant Securities and Exchange Commission (BSEC) decision to "halt" the deal (done after toughest of due diligence), a letter to the investor as well as a press statement—all the same afternoon. One would only wish responses to myriad anomalies in Bangladesh's troubled capital market and complaints from numerous stakeholders would have similar speed!

Letters were despatched to the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms almost instantly, asking the government agency not to register transfer of shares that the investment deal entailed. Statements reached the relevant news reporters much quicker than usual. Letters arrived at the offices of the investor LR Global and the investee bdnews24.com in no time.

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.

Now, the biggest question is: should I deliberate, publicly, on an issue that is still under investigation by a state agency? I thought—and always believed in such circumstances—I shouldn't, which was why, on 26 November, I refused, when approached by the media, to discuss or disclose details of my exchanges with the ACC investigation officer for five (in my view, unnecessarily) long hours.

Exactly 15 days earlier, on 11 November, I had opened up to the media in response to their questions. The biggest and the first query, rightly, was why I decided to turn up despite being assured, verbally, of moving the ACC meeting date that I had sought through a formal letter to the ACC.

https://www.facebook.com/bdnews24/videos/1121417921394642/?v=1121417921394642

The answer, for me, was very simple: I did not receive a formal response to my formal letter. Nor did they give anything that would prove they indeed received my letter. What if they would take advantage of my non-appearance?

In fact I had very little faith in the state agency, not just because the way it moved in this instance. That it often fails to live up to standards expected of it is a position I have publicly held since it was created as an "independent" Commission replacing the old Bureau of Anti-Corruption. The founding commissioners famously fought each other with the full view (provided by the media) of the members of the public.

And during the 2007-8 military-controlled caretaker government, it did all sorts of messy stuff, made many botched attempts to prosecute many politicians, the current prime minister included. There are so many high-profile examples of failures on part of the ACC to secure convictions. I shall not go into the details or reasons why, at least not at the moment.

So I turned up on time while waiting for a response till the last minute, only to be told when I arrived I didn't have to. As I stepped out, I couldn't avoid the waiting media.

I answered all the questions and clarified my personal as well as bdnews24.com's position. My statements were covered by all the media outlets, including bdnews24.com.

For anyone with some knowledge of the background to the ACC action and some understanding of the issues at stake, the explanation given to the media should have been enough to bring a closure to the ACC procedure, described by a former colleague in a social media post as "harassment".

The matter has been probed by more than one state agency—publicly as well as, may I dare say now, behind the scenes—because the allegations or rumours/gossips (spread through social media and other means in the lead-up to the ACC move) were of serious nature. Money, for one, came from London. Money flew off to London was another. And all, according to allegations that floated around at the time, to fund anti-state (read anti-government) activities! The cruelest part was, those who orchestrated it all knew all too well that money only changed hands between two companies incorporated in Bangladesh and operated under Bangladesh laws. Yet the vengeful and powerful people were given a free rein when they acted from behind the stage. And those who helped them spread the propaganda knew it too. And, again, those who prepared "reports" meant for people at the very top were fully aware of it too.

Meanwhile, the goal post kept moving—from being recipient of money from a London-based Bangladesh politico to money launderer to beneficiary of collusion with the investor to a potential money launderer. And it was this last argument that, we were told through newspaper reports, was used to secure a 'freeze order' on both my personal and company accounts. For its part, bdnews24.com had already spent more than 25 percent of the funds on clearing most of the liabilities. My FDR accounts reflected virtually the entire proceeds (on which gains tax is due in the 2019-20 tax year) from sale of my shares. The ACC lawyer was made to argue in the court that the money held by both could be siphoned off to another country! The court order, which has not reached me as yet, was, according to media reports, dated the 1st of December.

But the first notification from two of the banks had come on the 28th of November. My salary account was slapped with a "no debit" instruction on that day. The FDR accounts with two banks were "blocked", as the SMSs from the two read. We did not bother to check with other banks. I wouldn't be embarrassed to admit that I panicked because losing access to my personal accounts would lead to hardships which I thought had been over with the regularisation of my monthly pay and sale of a part of my stake in the company. I had already suffered long enough. One of the banks confirmed that its officers received verbal instructions from "faceless" officials when my colleagues made queries.

Blocking the FDR (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. It was clear from the start that the investor was the target for a certain group of people, which explained certain quick actions aimed at blocking the deal. But when news stories (including ones done by bdnews24.com) exposed the fact that in far worse cases mutual funds managers were not held to account and that "rules" were only being applied selectively, I/bdnews24.com became the key target. The "quiet" ACC letter was, if private overtures were anything to go by, clearly meant to force me to "negotiate" with the powerful lobby that had done it all. I wasn't being pragmatic enough, I was criticised by some, as I chose to ignore the 'offer to help' me. I, instead, asked colleagues to cover the story (when their editor-in-chief was in the news) as they would in any other similar situation. The story went up right away, but my stubborn colleagues decided to ignore my plea to let me step down until the matter was resolved.

They went all guns blazing, trying to malign me. How vicious one could get, with the smear campaign, the nature and extent of lies and fabrication! They were clearly in a rush, leaving so many holes in their story, so many contradictions and improbable fictitious accounts. I was stunned as much by their stupidity as their audacity.

So what exactly was our fault?

Only a few stories? Take me to Press Council if you find faults with our journalism. Take me to court if the content is libellous or defamatory.

Problem with the investor's decision to bet on bdnews24.com? Take them to BSEC. Well, they did. And the capital market regulators did a brilliant job too, moving so quickly, as already mentioned.

According to one former top civil servant, who drafted the Commission's amended charter, the issue was way beyond the ACC purview. It was, the former civil servant and many others tell us, for the BSEC (Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission) to judge whether the investor followed its "rules" for a non-listed investee such as bdnews24.com or Bangladesh News 24 Hours Ltd, the owning company.

And the company (in this case bdnews24.com) receiving the investment was not answerable to any of the regulators, let alone the anti-corruption watchdog. Still, we had contacted the BSEC Chairman for advice (before closing the deal with LR Global) and were told, in clear terms, that no regulatory permission was needed for up to a certain amount if an IPO was not being done. The communication with the BSEC chair was documented in two letters which the Chairman's Office formally received.

Speed is one thing, competence/professionalism, lack of which in some cases exposes exactly the kind of people you would suspect, is another.

That's not how I write my name or that's not my name as it appeared on the ACC letter in Bangla. There was not even the slightest attempt to establish if there was a prima facie case of "acquiring wealth illegally … beyond the known sources of income … hiding location" by both bdnews24.com and myself! But they went ahead in an unusual haste issuing a letter with a "request" to appear at the ACC to give my version as they received allegations from anonymous sources. Lack of any respect for procedure and the depth of incompetence were abundantly evident.

Looking at other aspects of the exercise by the ACC and other state agencies, one could tell that some smarter but greedy people with an eye on bdnews24.com lent a hand. Overall, it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs. The use of the state institutions so blatantly to serve individuals with questionable record is not what we want to see as we struggle to create institutions that people would respect.

We are trapped, for all practical purposes.

We can't seek a legal remedy. Lawyers tell me it is pointless to even try, given the way it seems to have been orchestrated.

So wait, wait, wait and waste the opportunity provided by the investment. bdnews24.com must continue to suffer.

Just to recap, note the following points:

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.

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.

We would have negotiated with vendors/contractors and issued work orders by mid-Jan for the intended projects that would have more than secured bdnews24.com's future, given it stability with augmented revenue from diversified sources. And that, no less important, would have ensured a reasonable rate of return for the investor. bdnews24.com has a reputation of being able to work wonders out of very low investment. It has suffered chronic underinvestment for 13 long, difficult years but managed to survive as the most trusted provider of news in Bangladesh.

To the best of my knowledge and according to people with knowledge of the outcomes of those investigations, the investigators only laughed at the allegations.

Whose purpose are they trying to serve by trying to harm arguably the lone independent news publisher in Bangladesh which has been credited with many firsts, globally and nationally?

Why was there an attempt to tarnish the image of both bdnews24.com and the person who runs it?

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 news gathering operation, its struggle to survive as an independent news provider, shall we let them?

Strangely, important state agencies reacted to rumours rather than act based on evidence.

It is not a great feeling to be stranded like this.

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.

In all these years since BDNEWS became bdnews24.com in mid-2006, we led the way, set the standards, on numerous occasions. In so many cases, we ended up losing revenue, suffering financially, making more enemies. But our journalism kept us winning new friends. It is sad that we live in a fleeting and fickle society that has quickly forgotten the dedication and commitment of a selfless workforce that, as a journalism professor put it in 2007, "has changed the face of journalism in Bangladesh". And our role in those difficult two years (2007-8) is known and well-documented. Our strong position for keeping alive and strengthening the political process has always been unequivocal. So many of my colleagues have made personal sacrifices to keep bdnews24.com going as we struggled to pay wages and bills. One doesn't need to take a deep dive to fathom the depth of unfairness and injustice. It's so blatant, it's actually floating on the surface. And all for journalism.

https://www.facebook.com/bdnews24/videos/2195737200711576/?t=16

Nearly three months on, since the ACC began work on this, I hear nothing, from no one, at least officially.

Facts 

2015: Offers from private equity firms to invest in bdnews24.com. Disagreement over valuation, although better than the current one, leads to no deal at the time.

March 2016: A private investment hunter prepares an Information Memorandum (IM). bdnews24.com is not happy with the quality of work and ends the collaboration.

03 April 2017: NDA with Brac-EPL which begins work on IM. After months of work between bdnews24.com board/management and Brac-EPL team, an Information Memorandum is produced that values bdnews24.com at $46 million (Jan-Feb 2018)

2018: Negotiations with a NY-based media foundation (which has invested in over 100 media entities across the world) almost result in a deal but its board decides against investing in a Bangladeshi media company.

Negotiations with a Swedish PE investor begin (second round, this time more formally based on the Brac-EPL produced IM).

(Please note in case of a media company such as ours, it's not just money that mattered, issues like independence/editorial freedom came into play)

May 2019: Majority shareholder leaves the company selling off his stake at face value as liabilities soar and negotiations with private equity firms show little signs of a positive outcome in near future.

Sept 10: The former shareholder/partner at bdnews24.com's owning company Bangladesh News 24 Hours Ltd introduces LR Global's CEO and Chief Investment Officer Reaz Islam describing the latter as a 'Wall Street guy with superb track record and fantastic academic credentials' (a Cornel and NYU alumnus). "You can trust him," he said. "I've known him for a long time … since school days."

Sept 12: Negotiations with LR Global begin in full swing, with an updated Brac-EPL IM valuing bdnews24.com at Tk 3.71 billion.

Oct 3 evening: Deal signed.

October 6: Money reaches the bank accounts of Bangladesh News 24 Hours (bdnews24.com) and Toufique Imrose Khalidi (who sold off part of his stake and thus absolutely legally acquiring some liquid wealth).

October 13: A formal announcement is made. A story is published on bdnews24.com — LR Global buys Tk 500 million stake in bdnews24.com

BSEC acts in supersonic speed, "suspends" deal, issues press statement on its website.

October 13-14: Stories appear in sections of media clearly fed by those behind the move.

Late October early November: Social media smear, character assassination, vilification … They began with a well-coordinated attempt to malign me through a Facebook post (by a 'journalist') in which they referred to a somewhat vague statement by the PM at a press conference days earlier. The PM had said she knew of a newspaper editor who called a bank chief executive for money (extortion). People in the know of things knew who she was referring to. Several insignificant news sites (mostly used for propaganda purposes) speculated and named various persons. But not me. But that 'journalist' mentioned my name in his Facebook post.

I along with my colleagues decide to ignore it because the allegation was so absurd. But hundred others including those who worked with me in the past launch a counterattack. The defamatory post is later removed in a few days by that 'journalist' who comes under attack from a number of social media activists. So that strategy fails.


Nov 4:
An internal ACC memo says there will be investigation into the bdnews24.com "owner".

Late Nov 5 afternoon: A letter dated 4 November reaches bdnews24.com offices. It now includes both the editor-in-chief and the company. The ACC letter asks me to respond to allegations of "transferring a huge amount of money" by, funnily,  "hiding location" by myself and bdnews24.com, and "earning wealth inconsistent with his known income through illegal activities". The letter "requests" me to appear at the ACC headquarters in Dhaka on 11 November morning to give my "statement" on the allegations from "anonymous" persons.

7 Nov: I asked for time because, on the same day, I was due to attend a major international event (Dhaka Global Dialogue) and chair an important panel discussion on "On and Offline: Countering Violent Extremism and Hate Crimes" on the second day of the three-day event that brought together nearly 700 participants including 150 foreign guests/panelists. My name was dropped at the last minute!

Nov 11: Responses to media queries at the ACC headquarters

Nov 26: A five-hour session with an investigation officer.

https://www.facebook.com/bdnews24/videos/690974404763821/?t=0


Nov 28:
SMSs on mobile phone were received in the morning from two of the banks that FDR and personal bank accounts were "blocked", and a "no debit" had been imposed on my personal (salary) account.

December 3: In evening, just after banks finished their working hours, SMSs arrived saying that the "blocked" accounts had been "released". Minutes later, there were a torrent of messages announcing that all those FDR accounts had been "freezed".

Days later, we learnt from a section of the media that a court had ordered freezing of the accounts on 1 December.

After nearly four months since we concluded the investment deal, we stare at an uncertain future — bank accounts frozen and no final report from the ACC on  "allegations" of acquiring "huge amounts of money through illegal activities".

[Now a personal explanation. Why did I offload some of my stake in the company, despite warnings from the investor that it would "send wrong signals that you are actually exiting while we are investing in you"? I needed to feel comfortable (in a country that offers virtually no social security) to pay bills (health care included, important for a person with no savings, no home, no property), prepare for retirement (a dream being chased for quite some time now), respond to family obligations and be confident I can take care of my colleagues when, if ever again, they are not getting paid on time.]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher