In My View
Probing journos’ bank accounts an eerie move
An extremely unusual thing has just happened in our country. Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit or BFIU has sought bank account details of 11 journalist leaders. This kind of incident never happened in our country in its 50-year history, not even during the troubled days of undivided Pakistan when the Bengalis experienced the worst discrimination in their life.
I have been a journalist of Bangladesh for more than 45 years but as far as I remember never before the financial condition or the bank accounts of any of my colleagues drew any attention of any department of the government. So, the sudden summoning of financial information of not one or two or three but as many as 11 journalist leaders simultaneously by the BFIU came as a bombshell to many Bangladeshis at home and abroad.
When have the journalists of Bangladesh become so rich or amassed so much wealth in disproportion to their income so that it created such a suspicion and thus warranted an investigation by BFIU which was formerly called the Anti-Money Laundering Department of Bangladesh Bank? The whole thing seems extremely puzzling to me. The action of BFIU may have been misdirected against the journalist leaders.
Maybe this department of Bangladesh Bank responsible for investigating money laundering and suspicious transactions actually needed to investigate other people -- especially the corrupt businessmen and government officials. Perhaps by mistake the BFIU sent its letter to all banks about the accounts of the journalist leaders. But it doesn't look like an error either as their letter to different banks and financial institutions clearly mentioned each journalist's national ID and passport numbers.
The incident is so socking and surprising that it dumbfounded even Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal who described it as "unexpected." The minister stood with the journalist leaders when they met him recently at his office over this extremely unusual matter. Kamal told them that he had already spoken with the governor of Bangladesh Bank and thought that the letter might have been issued regarding the financial details of journalist leaders due to a misunderstanding.
Journalists were never rich in Bangladesh. They were rather poor people and even today a vast majority of journalists are somehow surviving. In Bangladesh, many young people enter the profession of journalism straight from the street. And they do it because of their passion for journalism, not to earn a lot of money. Journalism has never been a money-making profession in our country and it is not such a profession presently either. In the past, many financially well off people even declined to give their daughter's hand in marriage to a journalist.
This may be true in many cases even today. My mentor, a renowned journalist of Bangladesh who brought me to the profession in late 1975, earned his master's degree in journalism from Punjab University of what is now Pakistan. A six-foot tall handsome guy started his journalism career with PTV or Pakistan television and later served as editor and resident editor of several Bangladeshi newspapers with distinction. Yet, he faced trouble marrying his fiancée due to his financial condition. Finally, his journalist friends persuaded her parents to agree to the marriage.
When I started my journalism career in late 1975, I used to share bed with a doctor friend of mine at the doctors' hostel of Dhaka Medical College Hospital. After finishing my late night shift as a subeditor at 2:00 a.m. in the beginning of my journalism career at now-defunct Eastern News Agency (ENA), sometimes I used to go straight to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital and slept in the doctor's cabin till 6 in the morning while my friend performed his overnight duty at the hospital under his mandatory internship as a new doctor.
That was the way many of us began their journalism career to pursue their dream job. A vast majority of journalists were not rich then and they are not rich now. However, a handful of accomplished journalists of Bangladesh may be currently living a financially secure life. But they came to this point of their career after a lot of hard work and perseverance. Unlike many wealthy business people and government officials, the journalist leaders haven't amassed that much wealth in a manner that needed an investigation by a Bangladesh Bank watchdog.
So, what's the heck is going on here? As a journalist, I am thoroughly baffled by the action of Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit seeking detailed bank account information of 11 journalist leaders. And I am sure many Bangladeshis are also quite perplexed by the never-taken-before controversial step of the Bangladesh Bank's department overseeing financial irregularities. The way the letter has been issued is also confusing. Interestingly, the BFIU letter hasn't been issued for the bank account details of any ordinary journalist.
The 11 journalists whose bank accounts have been summoned are all holding leadership positions of various associations of the journalist community of Bangladesh. This gives the false impression as if these people have been getting an opportunity to accumulate wealth because of their leadership status. This also gives another false impression that various unions or associations or club of the journalist community of Bangladesh are being used to accumulate wealth and build fortune of those heading these associations.
As Bangladesh's National Press Club President Farida Yasmin has correctly pointed out, an agency of Bangladesh government can ask banks to give them account details of any individual for audit purposes but when the individuals are all leaders of various journalist associations and unions, it creates confusions in the public mind and gives them wrong messages. It certainly does and the issuance of such a letter by Bangladesh Bank watchdog over financial irregularities is already giving wrong messages to the public about the 11 journalist leaders.
Therefore, the controversial move by Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit has swiftly prompted not just various journalist associations of Bangladesh but also political parties and other organizations to criticize the unusual action which was never taken by any government agency in the past. Not even the military governments of Bangladesh or erstwhile Pakistan ever took this kind of action against any journalist of our country. The BFIU's move is eerie and it has definitely hurt the image of those journalists whose account details have been sought from various banks.
The BFIU's action is being viewed by many observers at home and abroad as an attempt to intimidate Bangladesh journalists and prevent them from doing their professional job freely and fearlessly. After this controversial move by Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit of Bangladesh Bank, journalists or even their editors will think twice before they decide to go for doing any serious investigative journalism regarding any affairs relating to Bangladesh Bank or its financial irregularities watchdog BFIU.
Instead of conducting investigation into journalists' bank accounts, the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit should go for bigger assignments probing the bank accounts of those people who handle hundreds and thousands of crores of taka in a suspicious way. If they can find any irregularities with those accounts and stop them right there, that will be a real job well-done. That will earn them much praise on the one hand and save the country from the massive losses on the other. They should also be courageous enough to probe the accounts of those people in Bangladesh who think they are above the law.
As sometimes reported on the media, many Bangladeshis living in the country have bought and are currently buying their homes overseas with cash payments. The BFIU should investigate how they are buying their luxury homes in some of the world's most beautiful and expensive cities paying millions of dollars in cash while there is an ongoing restriction on transfer of large amount of money from Bangladesh.
The writer is a Toronto-based journalist who also writes for the Toronto Sun and Canada's Postmedia Network