Had ULFA Invested Money in Bangladesh Media!

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A potential debate is emerged among the conscious people of Assam, whether the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) had ever invested in a Bangladesh media group. The dreaded militant group, which runs training camps in Bangladesh for quite a sometime, probably holds stakes in the Dhaka-based Daily Star group of publications. The banned armed outfit, which is fighting New Delhi for a sovereign Asom for the indigenous people since 1979, is understood to take the initiative for garnering support from the common people of Bangladesh, more particularly the civil societies there, using the space of the English daily.

The issue came alive with a few articles focusing on ULFA’s stakes in The Daily Star group. First it was Sunita Paul, a senior Indian wrier, who wrote a comprehensive piece on media’s link with the evil forces in the first week of June. She made a reference to Bangladesh’s leading media group (Transcom Media), which owns ‘The Daily Star’ with a Bengali daily ‘Prothom Alo’ and two periodicals namely ‘Shaptahik 2000’ and ‘Anandadhara’. It also owns an FM radio called ‘Aina Broadcasting Corporation’. In one of her recent articles, Sunita went on narrating the history of the Bangladesh media house, where in an opportune moment; the ULFA leader invested a huge amount of money.

ULFA, which has been identified as the most claver and cunning insurgent outfits of Northeast, extorts money from various business groups of Assam under the threat of guns. The outfit demands the money to buy arms, train its cadres in foreign territories and propagating the arm struggle in a sustained manner. As the authority often turns incompetent to deal with the extortion drive by the ULFA militants, the victims had no other options than buying peace with the money paid to the rebels.

Sunita Paul pointed out the initiative of one Latifur Rahman, who was actually the fulcrum of success for the Star group and came into contact with a powerful ULFA leader, Anup Chetia, the then General Secretary of the outfit. Presently behind bars in Dhaka’s central jail, Anup helped Rahman financially for the business. It is to be noted that Rahman’s wife was from Assam and was known to the ULFA leader Anup Chetia.

“It is learnt that a few million dollars were placed with Latifur Rahman for re-organising his collapsed business and ULFA kept a secret stake of shares in all businesses initiated by Latifur Rahman after receipt of this secret fund,” the writer explained in the article, which was published in a Bangladeshi weekly too. Rahman thus launched a company called Transcom, which began business as the sole distributor of Nestle brand milk products in Bangladesh and very soon it emerged as one of the mightiest enterprises in the country.

Meanwhile, when Dhaka’s well-respected journalist S.M Ali took the initiative of launching an English newspaper, the ULFA leader suggested Rahman to acquire shares of the newspaper group such that it could manage media influences for the separatist group. Ali was successful in placing the Daily Star at the forefront of Dhaka’s English press, because of his extra-ordinary qualities and courage. But the sudden demise of Ali opened the opportunity for Rahman to swallow the newspaper. He brought Mahfuz Anam as the editor of the newspaper, who subsequently ousted the ancestors of Ali and grabbed his shares, the writer further explained.

Meanwhile, prestigious Guwahati-based English daily ‘The Assam Tribune’, highlighted ULFA’s investment in the Bangladesh media group. Quoting, Sunita’s write-up, the acclaimed daily reported on July 30 that the ULFA’s business interest in Bangladesh was no secret, but ‘what has come as a surprise is the revelation about its stakes in a leading media house in the neighbouring country’.

“Even as Indian security agencies kept up pressure on Dhaka to shut down enterprises run by ULFA, the militant outfit has quietly expanded its business portfolio in the country. New Delhi had, a couple of years ago, furnished a list of businesses suspected to be owned by ULFA, along with a series of account numbers. Dhaka told India that none of the business entities could be traced. ULFA’s business interests were diverse, ranging from driving schools, nursing homes, hotels to garment export houses to deep-sea trawlers,” the Assam daily described.

Following the exposure, this writer tried to contact the editor of the Bangladesh daily repeatedly through e-mail and also over telephone, but failed. In my first attempt on August first week, the editor was said to be out of Dhaka and hence the news-editor of ‘The Daily Star’ responded to me. Though he denied the allegation, the gentleman was not ready to furnish any official clarification on the issue. He wanted full details of the controversy, which was sent to him immediately through e-mail with a request to clarify the newspaper’s stand on the issue, but no response arrived.

The office of the newspaper was contacted again on the third week of August and this time one senior journalist in news desk responded my call. As usual, he too overlooked my request to pursue with the editor on the issue. Third time, this writer called the Star office on the fourth week of the month and finally reached to the private secretary of the editor. Though initially he responded passionately and informed that the editor was in the city, later he regretted that Anam was not immediately available for a comment. He too wanted the details of the allegation which was complied promptly.

Finally the editor Anam sent me a mail on August 26 saying that he was unable to respond to me queries earlier as he was on holiday. Appreciating my enterprise, Anam informed that he was sending a formal protest rejoinder to ‘The Assam Tribune’ very soon. The Guwahati based daily published the rejoinder by Anam in the front page, where he denied the report that ULFA took stakes in the Star.

“I strongly protest the content of the piece, which is full of lies, distortions and inaccuracies,” said Anam adding, “Your correspondent (Kalyan Barooah) admits he based his write-up on a piece in the Internet portal called Global Politician written by one Sunita Paul titled ‘When the media turns into evil’. Should a journalist write a report purely based on an Internet piece without verifying anything himself?”

Asserting that the New Delhi correspondent of The Assam Tribune, Barooah made no attempt to contact the office of the Star for their comments and, Anam alleged, he also did not put any research to find out the veracity of the Internet piece. Regarding Sunita Paul too, the editor informed that she never contacted him any of his administrative staff while writing the story to ascertain facts about them.

But Sunita Paul hit back at the editor terming his comment as an ‘attempt to save the face of this media group from the attention of anti-terror organizations around the world’. Responding to the queries of this writer, Sunita claimed that her article was published in a number of international media outlets including two Dhaka based portals and a weekly newspaper within June-July, but then the editor preferred to remain silent.

Sunita also decried another point of Anam in the clarification where he argued that there was no media house called Transcom Media in Bangladesh. Anam claimed that the Star was owned by Mediaworld and the Prothom Alo by another company called Mediastar. But Sunita reiterated that Transcom is the owner of all these newspapers including the Daily Star and Prothom Alo (reference www.transcombd.com).

The issue even becomes a matter of discussion and concern among many senior editor-journalists of Dhaka. Responding to my phone call, an editor of a prominent Bangladesh weekly asserted that ‘The Daily Star’ was a newspaper of dubious background. He declared that the revelation regarding the ULFA money in the media group was correct. And hence, the weekly argued, the newspaper office remained silent for as much time it can do, even though the allegation was raised by the media and subsequently its office was contacted repeatedly (over telephone and e-mail) with enough details .