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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Much ado about financial transparency in the media


Whose financial records should the BFIU really be investigating?

It’s very well understood why journalists’ professional bodies were outraged at the government’s financial transparency agency for seeking the bank details of media leaders.

On the evening of September 12, TV channels and news portals reported that media leaders gave their pro-active reactions to online newspapers and welcomed the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) of Bangladesh Bank seeking the bank account details of 11 elected journalist leaders.

The BFIU, an agency responsible for investigating suspicious transactions, sent a letter to all banks, asking them to provide account details of only the media leaders.

The following day, the National Press Club, the two factions of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ), and Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU), in separate media statements, expressed concern over seeking financial information only of elected leaders and found the action “ill-motivated.”

Unfortunately, the journalist’s unions are divided by a thick partisan line. So is the status of the National Press Club. The contesting candidates’ panels are explicitly split between supporters of the ruling Awami League and those of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, with their all-weather ally Jamaat-e-Islam.

Possibly, the financial intelligence agency did not foresee that two factions of BFUJ, DUJ, and bipartisan leaderships in the National Press Club and DRU did not merge, but are standing shoulder to shoulder after (temporarily) burying their partisanship divide.

This is indeed a major joint movement of the factions of different unions. The leaders of BFUJ, DUJ, and DRU had jointly held protest meetings for weeks after the sensational double murder of the journalist couple Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi in 2012. The murder remains a mystery. The DRU continued to protest, while other journalist bodies silently took a back seat in demanding justice for the twin murder.

Some wonder whether it is possible to ask professional journalists for self-declarations of their assets and other sources of income for financial integrity in other professions. But who will dare to bell the cat?

There is no guideline for journalists to submit financial statements before contesting an election for any media professional body. As Dr Shadin Malik, constitutional law expert wrote in a column in Prothom Alo -- the BFIU does not have the mandate to examine the media leaders’ bank accounts. First, the BFIU was mandated to probe money laundering and terror financing. Second, the listed names are not under investigation for suspicious transactions.

Possibly, journalism is the only profession in the country where a recruit in the profession does not need to face an ethics board, appear for a written and oral exam, take an oath, or sign a code of conduct. It is expected that news organizations and scribes should remain steadfast in the principles of transparency, abide by the ethics of journalism, and sign a code of conduct.

This could only have been developed by the Press Council if professional media bodies would have taken initiative.

Often, videos surfaced on social media, showing certain journalists exploiting their positions by rubbing shoulders with state and non-state actors, compromising professional ethics.

The extravaganzas in the election campaigns by different reporters’ groups have been noticed. It’s a conspiracy of silence that the influential candidates spend generously on drink and dinner parties for the merriment of the voters.

Similarly, the spending of candidates vying for top posts in the National Press Club, BFUJ, DUJ, and DRU also becomes visible during the elections. The cash is acquired from rogue politicians, land sharks, smugglers, and even underworld criminals -- who are all hand-in-glove with those tainted journalists.

Shouldn’t the assets and bank details of such journalists, media owners, and especially TV channels be sought out by the authorities?

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 28 September 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

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