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 A requiem for the Observer....................

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PostSubject: A requiem for the Observer....................   Mon Mar 23, 2009 6:43 pm



Media legend The Bangladesh Observer is at death's door, says Khaled Hamidul Haque Chowdhury, the son of the newspaper's founder late Hamidul Haque Chowdhury.

Journalists and employees of the 60-year old newspaper have launched a campaign demanding 78 months' arrears in pay. They have also approached the government to get their dues.

An audit, at the end of 2007, shows the company had Tk 1.77 crore in cash and Tk 11.11 crore in cheques deposited with banks.

So what went wrong? Why no pay?

"The Observer journalists and employees have not allowed any of us to enter the Observer House since 1991," complains Manzoor Ahmed Choudhury, the chairman of Al Helal Printing and Publishing Company that owns Observer and the son-in-law of Hamidul Haque Chowdhury.

"Our family has no control over the paper's management. The show is being run solely by the newspapermen and other employees."

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, the "controversially-appointed" editor, says, "The owners stopped paying our salaries. So, we continued to publish the newspaper, demanding our salaries and allowances.

"The journalists and workers received their salaries as long as the cash flow in the company was smooth."

So, how are the journalists and other staff doing without pay for the past 78 months? Some say they were at times paid a little money irregularly, which is how they managed to survive.

Says a former Observer journalist: a particular 'quarter' has kept the Observer House problems alive, as the current arrangements serve them well.

That group has members both from inside and outside the Observer House, he adds.

It all began in 1991

The newspapermen waged a movement in 1991 demanding implementation of the fourth wage board and payment of the dues for those sacked or retired.

A petition to the information ministry filed just last week on their behalf says, "The owners of the paper shut it down without implementing the 1991 wage board recommendations."

Nazmul Huda, the information minister at that time, acted as the arbitrator, and it was decided that the owners would pay up the Tk 5 crore in accumulated salaries and allowances.

Manzoor Ahmed Choudhury signed the agreement on behalf of the owners.

But the money was not paid as agreed. Neverthless, the journalists continued to get the paper to the stands expecting to get paid some day, says Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury.

Manzoor Ahmed Choudhury says, "The draft agreement required the payment cheques to be issued in the name of Nazmul Huda. The then chairman Hamidul Haque Chowdhury also wasn't agreeable as the directors didn't approve of the arrangement."

Khaled Hamidul Haque Chowdhury and Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury was a senior reporter in 1991 and Dhaka University professor KMA Munim was acting editor.

SM Ali, editor for few months in 1989, left the paper and later launched The Daily Star. A large group of journalists—including special correspondent Reazuddin Ahmed—also left in 1990 to join the new venture.

The departure of Reazuddin Ahmed, leader of one of the union factions, gave the other faction leader Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury greater control of the proceedings.

So in 1991, when the journalists and workers took charge of running the paper, it was in fact Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury who was calling the shots.

Belayet Hossain, president of the press workers union, says, "Since 1991, the newspaper has been published under the leadership of Iqbal Sobhan. We did not accept KT Hossain as the editor who was appointed by the owners during the movement."

KT Hossain was removed. Hamidul Haque Chowdhury was also hounded out, and he died in Jan 1992.

And so stepped in Khaled Hamidul Haque Chowdhury, the founder-owner's only son, as the representative of the owners.

Observer employees say it was Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury who had brought in Khaled Hamidul Haque, who was allegedly used as a shield to keep Hamidul Haque Chowdhury's daughters and sons-in-law at bay.

Khaled began handling all operational activities and soon appointed a new editor. He made Munim editor and finally, chief editor.

A 1998 office order declared Iqbal Sobhan editor. Manzoor Ahmed Choudhury, the chairman, refused to accept Iqbal as the editor, and says he there has never been an appointment letter issued.

"How could you recruit an editor without the prior approval of the board of directors?" Manzur asked.

Iqbal has an answer. "To me, one of the directors appointing me as the editor is acceptable enough."

On condition of anonymity, a senior Observer journalist says, "After 1998, the office showed signs of failure; our salaries were pending and after October 2002, no salaries have been paid."

Manzoor says Khaled's authority was also challenged by his sisters in a writ petition with a Dhaka court.

Audit report

The court ordered an audit of the Al-Helal Printing Press and Publishing Company. The audit report said the salaries due to be paid to the 259 Observer and Chitrali (sister publication) journalists and workers from Jan 1, 1992 to Dec 31, 2007 stood at over Tk 26 crore.

According to the report, in that period the organisation received Tk 130 crore in cash and Tk 21.91 crore in cheque. Some Tk 10.80 crore was spent in cheque and Tk 128 crore in cash.

Of the cash, nearly Tk 90 crore was spent on business operation, Tk 18.62 crore on advance expenses and Tk 31 crore other expenses.

The arrears started from Oct, 2002. The report stated that Tk 36.28 crore came in cash from 2002-2007. Some Tk 1.76 crore in cash was in the kitty in 2007.

Says Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury: "We have asked the owners to give our outstanding dues by accepting the audit as the court had ordered to do that."

Manzoor differs. "We said in the court that we did not accept the review. The review said the report was prepared in line with the data provided by the management led by the union.

"There is no control of the owners."

One senior journalist asks if there was Tk 1.76 crore in cash why they were not given salaries.

"The journalists got their salaries as long as the cash flow was good. The arrears started after the cash flow began drying up," Iqbal Sobhan says.

He claims the audit report showed the statement of expenditure and there was no allegation of funds embezzlement.

Manzoor says: "The employees cannot spend the money coming in the name of the company and they cannot take over the office.

"So someone will have to take the responsibility of the spending going on for quite sometime."

Funds received through cheques from 1992 to 2003 could not be withdrawn as the bank account was frozen, he says.

After the account reopened the money was spent on loans and tax payments, he says.

But the audit report showed Tk 11 crore in bank account at the end of 2007.

Zahid Al Amin, a reporter who quit Observer in 2007, says: "One group was not allowing resolution to the Observer problem. The journalists are getting profits though they are not getting salaries. The group contains both the insiders and outsiders of Observer."

Moazzem Hossain, who had joined in 1971, left Observer in 1987 as a senior economic reporter.

"I have never been paid my accrued benefits including gratuity and leave entitlements after 17 years of work," Hossain, now editor of The Financial Express, told us.

Open Letter

Manzoor Ahmed Choudhury in an open letter on Nov 19, 2004 asked the Observer journalists to sign an agreement. He promised the journalists to pay off three months' salary and some employees' salaries for five months. Some 161 journalists and employees signed in the deal.

Even after that, the outstanding was not paid, says a senior journalist. "The frequent assurance of the owners was never fulfilled," he adds.

Manzoor Choudhury says: "We started work after signing the deal. But later the journalists filed cases against us."

Some 144 cases were filed against the owners with the labour court in Dhaka in 2005. Of them, the High Court had stayed 42.

78 months without pay

Observer Press Workers' Union president Belayet Hossain says: "We have not been getting salaries for the last 78 months."

"Sometimes we get some money."

Iqbal Sobhan, who lost in the national elections as an Awami League nominee for Feni-2 constituency, echoes Belayet.

In his wealth statement submitted to the Election Commission, Iqbal Sobhan said his annual income was Tk 4.31 lakh. He estimated his election cost at Tk 13.50 lakh —Tk 3 lakh from his own income and the remainder from the relatives.

Apart from that his moveable and immovable assets include an under-construction house at Nikunja in Dhaka, cash Tk 2 lakh, a car worth Tk 9 lakh, 60 tolas of gold, electronics and furniture worth Tk 1.50 lakh and land of Tk 2.60 lakh.

Feud among the owners

There are now four directors in Al-Helal Printing and Publishing. Of them two are daughters of Hamidul Haque Chowdhury — Nazma Ali and Nargis Rahman. Nargis Rahman is now the publisher of the Observer.

Manzoor says shares of Al-Helal total 1,650. Of them 652 shares were in the name of late Hamidul Haque Chowdhury, 800 shares in the name of his seven daughters and 170 in the name of Khaled Hamidul Haque.

Manzoor, he says, has some 10-15 shares.

The owners lack understanding, which is why there has been no meeting of the board of directors after 2003, he says.

Number of serving journalists and employees

"About 130-140 journalists, press workers and other employees have been without pay for the last 78 months," says Iqbal Sobhan.

But those still working say the number is not more than 20-30. They say some are working elsewhere without resignation or leave.

Any solution in sight?

"The government may take any decision after paying our arrears. Otherwise the paper can be run by an administrator," the Iqbal Sobhan says.

The current crisis can be resolved legally, comments Manzur.

Past history

The daily paper was first published as The Pakistan Observer by Hamidul Haque Chowdhury in 1949. Later in 1952, the paper was banned for its stand in favour of the Language Movement and provincial autonomy. The daily's editor and publisher were also arrested.

In 1954, the paper reappeared, and was black-listed for government adverts in 1960 over its rigorous stand for East Bengal provincial autonomy.

In Dec 1971, it was published as Bangladesh Observer and later, in 1972, the then government took it under state control.

In 1984, president Ershad handed over its ownership to Hamidul Haque Chowdhury.

Prior to independence, five papers were published from Al-Helal Printing and Publishing—The Daily Waten, The Pakistan Observer, The Purbadesh, the weekly Chitrali and the weekly Chitrali (Urdu).

Post-independence, The Bangladesh Observer, The Purbadesh and Chitrali began their journeys afresh. Later the Purbadesh and the Chitraly were banned after formation of BAKSAL, a one-party socialist system introduced by president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Subsequently, the Chitrali reappeared but became irregular after 1991. It finally ended its journey in 2005.
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