He was the pioneer of independent media in Bangladesh

Transcom Group's founding chairman Latifur RahmanProthom Alo
Today marks the third death anniversary of the founder of Transcom Group. He passed away on 1 July 2020. On 14 July the same year, eminent economist Rehman Sobhan spoke at a virtual discussion organised by Prothom Alo and The Daily Star. We reproduce here his deliberation as published in Prothom Alo on 1 July 2021.

Latifur Rahman has made so many contributions in so many areas. I would like to particularly concentrate more on his contribution to the creation of an independent media.

I had met Mahfuz Anam in the home of Abu Zafar Obaidullah, in Bangkok when Mahfuz was on the verge of going back to Bangladesh to carry out his life’s ambition of setting up a newspaper. I remember pointing out the core problem of running an independent newspaper in Bangladesh. I said, “You want to run an independent newspaper, but who will finance it? Obviously you would have to turn to someone or the other in the business community. How would you then tackle the pressure from businessmen who have their own vested agendas in investing in a newspaper and would want to use the newspaper to fulfill that agenda?”

I drew Mahfuz’s attention to this and on several occasions later too, I reminded him about India’s experience where most of the major newspapers are owned by big businessmen or big business conglomerates. Even the most famous and historic papers there have all constantly been reined in and pressurised by governments to curb any anti-government comments and to speak in support of the government. Particularly during the emergency of Indira Gandhi, most of the renowned newspapers of India, with some very rare exceptions such as Indian Express, had come under severe pressure. The government of the day had leverage on the business communities because of the various ways in which big businesses kept themselves vulnerable to government pressure.

So I pointed out that his real challenge was going to be finding an investor who would be able to withstand pressure from the government. It would probably be easier to pull a camel through the eye of a needle than to find an investor who would be really committed heart and soul to uphold the independence of a newspaper.

The fact that you found not just Latifur Rahman, but also Azimur Rahman and subsequently his wife Rokia Rahman, to actually come and invest in your paper, was one of the great joys of the concept of an independent press. Even for me, who have always believed in an independent press, this was a great joy and one of the great achievements of our generation.

The critical element of this is that this connects with the other area in which everyone is remembering Latifur Rahman -- if you want to create an independent media in which you are a major investor, then you also have to make yourself invulnerable to any form of pressure.

We live in a day and age, not just in Bangladesh, but virtually in all the countries around us, in which most businesses leave themselves open to pressures, whether in relation to the way they handle their taxes, the way in which they handle their loan liabilities, the way in which they handle their business practices, they always leave room for leverage from governments to put pressure on newspapers. They do not need to necessarily go to the editors. All they need to do is to call up the newspaper owner and remind them about certain unattended issues in their tax files or certain problems with their loan liabilities. That is enough to do the job. So while newspaper editors bask in the notion that they are independent-minded people, the fact of the matter is that whatever independence they actually have, comes from the integrity, reputation, courage and independence of the investors of that newspaper.

Obviously, Latifur Rahman had to face innumerable pressures which are actually practiced in the way governments do business. The Daily Star and Prothom Alo faced profound hostility and pressure, but behind the scenes, there was Latifur Rahman absorbing all the pressures and all the hostilities which were being directed from a succession of governments. What made him unique and has made Daily Star and Prothom Alo unique is that they have been equal opportunity employers in the sense that every government has chosen to be hostile to them over a series of years. The Daily Star and Prothom Alo have demonstrated exemplary independence, and more so has Latifur Rahman.

I know whenever any adverse issues about the government were published, his tax files would be called up and his financial dealings would be investigated. And he stood up to that with his moral strength time and again. That was his great and historic contribution to the independence of the press. We remember him with love and respect because of his integrity and his refusal to compromise his ethical business practices.

It, in a way, holds up a mirror to the integrity and businesses practices of businesspersons. Most businessmen leave themselves open to pressure from the government. Whilst most of them cannot run newspapers or television stations properly, you can measure the degree of independence and autonomy in both these elements of the media, by the degree of vulnerability to which certain investors are actually exposed.

That Latifur Rahman could have sustained media independence over a period of three decades, is as close to being a contemporary miracle in our business culture as you are likely to come across. I used to periodically discuss this with him and he use to say, “This is one of the core parts of my business practices. Because I own newspapers, I have to keep myself clean in order to actually reduce vulnerability of the papers.”

Without using the newspapers to pursue any agenda of his own, he was giving the editors a degree of protection by taking all the burdens and responsibilities on his own shoulders. This was something that he did not broadcast to the world, but those close to him knew it.

The other issue which he made a matter of principle, was that he would not enter into any business transaction which involved seeking government patronage. This again was a very standard part of his business culture. His view was that the moment you sought favours from the government, you opened yourself up to vulnerability.

He has left an extraordinary challenge now to his heirs. He has left his family a legacy which they have to protect. He has left them a legacy of the sort of integrity and honesty with which a business is to function

There is no market price to values which he practiced. He set standards for other media owners, and he set standards for the whole business community, that if you actually want to function as an independent businessman, then at the end of the day you have to demonstrate a degree of integrity and probity in your business practices which will create that sense of invulnerability.

He achieved recognition not just of his peers, but of all those who read the newspapers and who value the concept of an independent media. But he did it with a degree of anonymity and modesty which is quite extraordinary because we now live in the age of arrogance of wealth where a new feudal elite created by unlimited wealth has emerged. He himself was at the apex of that wealth but never would he project that in the way in which he interacted with people. The humility in his social relations is one of equality, of modesty. This made him a very special human being.

He has left an extraordinary challenge now to his heirs. He has left his family a legacy which they have to protect. He has left them a legacy of the sort of integrity and honesty with which a business is to function. And he has left them a legacy of an independent media which is completely dependent on how they perpetuate and continue his business traditions and practices so that what he has done can become a role model and is carried over into the next generation.

And the two newspapers which he created are a great legacy inherited by the journalists. These heirs of his legacy must remember the costs he had to pay for this and the environment in which he had to bear these costs. This will enhance a sense of obligation not just to him but also to the whole concept of the independent media.

He was younger than me but we had a very peculiar and close relationship. He used to always tell me, we have many differences of opinion, but we have a relationship of mutual respect and regard. I appreciated that and we always interacted on this basis of warmth and intimacy and I will remember that for years to come.

I again convey my deep respect towards him and condolences to his family. Let us honour him by preserving and perpetuating his tradition because people pass away, there is deep mourning and then months from now, much is forgotten. In this case, one year from now when I open the pages of Prothom Alo and Daily Star, I would like to still feel that you are honouring him and the tradition which he created. That will be the best tribute.

* Eminent economist Rehman Sobhan paid this tribute on 14 July 2020 at a virtual discussion on Latifur Rahman organised by Prothom Alo and The Daily Star.