Memorable days: Tough first few months to assert as editor

Mostafa Kamal Majumder
After taking over as editor of The New Nation in May I spent some tough months for a variety of reasons. The proprietor used to subsidise the paper with his earnings from the Daily Ittefaq. The paper had about 100 journalists and general employees. The monthly salary bill was around Taka four hundred thousand which the paper could not manage from its own earnings. The employees, low paid as they were used to grow restive after the tenth of each month for salary. And the obvious choice was gherao of the editor’s office room followed by negotiations by union leaders. The owners were cooperative and continued to support the paper. Even they used to pay the employees half month’s salary as a festival allowance. At this stage Director Javed Hosein sought to know from me the state of paper. I told him in reply, the paper was housed in the same building from where the Daily Ittefaq used to come out. Our paper had all the vices that the Daily Ittefaq had but lacked its virtues – meaning the flow of advertisement revenue that was huge in the Ittefaq but scanty in The New Nation. The largest circulated newspaper at that time Ittefaq attracted most advertisements compared to other vernacular Dhaka dailies. People used to say that its news coverage was dedicated to some ‘news holes’ as most of the paper’s space was occupied by advertisements. But the editing of the paper was so efficient that Ittefaq used to accommodate all news items in those holes. There were even one paragraph or two-paragraph news stories. So compact was the language that they conveyed the news. A lot of agents used to run after people who went to give private ads with a view to exacting commission against the service rendered to ensure insertion.
The New Nation, however, was ahead in one respect. It was giving leadership to the save rivers campaign. During my tenure as Executive Editor in the Paper, I was invited to a conference organised by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi in 2003. After attending the CSE meetings I contacted my friend Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma, director of the ecological foundation there. He was attending a meeting of water activists and NGOs with the Indian Minister for Water Resources Suresh Prabhu who was spelling out the Gigantic River Interlinking Plan. Its target was to create a garland of rivers in the Himalayan part and link those with the peninsular rivers in the south. NGOs and water activists opposed the plan because it was against the dictates of nature and would ultimately ruin the rivers. At Dr. Sudhirendar’s request, I went to the venue of the meeting which was at a walking distance from the India Habitat Centre where I was staying. When the meeting broke all came out of the meeting room and Sudhirendar introduced me to Mr. Rameswami Iyer, a former Irrigation Secretary of India, who was giving the intellectual leadership to the movement against the Indian River Interlinking Plan. He briefed me on Suresh Prabhu’s plan and the line of action against the same water activists were planning. That was how the campaign against the river interlinking plan began simultaneously in Dhaka and Delhi. The leaders of the movement in New Delhi wanted similar strong campaign also in Dhaka and my contacts with the key actors helped me prepare informed and timely stories for The New Nation.
I tried to take up the issue with Bangladesh Water Resources Minister L.K. Siddiqui (May his soul rest in peace in heaven) with a view to persuading him to issue statement from the Bangladesh side against the monstrous River Interlinking Plan. LK Siddiqui talked to celebrated engineer Quamrul Islam Siddiqui who was then the president of the Engineers’ Institution, Bangladesh asking him to organize a seminar making me the keynote speaker. Most water engineers in Bangladesh at the time believed that it was an old Indian plan that had been shelved. But they were unaware of the Indian Supreme Court’s directive to implement the same thus giving the plan immediacy. The seminar also addressed by the Minister was attended by senior members of the institution and widely covered by the print and the electronic media. And the campaign against the River Interlinking Plan gained further momentum in Bangladesh under the leadership of The New Nation. Soon a Save the Rivers movement grew up in Dhaka and the proprietor of The New Nation was an influential member of its committee.
I involved the paper with the Bangladesh Water Partnership and the International Farakka Committee in jointly holding a conference on sustainable management of common rivers with a view to saving Bangladesh’s rivers which got 90 percent of flows from across the border, from death. One such conference was held at an auditorium at the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) of which Quamrul Islam Siddiqui was the president. The conference was attended by delegates from India and Nepal. The New Nation thus started getting greater prominence in society. The paper also turned into a voice for the cause of the environment. One day we gave lead news treatment to a programme on renewable energy held at Mawna, Gazipur. On the following day Abdul Gofran, senior adviser to Grameen Shakti who was one of the key organisers of the function came all the way from Mawna to the New Nation office with the latest resolutions and all supporting papers. A dedicated man he was moved by the treatment we gave to the issue of renewable energy which other papers had not given much importance.
The financial problems facing the paper, however, were a big headache because the salary and benefits of the employees were eight months in arrears. The second and the third weeks of every month were full of representations, occasional demonstrations and pasting of posters in support of the demand for payment of salary. In the midst of such a tense situation, one morning a message reached up to my residence in Mirpur that the paper suffered irreparable damage because there was a mistake in the caption of a photo. The photo was of businessman Nurul Islam Babu and his lawyer and related to a case filed against the former. The caption identified the lawyer as Nurul Islam Babu. I came to the office at around 11 am and collected details about the venomous campaign started from the general section of the paper. As I examined the day’s issue I peeped through the ‘Business Plus’ page and found the feature items full of mistakes. I marked 100 mistakes in one such item. In no time Madam Saju Hosein, who was head of the Robbar Group of Publications of which The New Nation was a part, called me to her office room downstairs and sought to know of the cause of the mistake. The ring leader of the campaign was the general manager who said it was not a mistake but sabotage. Saju Madam asked how the paper will grow if such mistakes are committed. I politely brought out the ‘Business Plus’ page and showed her 100 mistakes I had marked in only one item. The general manager who behaved like bigger than his size during the tenures of my predecessors used to bring out that page. He had no defence before the owners. And the encounter decisively went against the campaigner.