TV Channels are literally mushrooming in South Asia. This is a phenomenon that is something unbelievable and as some of my friends say it can rightly claim the tag of Ripley’s believe it or not. Anyone with some few hundred thousand dollars in pocket is turning to be a TV entrepreneur. For any one in search of political or economic nirvana, a TV channel has become the sure shot to fame. Real estate players, businessmen of all hues and politicians aspiring for the big league and even political parties are entering the fray. Getting a license from the authorities and tying up the uplink facility are not always easy as the security agencies too have a say. And there is every possibility of political executive and licensing authority going by the advice of people without caps. In other words TV entry is a high risk business. But that is not acting as a deterrent as my research shows.
Surprisingly, News channel is the preferred one for most prospective players. I could not fathom why more and more News Channels are hitting the TV screen. However deep may be the promoter pockets, given the limited advertisement pie, it is not easy to sustain a 24x7 news channel. Even the respected BBC World has limited eyeball contact and it is not necessarily because BBC fare is in English. Any how, most new news channels in the region are also in English. Narrowcasting is being talked about as the in-thing but I doubt whether the route offers the manna. While looking at these developments, which are as much fascinating as absorbing to an outsider, I came across an interesting case study, which is the subject matter for this article.
Some time in early 2006, a Bangladeshi businessman ( a member of Khaleda Zia’s BNP party and a minister in the BNP-Jamaat coalition government) with wide contacts and his son with business interests in Dhaka and Hong Kong floated a TV channel with up-linking from the Media Mecca, Dubai. It met with usual hiccups. And in about seven months, it folded up on orders from ‘higher-ups’. The father was sent to jail (he may be released soon, according to reports) and the son is running around knocking at all doors. Now there is the talk of the channel bouncing back with a new management in the front office and the old management in the back office. You may say what is so great in the whole story? What is so unique in its travails? Any start-up without adequate preparation often meets such fate anywhere and in any sector, more so in the media business. I don’t disagree. I only wish to say you will not reject out of hand my contention.
If you care to go through the fine print in the way I did as a financial and market analyst with an eye for political environment, you will also begin to wonder at the complex web of tangled wires that is appearing to be a staple diet of developing countries. What intrigued me in the instant case is the involvement of a second country and the way its agencies planned and propped up the venture at great risk. I have heard stories about CIA running clandestine radio services in the good old Cold war days. I also heard of the involvement of MI in such enterprises but this was the first time I came across face- to- face with a daring TV enterprise of a faceless agency in a friendly country for some gains which remain obscure. At least to me, because I live in and deal with a world which is divided into white and black with no grey areas.
From the documents I have been privileged to access and study, it is clear to me that the channel was planned with an eye on Bangladesh elections in 2007. Work on CSB (Chrono Satellite Broadcast) News started way back in 2006 and after putting in lot of spade work the channel hit the screens on March 24, 2007. But the government in Dhaka issued orders for its closure with effect from September 6, 2007. Because the authorities felt the channel was trying to give a fillip to the student unrest in the Dhaka and Rajshahi University campuses. Government viewed the student protest as a ‘failed coup attempt’ by influential teachers, businessmen and two media houses.
“The (government) report says I am responsible for deliberately exaggerating the issue (student protests) so that violence spreads across the country”, Fayyaz Qader Chowdhury, who promoted the channel CBS (Chrono Satellite Broadcast) News, along with his father, wrote in a communication to his Dubai contact on August 26, 2007.
Giving a graphic account of the behind the scene intrigues, the communication went on to say, “The report stated that planning (for student protests) was done in conjunction with a member of the Indian High Commission. They have not only made me a scape goat but they have also made me an Indian agent”. Apparently, Fayyaz doesn’t like to be close to India nor is he a follower of Awami League, the party of the founder of Bangladesh. Because, at one place in the long communication, he writes all businessmen and MD of ETV who were facing music at that time were ‘all Awami Leaguers’.
The advice this lament had brought forth from the Dubai contact is the stuff not normally one comes across in routine business deals. “You will have to task your people to buy over people to create your lobby in government at local level”, the September 2, 2007 datelined message reads. The tagline of this communication was equally interesting: Make ingress in uniformed people at all levels… in the intelligence section…..may be by bribe or any way”.
At another time troubled by the tales of woe from Fayyaz, the Dubai friend promised all possible help to get his father Salauddin Qader released from Rangpur jail where he was detained from February 2007, and offered a homily. “At the same time I suggest you should be friendly channel for the time being and project image of present government in a positive way”:
Salauddin’s troubles appear to have started after the Caretaker Government came to office with the backing of the army and with the avowed object of creating an environment for a free and fair election in the country. The advent of the caretaker saw the imposition of emergency and a ‘no nonsense’ drive against the corrupt elements in and outside the corridors of power to the great relief of people, as my friends from Dhaka keep telling me.
From what I had heard, Salauddin and his business partner Fazlur Rehman became marked men for their ability to swing through the corridors of government when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s BNP led coalition was in office. Islamic parties were a part of the coalition. Salauddin’s interests have footprints in Dubai and, Islamabad and his son’s in Hong Kong. Rehman is a member of ‘business syndicates’ which manipulate prices of commodities. His very nature of business pits him against a government determined to keep the price line and help bail out the poor and middle classes out of price haemorrhage. So the two partners faced music of one kind or the other very unkindly.
Salauddin’s troubles are also to an extent because of his Islamabad connections, which are no longer highly prized. From what is on record, it appears Salauddin’s son used his influence with his ‘contacts’ even to deny an invitation to Bangladesh Army chief from Pakistan. “My father has asked me to give a specific message – please do not allow the Army Chief Moeen to visit your side. The message must be given loud and clear to the chief”. It is not clear to what extent the message influenced Islamabad but the fact of the matter is B’Desh army chief has not visited Pakistan so far though he had visited Delhi and Kolkata recently.
Whether the authorities in Dhaka had an inkling of Salauddin - Fayyaz contacts is a moot point. It is possible they were alerted by money transfers to their accounts for starting the channel. There are at least three known tranches in dollar denomination. They had friends in high places at home in civil and military establishments but the changed circumstances made them unsolicited, according to a version in circulation. That was bad luck as they were told in so many words to behave well if they want to go on air again.
“It looks like the government is not liking our connection with you”, Fayyaz wrote to Dubai friend on September 22, 2007. And disclosed: “They (government) have given us the indication that they will only be willing to allow the channel again if Salauddin and family move out of management control” After some time, on April 16, 2008, to be precise, the powers that matter bluntly stated that they ‘suspected your side had funded the channel’. How did the suspicion come? It came because ‘your elders are contacting them regarding the channel’.
The very structure of the company created to run the channel was also a give away. The MOU that had stitched the deal in June 2006, puts the Dubai end under the aegis of an off-shore shell company (started with UK pounds 1900), gives a 50 per cent share to Phoenix floated by Dubai friend, and offers 33.33 per cent equity to Quintina Holdings, a Hong Kong based enterprise of Fayyaz. It fixes authorised capital at 50 million Arab Emirate Dirhams and paid up capital at 29 million Arab Emirate Dirhams.
The correspondence that preceded the MOU shows that the partners and their patrons were in a hurry to launch the channel in time for the Bangladesh elections slated at that time for end 2006 or early 2007.
“I have tremendous pressure from my elders to be on air as per the given date”, the Dubai man wrote to his partners in Dhaka whom he visited once and hosted their return visit. January 17, 2007 was the date set to start the channel on ‘adhoc basis’. The application for license spoke of plans to offer TV, broadcast, cable, MMDS, DTH and other related services “Production of content in Bangladesh is your baby’, he told his partners and assured them ‘professional and deft handling’ will be his fort.
After the polls were put off and the country came under emergency regulations, the launch was deferred to February 17. It went on the air on March 26 and was pulled off the air before the year was out.
Like all business ventures, this enterprise too had a rough patch over fine print on the JV agreement. Discord often led to intemperate expressions and direct digs at each other in mails that had become more frequent. About some clauses, out went the complaint from Dhaka (May 22, 2006) that these were not only ‘unfair’ but they were also ‘invalid’ and ‘inconsistent’ with the agreement reached in Islamabad. A visit to Islamabad and a revision of the draft agreement were a natural corollary. From then on the ‘original’ deed has become ‘Islamabad agreement’ in all references. ‘We are preparing’, said one such mail, ‘an alternative shareholder agreement that is consistent with the Islamabad agreement in order to keep things moving’.
Like any business person, the Dhaka group behind the CBS News also found a way out soon. That was to bring the Bangladesh envoy to Pakistan, Yasmeen Murshed as the partner and handover the reigns of the company to her. She and Salauddin know each other well and even had business dealings. She is also close to Fazlur Rehman as her son is his business colleague. The modus operandi: make Fazlur give all his shares to Yasmeen. She is also agreeable to the idea. With her involvement, they hoped to have the decks cleared as their sources winked at their plan even when it was on the drawing board. “The license will be given to the company as soon as she (Yasmeen) takes over our share”, Fayyaz conveyed (April 16, 2008) to Dubai, who got back to him on May 22, with the message “Our elders have agreed with whatever deal you have planned for re-opening the channel”.
It was indeed a master business stroke. A management company will be set up by Fayyaz and Yasmeen’s son as a 50:50 venture to look after the every day administrative affairs of CSB News. It will collect upfront a fee for these services. While Yasmeen’s son will work from CSB office, Fayyaz will sit in the management company’s office and thus he will still have indirect influence and control ‘for the time being’. Fayyaz also secured his interests another way. His Quintina Holdings holds the international distribution rights of CBS.
What about a proverbial slip between the cup and the lip normal to any high risk venture in a volatile world? Fayyaz set at rest any such possibility in a long letter to his Dubai partner cum venture capitalist of sorts, which he began addressing him as Dear Brother.
“We are secured in the following ways”, he said and listed as many as eight steps that are his insurance cover. Top of the table will be an undated share transfer document signed by Yasmeen. “When we sign over share transfer forms to Yasmeen, she signs over share transfer forms to us at the same time. Whenever we want we can submit the share transfer forms signed by her to take back the shares”, he stated by way of clarification ‘you asked for’.
To set at rest probably any lingering doubts, the letter adds at Point Eight: “A final agreement with YM is that because she is not actually owning the company (since she is already signing away her share transfers to us), she is not investing any funds to run the company. Funds will be arranged by us and will be invested through her. Further more, she will be paid yearly sum of $ 50,000 for her services of being our face and maintaining a basic management on our behalf”.
He stated further thus: “All the above are conditional upon a legal agreement – that we take final decisions on all operational matters since YM’s people have no experience in this field”.
Then came the caveat unexpected. And that is that the arrangement with ambassador Yasmeen is not for public consumption. “YM’s internal arrangement with us is absolutely confidential” and made out a case against ‘your elders’ putting in a good word for the channel with the authorities in Dhaka. Such intervention would backfire, it cautioned, pointing out “authorities will think that YM has made a deal with your elders while she is ambassador in Islamabad. She may even lose her job”.
As I completed my case study two questions remained unanswered: who are these ‘your elders’ and what interest Pakistan has in a TV channel in Bangladesh. I did not identify the name of the Dubai partner. This is rather deliberate as I feel it is not germane to my case study. Also there are references to ISI in the correspondence I gained access to during my study of the TV channel market in south Asia. But then, I have not made any direct reference to either ISI or any similar agency in Bangladesh itself since these belong to a different domain and not to my area of work.
As a business analyst here my focus was limited to types of interests at play and to how the nascent medium of TV has a flipside.