By Melanie Bencosme
Voices of NY
Playful Bangla music tapped on the heels of the dancers, while families gathered to enjoy the book and science fair, displays of art and drama shows during a three-day children’s fair in Sylhet, Bangladesh in 1982. But, instead of delighting in the activities with kids his age, Abu Taher was taking notes and interviewing people for his first story.
“Different people have different minds and since I was born my father was a teacher and we were born and raised with books and newspapers. I saw my father spent most of his time reading and it made me curious,” said Taher.
Born in Sylhet, Taher, now 45, was an ambitious young boy with aspirations of being a journalist. That spirit has followed him his entire life. Taher is a co-founder and current editor of the 17-year-old weekly Bangladeshi newspaper, Bangla Patrika.
Taher spoke about his career as a journalist and his publication during a wide-ranging interview that was periodically interrupted by the clatter of the nearby elevated subway line. Bangla Patrika is headquartered in Long Island City, Queens, on the second floor office just above an auto shop.
Bangla Patrika hits the stands every Monday in the five boroughs and multiple locations across the U.S., including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Miami and Los Angeles. The paper is spreading its reach and after 17 years is now available online at banglapatrikausa.com. A team of 10 employees and some freelancers fill the pages of Bangla Patrika, most working six days a week. As editor, Taher works 16-hour days, seven days a week.
“He is a brilliant guy,” said Habibur Rahman, 55, news editor of Bangla Patrika, who has worked with Taher for 12 years. “He always serves the community. He wants to help build our community.”
It was at the age of 14 that Taher chose his career path. Taher had seven younger siblings, four brothers and three sisters. He decided that if he was going to be independent and support himself, he needed to start investing in his career.
It started at home, where Taher’s father, who was a grade school teacher, spent most of his time reading. Soon enough, that rubbed off on Taher and he decided he wanted to be a writer. But it was the bylines above the stories that sparked interest in a career in journalism.
“A reporter, it’s a combination of a person who can be a role model for anyone who loves to read articles, novels, books and all of that. And then I thought: I could be that person, a reporter,” Taher said.
Taher’s story on the children’s fair, written when he was just 14 years old, was published in a four-page weekly publication in Sylhet called Weekly Jugovery.
After that early success, Taher started taking pictures for a newspaper called The Weekly Sylhet Kantha, working without pay with a small camera given to him by his cousin. Taher used money from his allowance to print the pictures, seeing it as “an investment” in his career. In the process, he started being well-known among older journalists who would ask him to take pictures for their stories.
Taher became a full time reporter at the age of 18, driven by the idea of writing stories to “create more of an impact,” he said. His editor gave him a chance by assigning him to cover a meeting. Taher was not a journalism student and didn’t know how to compose a story. So, he went to the meeting and made sure he knew the basics – who, what, when, where and why. When it was time to write the article, he gathered past reports on meetings to get a feel for how other reporters covered the stories. Giving him more of a boost, the editor complimented his work and published it.
During his college years at Ideal College in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Taher moved up in the ranks, becoming the Dhaka bureau chief for the Dainik Naya Bangla, a daily paper in the port city of Chittagong. He also worked as a diplomatic correspondent for the daily Ajker Kagoj. In 1988, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
He started a master’s degree program but didn’t finish and instead came to the U.S. in 1992. He felt constrained by limitations on the press in Bangladesh, and was drawn to the open society in the U.S.
“I chose [to live] here to enjoy the press freedom that I prefer. The United States have constitutional rights that ensure freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” Taher said. “So, I thought it’s the best place where you can enjoy your freedom as a journalist.”
When he moved here, Taher right away found a position as chief reporter with the Bangla weekly, Thikana, where he worked for four years.
Taher, who founded Bangla Patrika in 1996 with two other journalists, has spearheaded award-winning coverage of issues important to the local Bangladeshi community, such as the hate crimes against Bangladeshi residents in the U.S. following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
In 1996, Taher joined together with two other journalists to start a new Bengali publication, Bangla Patrika, in order to better serve the Bangladeshi community in the U.S. with coverage that had a local focus.
“We thought our community was an underserved community… I always felt like we have to have a newspaper that will be the voice for our community, not a voice for Bangladesh or Bangladesh politics,” Taher said. “That was the main spirit to publish this newspaper. That’s the reason why we publish this newspaper, to be a voice for the community, the Bangladeshi community.”
The founders selected the name Bangla Patrika – Bangla, also known as Bengali, is the language spoken in Bangladesh and “patrika” means newspaper – because they thought it would be easy to remember and could become a household name.
Bangla Patrika is sold on newsstands for $1. Its local coverage, design, investigative stories and human interest pieces make it competitive with Bengali language newspapers distributed for free in the U.S, according to Taher.
“There could be hundreds of free newspapers in the same row as yours but if you understand your community and you can produce good stories, different ideas, exclusive items…then people will buy your newspaper,” Taher said. “We are maintaining the success because of the quality of our newspaper.”
Bangla Patrika focuses more on local issues and covers a variety of topics from politics to sports to eating healthy. Taher works with freelance reporters in the cities across the U.S. where he publishes to keep the content relevant to readers.
Taher is most proud of his article about a woman who made and sold Bangladeshi-Indian bread inside her house after her husband had a stroke and could no longer support them. He found her story very inspirational for people who have to survive by their own means or as he would say, “who have to survive by their own foot.” For the story, Taher won the First National Ethnic Media Award from New America Media, a nationwide association of ethnic media organizations.
Other stories of which Taher is proud detailed hate crimes and violence against Bangladeshi immigrants in the U.S. in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Taher is the recipient of the New America Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, among other recognitions. He has also taken part in numerous fellowships, including The New York Times Foreign Press Fellowship and the Independent Press Association Ethnic Press Fellowship.
A few years after starting Bangla Patrika, Taher made a trip back to Bangladesh and through a matchmaker, found his wife. It only took one conversation with Meherunnisa Jobaida for him to know she was the one; he was most impressed by her brain.
“I don’t care about anything else, if they have the money, social status or anything. I prefer someone who can match my intellectual ability,” Taher said.
In 2000, Taher and Jobaida were married. On that day, Jobaida was made aware of Taher’s first love at their wedding reception.
“He was already married to journalism before he married me… Our post marriage reception venue was the Dhaka Press Club Auditorium!” Jobaida said.
Married now for 13 years, Taher and Jobaida have three children – two daughters and a 3-month-old son. At home, Taher spends quality time with his girls by playing hide and seek and wrestling.
“When he plays with [our] daughters, he seems to be a child among them. He forgets his age and they all play like they are little children,” she said.
On the job, Taher is exploring new platforms. He is in the early stages of starting a new Bengali-English television channel under Total Cable, a television provider that specifically hosts a range of Bangla, Hindi and American channels, and TV-Desi, an online South Asian television network.
“We are thinking of how we can build a bridge, not just for the generation that is coming straight from Bangladesh,” Taher said. ”We are trying to attract the new generation that is growing up. So we have a plan [for] how we can accommodate [them].”
Taking on this new television station alone, Taher has frequently sought advice from consultants, his younger brother who is a journalist in Bangladesh, and the community.
Before pitching his channel to the major cable networks, his first step is to build a studio. Taher has already rented the space at a new location and construction has begun.
The prospective channel will feature a talk show, a health program and a news broadcast. There will be a website on which feature shows and news broadcasts are streamed live so that coverage will be accessible globally.
The new endeavor is risky but has a lot of potential for great success, according to Moinuddin Naser, a 56-year-old social worker and former journalist who met Taher 26 years ago in Bangladesh.
“I hope he will be able to meet the standard of journalism of community-based electronic media. This is sure, he will spare no pain to make it a successful venture,” said Naser.
Taher has worked to be the role model that he saw in the bylines of the newspapers his father read years ago.
“Since my boyhood, that’s been my profession. I have my experience, my network. When I write something and people talk about it, you can’t compare it to money,” Taher said. “Journalism is a creation, you are creating something, you are creating the ideas.”