THE PERSECUTION OF TEHELKA

By: Vir Sanghvi
July 13 2002

Almost from the time that Tarun Tejpal held his famous press conference to play the Tehelka tapes, there have been two views on Operation Westend and the methods it employed.

The first is the view of the educated middle class. From this perspective Tarun is a hero, Operation Westend is a pioneering work of genius and the videotapes confirm what has always been suspected: India’s politicians are complete crooks.

The second is what might be called the view of the journalistic class. No journalist I know (except perhaps for the odd government-loyalist) disputes that Operation Westend is the most important journalistic scoop of the last five years. Nor do most of us doubt Tarun’s motives or his intentions in proceeding with the sting.

The disquiet is with his methods. Brought up on the old rules about on-the-record and off-the-record and uneasy about the use of concealed cameras, (to say nothing of the use of call girls) journalists have always been cautious in their praise of Tehelka. It is significant that despite the huge impact of Operation Westend, not one journalistic organisation of repute has seen it fit to adopt Tehelka’s methods.

Sixteen months ago, when the Tehelka story first broke, I was not surprised when the political establishment scrambled to look for conspiracies: the CIA was behind it, the ISI sponsored Tehelka, Tarun and his father were close to Arjun Singh, Subhash Chandra had financed the exposé to improve Zee’s ratings, the Hindujas were behind Tarun, it was done by Shankar Sharma, one of Tehelka’s backers, to crash the markets, and so on.

My point then, as now, was simple enough: let us first deal with the revelations and then worry about Tarun’s so-called backers.

The tragedy is that the political establishment has ignored the revelations and focussed on the conspiracy theories.

In any truly democratic country that valued a free press, Operation Westend would have laid the foundations for Tehelka’s future success. When Tarun held his historic press conference, things were going swimmingly well for Tehelka. The internet boom was ending but Tehelka’s managers had been sensible enough not to splurge on unnecessary expenditure. Their portal was well-financed and in no imminent danger of any kind of cash-crunch.

It also had - in Tehelka - the best-known internet brand name in the country and a site that was bright and chirpy with around 20 or 25 new stories being posted each day. Tehelka’s staff numbered nearly 105 and this team included smart and promising journalists.

All this should have been the springboard for an amazing success story.

But here’s the irony: forget about a success story, Tehelka is struggling to survive.

Of that staff of 105, only 15 are left. And even they haven’t all been paid full salaries for nearly six months now. The site is a shadow of its chirpy self; one or two stories are posted each day. The money has all gone; no new funds are coming in. Tarun, in his personal capacity, is in debt to the tune of a crore or so. Tehelka’s corporate debts are even higher.

All this because they dared to take on the Government of India.

Though most people did not realise it then, the beginning of the end came when the government framed the terms of reference for the Venkataswami Commission. At the time, we hailed the decision to constitute the commission: at least now there would be some follow-up to the Tehelka revelations, we thought.

Only A.G. Noorani had the foresight to see that the commission’s terms of reference included something called Term D, which was unprecedented. According to Term D, the commission would look into “all aspects relating to the making and publication of these allegations.”

As Noorani wrote (Hindustan Times, March 31, 2001), “never in the half-century of the Commission of Inquiry Act 1952” had anybody been asked to probe the credentials of those who made the charge. Presciently, he warned “if this move is allowed to pass muster, the press will effectively be muzzled. Anytime it publishes an exposé, the government will retaliate by setting up inquiries not only into the truth of the charges, but also into the motives, finances and sources of the journal which publishes them.”

To understand what Term D allows the government to do, take the example of any investigative story from history. When Arun Shourie published his famous Antulay exposé, Term D would have allowed the government to divert attention from the charges and focus on Shourie himself. Why had he written the articles? How much was his salary? Who were his friends? What were his sources?

Or take Watergate, the most famous investigative story of all time. Under Term D, Woodward and Bernstein would have had to reveal who Deep Throat was, how they knew him, why he was squealing etc. The Washington Post would have had to explain why it hired Woodward and Bernstein, how much it paid them, whether it had any previous animus against Richard Nixon etc.

This is the trap that Tarun and Tehelka now find themselves in. The commission has ruled that the videotapes are genuine but under Term D, it has to allow the government’s lawyers to go into “all aspects relating to the making and publication of the allegations”. So every sentence in over 100 hours of footage is scrutinised and has to be defended. Tehelka has had to hire 14 lawyers to defend itself. As many as seven Tehelka journalists have been assigned to the task of defending it before the commission and according to Tarun, Tehelka has spent 30,000 man hours on commission-related work.

Moreover, the lawyers have used the familiar technique of throwing Tehelka off balance by demanding thousands of papers relating to income tax, salaries, travel-expenses etc. When Tarun took the stand, he was examined by the Additional Solicitor General of India for a day and a half. He was asked how many cars he used, when he filed his tax returns and why his returns had been delayed seven years ago.

While Tehelka is being worn down through this process of attrition the government has opened other fronts. The best known of these has been the prosecution of First Global, owners of 14.5 per cent of Tehelka. Shankar and Devina Sharma, promoters of First Global, have been raided 25 times, they have been served over 200 personal summons, they have been detained thrice and Shankar Sharma has been imprisoned without bail for one month. After ten years of spectacular success, First Global has now shut down.

It is not my case that Shankar and Devina Sharma should be entitled to some special protection because they own part of a media organisation - I have, in fact, argued the exact opposite - but nobody can deny that the timing of the persecution of First Global is suspicious. It is hard to escape the nagging feeling that they are being punished as a warning to all those who would invest in Tehelka.

If that is, in fact, the intention, then it has succeeded brilliantly. Today the message has gone out throughout the financial community: invest in Tehelka and the government will make sure you regret it.

Even if the Sharmas are not entitled to the protections afforded by the freedom of the press, there is no doubt that Kumar Badal, a reporter on Tehelka’s rolls, is guaranteed these freedoms. But Badal is currently in jail on what Tarun says are “the flimsiest of grounds”.

Badal’s imprisonment has to do with another matter: a poaching case in Sahranpur. As far as I can see, the charge is that he tried to set up a sting operation on poaching (just as Westend was a defence purchases sting) and was, therefore, in touch with poachers. Tarun says that even this is not true. All that happened, he claims, is that Badal’s name and address were found on an arrested poacher.

In any event, this relatively minor case was quickly handed over to the CBI which promptly began leaking anti-Tehelka stories to the media. Then, on the day that Tarun was due to appear before the commission, a 15-member CBI team raided Tehelka and ransacked its offices from 10.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. We are not preventing you from going anywhere, they told Tarun. You can go to the commission while we tear your office apart.

You would have to be an idiot not to see a pattern in all this: the nit-picking before the commission, the prosecution of Shankar Sharma, the arrest of Kumar Badal, the raid on Tehelka and the steady leak of hostile stories to the media from the government’s agencies.

The message in all this is quite direct: if anyone ever tries to expose corruption in the way in which Tehelka has done, they will face the full might of the government of India.

It worries me that, as journalists, we are allowing the government to get away with all this. We may not agree with Tehelka’s methods, we may have reservations about some of its actions, and we may argue that Shankar Sharma’s prosecution is not a freedom of the press issue. But the overall picture is startlingly clear. Today, the attack is on Tehelka. Who knows which section of the press will get it in the neck tomorrow?

This is a government comprised of people who went to jail during the Emergency; of people who fought for civil liberties. Many of its leading lights complained loudly when The Indian Express was being persecuted by the Congress regime.

And yet, it is this government that is behaving like the Emergency regime, throwing aside the principles it once claimed to believe in, strangling the press and trampling on the right to free speech.

I wonder if it sees the irony?

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