Hundred hours of tape, eight months of after-shocks
By Tarun J Tejpal
In my 18 years in journalism, had I spent more time hanging around with politicians, and less with other kinds of achievers, I would have known better. In 18 years, had I dabbled more in the business of journalism than in journalism, I would have known better. When Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel finished their eight-month-long investigation — unparalleled in India for its ingenuity and courage, and driven by nothing but the excitement of a major expose — I would have perhaps, had I the savvy in business and political venality, known better than to have dived off the deep end.
It is not as if we did not take pause. We did, but not for long enough to break our resolve. With due respects to Kamala, Antulay and Bhagalpur, we were aware we were taking on much more than any other story, because we were going up against an entire ruling party and government whose various echelons had been captured in corrupt compromise. All good editors know that guerrilla stories, investigative skirmishes, are easy to commission and handle: you nip at one flank while warmly stroking the other, the behemoth tolerates the pinpricks and laps up the caresses in some cosy understanding of occupational necessities. The watchdog and the monster go dancing into the twilight, making just enough yipping sounds to confuse the onlooker.
The nip and yowl, the dancing semblance to a duel, allows even the most honorable editors to break bread with their conscience. The others, the savvy ones, have of course figured that journalism is just another business, and dancing with the devil inevitable in public affairs. We, on the contrary, knew we were sailing into a pitched battle, and were allowing the monster no room to dance.
But we did not think too hard about how it would pan out; we just went with the momentum of the story. We knew we would reap a whirlwind, but were confident of weathering it because we imagined our fulcrum of pure intentions and honorable motives would keep us from being uprooted. Many people have called it naivete. If it is, then let me say it proved to be valuable naivete; without it there would have been no Operation West-End, and its many distressing revelations.
So we do not for a moment regret our inexperience in pursuing or breaking the story. What we have begun to deeply regret is our inexperience in accepting the terms of reference of the Venkataswami Commission. We should have heard the truth in A.G. Noorani’s words when he warned early last year that this commission, with one of its four terms of reference (term d) being to investigate the journalists, is the most dangerous of precedents that could have been set by any government. It strikes at the very roots of liberal democracy and the freedom of the press. It allows governments facing charges of corruption to go for the media instead of addressing the charges.
In Noorani’s own words: ‘‘Never in the half century of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, was the body ever asked to probe into the credentials of those who had made the charges. The focus was on the message, never the messenger. If this move is allowed to pass muster, the press will be effectively muzzled. Any time it publishes an expose, 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 published them.’’
What it means is that after spending eight months doing a dangerous and difficult story, Tehelka has now spent eight months defending it. Tehelka has been pressured, extended, harassed as the government floats absurd, cock-and-bull theories against it, and actually presents them on sworn affidavits at the Commission. Since the story broke, six staffers, including two senior editors, have spent more than 6,000 man hours doing Commission related work, instead of practicing journalism. They spend their days attending Commission hearings, and confabulating with as many as 12 lawyers.
In a word, Tehelka’s meagre resources and energies are being totally expended on endless and unwarranted legalese. In a word, even though the luminaries of government know Tehelka is totally clean — because various agencies of the government have been foraging for anything on us for the last eight months, and have found not a whit — even though they know Operation West-End was a purely journalistic effort, they are waging a war of attrition to wear us down. There are very few independent media companies whose resources would stand the strain.
Already, the lives of two outstanding young professionals — Shankar Sharma, 37, and Devina Mehra, 36 — have been destroyed. First generation entrepreneurs, brilliant rankers from top management institutes, owners of the first Asian company (ex-Japan) to become a member of the London Stock Exchange, they have had their lives torn apart by an irate, draconian government. In ten years of running First Global, they have never had a tax or legal infringement; in the last eight months, the government has hit them with 200 summons and 25 raids. Their businesses have been shut down; their properties attached; their travel banned; and even as I write this Shankar Sharma has been arrested. This is what a venal government does to young talented people who deliver on the great Indian dream. And solely because they invested in a portal called Tehelka.com. Though they own only 14.50 per cent of it, and have never had a word to do with its running.
The message is easy to read. And is for all of Indian media. Our investors have been destroyed, and we have been trapped in a commission that has taken away our journalism, and is bleeding us white. For a democracy the signals are dangerous and sinister: don’t even bother criticising a government or exposing its corruptions, unless you are a truly wealthy media organisation, with deep pockets and deeper resolve.
The government’s conduct is truly appalling because amid all the reams of mala fide and nonsensical affidavits it has filed in the Commission, there is amazingly not a line against all those found guilty of corruption in the Tehelka tapes. The incredible travesty is that while those whom Tehelka vividly exposed remain untouched — and actually actively defended by a government elected on the promise of ‘‘cleanness’’ — Tehelka is being relentlessly harassed for exposing corruption.
Tehelka’s nearly hundred hours of investigative tapes, shot under the most trying circumstances, are being subjected to a legal scrutiny that has no parallel in India. Every word is being controverted and fought over. A film shot in a studio would have struggled under such vicious scrutiny. But rest assured Tehelka’s story will survive this, its integrity intact. Because misplaced punctuation, bad chapter headings, and even poor printing, do not change the intent or message of a story. And Tehelka’s story is about one and only one thing: rampant and endemic corruption in governance.
The greater fear is the Commission — by its very mandate, its very capacity for attrition — will have done its damage. Ensured that in the future the watchdog only dances with the monster. Not barks at it. Nor bites it.