Asia

India cracks down on Tehelka months after bribery expose

Scott Neuman
Wall Street Journal
April 23, 2002

NEW DELHI — A news team that nearly brought down India’s government last year with an explosive expose of corruption in politics is now itself on the verge of collapse — a victim, some media watchdogs and journalists say, of a new eagerness by Indian authorities to stifle critical journalism.

In March last year, the Indian news Web site Tehelka.com (www.tehelka.com) blew the lid off of corruption at the very top levels of government in India with a hidden-camera sting operation. The Web site’s journalists posed as arms dealers who were ready to pay for help in securing military contracts. Numerous senior army officers, top politicians and government bureaucrats were caught on tape either accepting bribes or discussing the details of payment.

Amid the public outrage that ensued, senior members of the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and its coalition parties resigned. Among them: Defense Minister George Fernandes and the chief of Mr. Fernandes’s Samata Party, Jaya Jaitley.

But a lot has changed in a year: Mr. Fernandes and Ms. Jaitley have their old jobs back. Meanwhile, two of Tehelka’s journalists have been arrested and police and other authorities have raided its offices and those of its financial backers several times. The first raid, by income-tax agents, came 10 days after Tehelka released its story.

One of the Tehelka journalists, who is still being held, has been charged with illegal poaching of animals. Tehelka denies the charges and says the reporter was working on an investigative report into the illegal trade in animal skins. His colleague was charged with threatening a law-enforcement officer who tried to conduct a search of Tehelka’s premises. The colleague was released on bail.

Meanwhile, India’s securities watchdog has accused Tehelka’s financial backer, First Global Stock Broking (Pvt.) Ltd., of profiting from advance knowledge of the Web site’s market-moving exposes. First Global has been barred from trading shares pending the outcome of an investigation. Since Tehelka’s report in March 2001, Shankar Sharma, First Global’s chief executive, has been arrested three times, including once for allegedly threatening a law-enforcement officer.

Tehelka’s editor, Tarun Tejpal, characterizes the actions taken against his group and its backers as “a massive vendetta campaign” that has hit them hard financially. He says the Web site’s staff has shrunk to about 20 people from 120, and notes: “Of those [who] are left, not one has been paid a salary in six months.”

No doubt, the bursting of the Internet bubble may have contributed to Tehelka’s financial troubles, but many fellow journalists see more to it than that.

“It’s now gotten to the stage where no journalist in this country can sit back and allow them to do what they’re doing to Tehelka,” says Vir Sanghvi, editor of the leading English-language daily, the Hindustan Times. “The level of persecution is phenomenal.”

While government efforts to quash critical reporting are commonplace elsewhere in Asia, India has long prided itself on a free and vibrant press. Unlike many other places in Asia and throughout the developing world, India, a boisterous democracy of more than a billion people, boasts hundreds of independent daily newspapers and a growing number of broadcast outlets.

Yet other recent incidents involving journalists in India have raised concerns that Tehelka’s problems aren’t just an isolated incident. In June, police and agents of India’s intelligence agency arrested Iftikhar Gilani, the New Delhi bureau chief of the newspaper Kashmir Times. Mr. Gilani, who was arrested on the same day as his father-in-law, a senior Kashmiri separatist leader, is still being held for allegedly possessing classified documents.

The same month, a correspondent for Time magazine’s Asian edition who wrote an unflattering profile of Prime Minister Vajpayee was questioned by authorities about alleged visa irregularities and given strong hints that he might be deported.

Vincent Brossel, who heads the Asian-Pacific desk of Reporters sans Frontieres, a media watchdog group, says that since he began watching the country several years ago, he has “never seen so many press freedom issues in India.” Mr. Brossel says the government is sending out a clear message: If you cross us, we’ll make life difficult. Both Reporters sans Frontieres and the U.S.-based Committee to Project Journalists have sent letters to the Indian government pleading for the release of Mr. Gilani of the Kashmir Times.

The government denies that actions involving Tehelka or any of the recent press incidents have anything to do with a campaign against the media. Responding to criticism of the government’s tactics, Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj said recently that “it is just not possible for any agency of the government to wantonly pursue media persons with the objective of harassing them.” The investigation of First Global is part of a wider probe into an alleged “bear cartel” that the Securities and Exchange Board of India says precipitated a steep downturn in stock prices in early March 2001. Board officials declined to comment, deferring instead to published documents on the case.

Before last year’s political expose, Tehelka made a name for itself with an investigation into cricket-match fixing that led to five prominent players being banned for life from the sport. Yet the news site has come under fire for some of its tactics, including the use of hidden cameras in its stings. More controversially, Tehelka used prostitutes to seduce army officers, although tapes made of the subsequent liaisons were never publicly released. Mr. Tejpal, Tehelka’s editor, has publicly apologized for the use of the women, though he calls the investigative report completely ethical.

“You have to see that we have a political class that cannot be shamed anymore,” Mr. Tejpal says. “You can’t practice the polite journalism that was practiced 25 years ago and expect to get results.”

Tehelka’s woes are all the more ironic because of the connection that many of the figures in power have to a dark chapter in India’s history. In 1975, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assumed dictatorial powers for a 21-month period known as the Emergency. Mr. Fernandes, Mr. Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani played prominent roles in opposing Mrs. Gandhi’s power grab.

Says Mr. Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times: “It was Advani who said [of the press] after the Emergency that ‘when you were asked to bend, you crawled.’ He berated the press for not standing up. Now he’s deputy prime minister, and it’s his government that is doing this.”

Categories: Asia, Corruption, India, Odious Debts

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