|Former editors||Aniruddha Bahal|
2000–2003 (website) 2004–2007 (tabloid)2007–onwards (magazine)
|Based in||Greater Kailash, New Delhi|
Tehelka (Hindi: Sensational) is an Indian news organisation mainly known for its investigative journalism, which involved sting operations. It was founded by Tarun Tejpal along with Bahal in 2000 as a website. The agency began issuing tabloid newspapers in 2004 and changed it to a magazine from 2007. Its first operation was on match fixing in cricket in 2000 and the second, which was its most widely known, was "Operation West End" in 2001. West End involved publicly releasing secretly filmed footage of government officials accepting bribes in a fake arms deal, which caused the resignations of several officials including the Defence Minister and two presidents of the ruling parties. The agency got the press and public support for this sting and influenced the use of "sting journalism" in the country's mainstream media, which led to the debate about the its ethics. In November 2013, Tejpal stepped aside as the editor for six months with an apology after a woman colleague accused him of sexual assault.
After Operation West End, the organisation alleged that the government was trying to shut them down by tax raids, investigations and cases against them; a financial backer and one reporter were jailed and eventually, the website shut down in 2003. A year later, the journalists relaunched it and introduced it as a weekly newspaper because of public funding. In 2004, they did a report against members of the Bajrang Dal for their role in the Naroda Patiya massacre during the 2002 Gujarat violence. It has been criticised for its investigative journalism, accused of agenda-driven journalism and siding the Congress party of India, because of the organisation's operations mainly focusing on its main political rival, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). It won the International Press Institute (IPI) India Award for Excellence in Journalism in 2010 and 2011.
Tehelka means "sensational" in Hindi and it started in 2000 as a news portal, Tehelka.com founded by Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal, who had quit their jobs together from Outlook. Its office was set up in south New Delhi. After conducting its main sting investigation, "Operation West End", the government started an inquiry, which the staff saw as a direct attack on them. Its reporters and main financial backer were arrested, judicial investigations were conducted on various grounds and there were tax-related raids. Two years after Operation West End, its staff decreased from 120 to three and because of debts, the website went out of business.
In 2004, backed by more than 200 writers, lawyers, business people and activists, who donated money and supported it, Tehelka launched itself as a reader-financed weekly newspaper in tabloid format. Among the supporters were activist Arundhati Roy, politician Shashi Tharoor and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. It called itself the "People's Paper" and the reporters took a tour around the country promoting "free, fair and fearless" journalism. After its Naroda Patiya sting operation in 2007, it sold around 75,000 to 90,000 copies per week but suffered financial losses, since it was not backed by any large media or business groups like its competitors, the Outlook, India Today and The Week.
Tejpal changed it from a tabloid format newspaper to a magazine in September 2007, to encourage more potential advertisers. Though this worked, there were still few who accepted because of the news agency's controversial sting operations. To get more readers, Tejpal started the Hindi language website. Tejpal became Tehelka's largest shareholder, most of its capital is from his personal contacts and Agni Media, his company, was the owner in 2008. In November 2013, Tejpal stepped aside as editor for six months after a woman colleague accused him of sexual assault and managing editor Shoma Chaudhury she resigned from her post on 28 November because of this incident.
"THiNK Fest" was started in 2011 as an annual literary festival and promoted as an event of Telekha. This program is run by an organisation called Thinkworks Pvt Ltd, a company owned by Tejpal, his sister Neena and Chaudhury. The organisers said that it was "India's most thought-provoking platform for ideas from across the globe" which brought together brilliant, cutting-edge minds from across all the key disciplines that impact human affairs. It features Bollywood actors, global thinkers, sessions on new technology.
Match-fixing scandal (2000)
In 2000, former Indian cricketer Manoj Prabhakar with the help of editor Aniruddha Bahal, recorded more than 40 hours of taped conversations, which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) used as evidence for its own inquiry for match-fixing in cricket. The CBI implicated Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja and Ajay Sharma as the cricketers involved. For obtaining this tape, Prabhakar and Bahal went around the country and Prabhakar, wearing hidden recording equipment, attended meetings with important Indian cricket board officials (BCCI) and players. He recorded conversations where they talked about links between players and bookmakers, matches being thrown in return for money, deliberate run-outs and the names of players involved.
Bahal and Tejpal had convinced Prabhakar into recording these conversations with his cricket colleagues after the South Africa cricket match fixing, which involved cricketer Hansie Cronje, in March. The documentary Fallen Heroes: The Betrayal of a Nation, which was released in May of the same year, showed Prabhakar's work and Bahal published his report on Tehelka.com. This had an impact throughout the country and it led to the investigation by the CBI that found the three national team cricketers guilty.
Operation West End (2001)
In 2001, Tehelka did its first major sting investigation called "Operation West End" where the two reporters, special correspondent Mathew Samuel and Aniruddha Bahal, filmed how they bribed several defence officials and politicians from the then-ruling NDA-led (National Democratic Alliance) Indian government, posing as arms dealers. Charging a commission from defence deals is illegal in India and because of the rumours of middlemen getting rich in such deals in the 1980s, Bahal and Samuel started their investigation in August 2000. They created a fake British company based in Regent Street, London called "West End". They then found out that the Indian army would be interested in obtaining thermal imaging cameras. They printed business cards and photographs of particular camera models in Tehelka's office in suburban Delhi and Bahal chose Samuel to do the main dealings.
They initially had to bribe junior officials in the country's defence ministry, for amounts ranging from 10000 (US$150) and 60000 (US$920), to help them in securing deals with several middlemen. These middlemen had "fixed" deals before involving jets and artillery and these conversations were recorded using spy cameras. They dealt with Samata Party President Jaya Jaitley (The then Defence Minister George Fernandes belonged to this party), whom they paid 3 lakh (US$4,600), and she agreed to tell Fernandes about them. After bribing other officials, they were introduced to the then Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) President Bangaru Laxman who accepted 1.5 lakh (US$2,300) as a "small new year's gift" and recommended they meet Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security to the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The operation took seven and a half months and Tejpal later said that the total amount they paid in bribes was 15 lakh (US$23,000). The deals were in expensive hotels and few officials asked for branded whisky. At one point, because of demands from three officials who wanted women for entertainment, they convinced their female colleagues to take part in those recorded deals. By January 2001, their funds ran out and they began receiving phone calls from the people they had falsely promised more money to. In this whole operation, they recorded around 100 hours of video footage.
On 14 March, after working on it for two months, they released their footage to the public. Laxman resigned the next day with four senior officials; he was sentenced to prison and bailed out later. Jaitley stepped down two days and Fernandes was forced to resign but was reinstated later. The government agreed on a judicial enquiry but no one was convicted. The agency posted on its website on that day that its reporters had successfully floated "a fictitious company flogging nonexistent thermal imaging binoculars." Prime Minister Vajpayee's coalition government was on the verge of collapse because allied party leader Mamata Banerjee's quit but got majority support when the "no confidence" motion was passed by the opposition parties.
Politicians of the ruling parties called for the journalists arrests for supplying prostitutes and questioned their ethics. Tejpal called that part of the investigation as a "needed transgression". The public and majority of their competitors supported this expose; the Times of India concluded that the issue of ethics "pales before the sleaze their team has dug up", The Hindu called it a "turning point in Indian journalism" but the Indian Express was the first to criticise their methods. Tejpal received death threats and was given police protection and his reporters insisted that their "extraordinary methods" were for the larger public and national interest.
In 2003, the reporters said that the government was trying to bring them down. The main investor was in jail for two and a half months and one journalist spent six months. Cases of defamation and under the Official Secrets Act were filed against the editors and reporters. Their offices were searched and there were income tax investigations. A government lawyer accused Bahal of receiving illegal gains for his novel which he sold to a publishing house. V S Naipal held a news conference to express his concern at the government's handling of the case and met the then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani. Naipal told the media, "This thing that has happened to Tehelka has been profoundly disappointing to me, It comes from another era. It serves no purpose. It seems to me it will profoundly damage the country."
In 2004, the CBI registered cases against Jaitley, Laxman and others in the army and the Ministry of Defence. In 2012, Laxman was sentenced to four years in jail by additional sessions Judge Kanwal Jeet Arora for this case. Author and journalist Madhu Trehan wrote a non fiction book in 2009 on this entire expose, called Tehelka as Metaphor.
Other notable sting operations
- In 2007, they released footage, which was filmed over six months, showing several BJP politicians admitting they had a role in attacking the Muslim community during the 2002 Gujarat violence. In the video, the right-wing organisation Bajrang Dal convener Babu Bajrangi, said that a mob which he had led, killed 91 Muslim men and women at Naroda Patiya; they then raped a pregnant women, slit open her womb and threw both the foetus and her into a fire. Bajrangi denied these charges and in 2010, the doctor who performed post mortem on the bodies at the time during the violence, testified before a special court. The court identified the deceased woman and found only evidence of 100 percent burns on her body during the post mortem.
- On 23 July 2009, when police in Manipur claimed they had killed a suspected militant who had shot at them, Tehelka released 12 photographs which proved that it was a fake encounter. Those showed the police pushing an unarmed person, who was their suspect, into a pharmacy and later carried him out dead. This report caused protests in Manipur and it was mainly against the power granted to security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The police used tear gas and imposed a curfew against these agitations.
- In 2010, they captured on camera, right-wing organisation Sri Ram Sena leader Pramod Muthalik and other members, where Muthalik agreed vandalise an art exhibition in exchange for money. The organisation was seen accepting 10000 (US$150) as a donation from a Tehelka reporter, who posed as the artist wanting publicity.
The organisation has been mostly criticised for its sting operations, use of hidden cameras and its investigative journalism was widely questioned and led to the debate about the its ethics. It has been frequently accused of siding with the Congress party of India because of its major operations focused on governments ruled by the BJP, which is the main opponent to the Congress party in India; these were denied by Tejpal. Other criticisms include agenda-driven journalism and openly taking sides. After it getting financial backing and its relaunch as a magazine, it was further accused of favouring the companies which supported it for "THiNK Fest" because of the magazine's previous anti-corporate stance.
The sexual assault allegations against Tejpal in November 2013, received intense public attention and media scrutiny because Tehelka had previously been involved in highlighting the issue of sexual violence in India, including in a special issue on the topic in February 2013. There were protests against Tejpal by supporters of the BJP and its allies. Shoma Chaudhury's handling of this case was also criticised, for possibly underplaying the issue. The details of ownership, board of directors and financials further came under scrutiny, because from the Registrar of Companies in 2012, Tehelka was owned by Anant Media Private Limited whose major shareholder was from a company affiliated to Alchemist group, a business conglomerate which was investigated by the Serious Fraud Investigation Office. The industrialist and Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member KD Singh also owned a part of this company.
Sting journalism reception
After "Operation West End", the magazine's "sting journalism" influenced the country's media. In five years, Indian news channels began to regularly feature sting operations involving secretly filmed footages of local officials and policemen taking bribes, doctors selling infants from hospitals and actors involved in casting couch incidents. Tejpal called sting operations as "greatest tool of journalistic investigation and exposure" and the most common defence for it, was that it was for the "greater good" and public interest. Tejpal believed it to be a legitimate form of journalism and told the BBC, "I think if there were a thousand journalists in India employing sting journalism to catch out people in public office, misusing public money and public power... that will be a great deterrent."
Authorities and politicians demanded a sort of legislation over such "stings". Journalists against this, questioned the difference between this type of reporting and entrapment, between public interest and voyeurism. The Indian Supreme Court expressed its concern over the cases of freelance reporters selling their sting reports to the highest bidder, questioning whether their intent was for money or public interest. Bahal told the BBC, "There's no thriving freelance sting journalism industry in India as the judges seem to think. Stings are serious business and not everybody has the guts to do it or telecast it."
Critics called the increasing number of crime and tabloid channels on television as "a cottage industry of sleaze and slime". Cases of sting operations where fake evidence were given increased the court's criticism for such type of journalism. Supporters said that editorial judgement was important and this should not suppress those carrying out properly researched and credible sting operations that are in the public interest. Tejpal told the BBC, "there may be bad, motivated and indifferent stings - but that is no different from the rest of journalism".
- In 2007, The Guardian named Tejpal among the 20 who constitute "India's new elite" for being a pioneer in sting journalism.
- In 2010, Newsweek (Now The Daily Beast) named the former managing editor Shoma Chaudhury among the 150 in the list of "women who shake the world".
- In 2010, won the IPI India Award for Excellence in Journalism (International Press Institute) for its report on the fake encounter by security forces in Manipur.
- In 2011, won the IPI India Award for Excellence in Journalism, which was shared with the The Week, for its report on the "rent a riot" tactics of the Sri Ram Sena (The Week won it for its report on fake medical and dental colleges).
- In 2012, Tushita Mittal, from the magazine's Kolkata bureau, for her reports on interior Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh affected by Naxal violence, won the Chameli Devi Jain award for Outstanding Woman Mediaperson for 2012.
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- Luke Harding (21 March 2001). "Sting on a shoestring". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 23 November 2013.
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- Ex-BJP chief Bangaru Laxman convicted in fake arms deal case New Delhi, Fri Apr 27 2012 http://www.indianexpress.com/news/exbjp-chief-bangaru-laxman-convicted-in-fake-arms-deal-case/942351/0
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- Ellen Barry (22 November 2013). "Editor in India, Known for Investigations Into Corruption, Is Accused of Rape". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
- Sruthijith KK (23 November 2013). "Will Tehelka's real owners please stand up?". Economic Times. Retrieved 27112013.
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