A journalist's ordeal

Print edition : February 14, 2003

Tehelka reporter Kumar Badal's release on bail on court orders after six months in custody raises questions about the CBI's ways and the government's attitudes.

in New Delhi

Tehelka reporter Kumar Badal after his release on January 13.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

HEADING the list of media organisations that are currently complaining of persecution at the hands of the National Democratic Alliance government is the news portal tehelka.com. The portal, which won applause from the middle class after it broke the story on the potential for corruption in defence deals using spycams, has been seen to be a victim of maltreatment from government authorities and agencies including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Apart from its editors Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddha Bahal, an investigative reporter, Kumar Badal, has faced the brunt of the government's ire.

Badal, who was in CBI custody since June last year, was released on bail on January 13. The Supreme Court, which came to his rescue, pulled up the CBI for keeping him in judicial custody for six months on the pretext of investigating Badal's involvement in a poaching case. A shaken Badal, who lost 18 kg during his incarceration, said after his release: "I was tortured both physically and mentally. Had it not been for the strong conviction in journalism and had it been just a job for me, I would not have been able to withstand the trauma."

Badal was held by the CBI in connection with a case of poaching of the endangered species of leopards in the Aravali forests of Uttar Pradesh. Four First Information Reports (FIRs) were registered with the Biharigarh police station in Saharanpur district on May 23, 2002, and the police registered the case under the Wildlife Protection Act. The case was subsequently transferred to the CBI, which registered the case on June 3. The CBI said that it had seized articles relating to the crime from two persons, Meherban and Inam. Badal was taken in following the disclosure statement by Meherban under Section 27 of the Indian Evidence Act.

On June 26, the CBI searched Badal's house in Delhi. CBI officials said they recovered 84 long-distance telephone call slips and two cellular phone numbers of "Pankaj", on whose behalf the two persons were allegedly filming the poaching of leopards. The CBI charge-sheet said: "On tracing these numbers, it transpired that one of the two mobile numbers, 98102 90047, belonged to Buffalo Network, the concern which owns tehelka news portal." The CBI said its investigations revealed that Pankaj was none other than Kumar Badal. The charge-sheet further said: "Investigations have revealed that the illegal act of trapping and killing leopards was done at the behest of Kumar Badal. This illegal act was perpetrated for the sake of video-filming of the entire sequence to be used for unknown purpose."

FOR 29-year-old Badal, trouble started when he was asked to appear as a witness in the case. Badal made a request to the CBI that he be granted a few days' time on account of ill-health. On July 1, the CBI issued a second notice to him. Badal appeared before the CBI two days later. He was interrogated and arrested the same evening. His bail pleas were rejected in the city courts and he was lodged in the Dasna jail in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.

In jail Badal went on a hunger-strike on August 5. In an open letter to the media, Members of Parliament and the public, he wrote: "The only reason I am suffering in this manner is because I am a journalist from tehelka.com, which took up cudgels to expose the corruption in high places in the governance of the day." He said he would continue his hunger-strike "no matter what", until a judicial decision was taken in his case.

In December 2002, the CBI presented in the Allahabad court, the `means' used by Tehelka to get the poaching story. According to the CBI, Badal stage-managed the poaching of endangered animals, and lied to the Forest Department that he was researching on poaching which would help the Department in apprehending illegal traffickers. It also alleged that Tehelka offered bribe to a police officer to settle the issue out of court.

BADAL was booked under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Section 50 of the Act specifies the limits to which powers of arrest can be exercised. If a person is alleged to have committed an offence under the Wildlife Act, the person can only be arrested under Section 50(1) or 50(3) of the Act. Badal's lawyers argued that if such a person ensures his appearance before law enforcement authorities and is willing to answer any charge that may be preferred against him, such a person has to be released by the arresting officer himself.

Referring to the nature of the case, Badal's counsel Siddharth Luthra said: "There is no material on record to connect Kumar Badal with any of the other co-accused. An attempt was made by the CBI to connect Badal to a camera which has not been recovered from him... The complaint itself says that the investigating agency is still making queries about the origin of the camera. In the absence of any film which may have formed the basis of the prosecution's case, the complaint itself is based on assumption."

Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul (centre) and his wife Nadira with tehelka.com editor Tarun Tejpal outside the Supreme Court on January 13.-AFP

The Supreme Court decreed Badal's release after senior counsel Kapil Sibal, who represented him, told the Bench that the accused had been in jail for over six months when the maximum punishment for the offence was three years. The CBI argued that the journalist could tamper with evidence if he was released before the probe was completed. Speaking for the CBI, Additional Solicitor-General Raju Ramachandran alleged that senior executives of the Tehelka group were trying to influence the probe. The court, however, dismissed the contention and granted Badal bail on the strength of a personal bond and two sureties.

The Bench, comprising Justices N. Santosh Hegde and B.P. Singh, rejected the CBI's plea to keep Badal under detention for two more months while it completed the probe. Taking a serious view of the delay, Justice B.P. Singh said if the agency had wanted to finish a probe it could do so in 24 hours and if it did not it would not be able to complete the task in the next 24 years.

Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who is a member of theboard of Tehelka.com and was present at the hearing, told the media the next day that he felt a sense of "profound disappointment" over the treatment meted out to Tehelka by the Centre. He said he expected that at some point of time the government would end the "sorry state of affairs" and admit its "lack of graciousness".

After Badal's release, Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitly, whose name figures in the Tehelka story, said that the case should not be construed as victory for the press. It was a case of use of fraudulent means by a Tehelka journalist to get a story, she said. This has been the government's consistent line against Tehelka.

Badal feels that the government is ready to stoop to any level to get at Tehelka. "The way the case has been handled by the CBI, it is clear that this is not a simple poaching case for them. It is an opportunity for the government to bash Tehelka."

Badal's wife Neena is also a journalist, and the couple has an eight-month-old baby. Said Badal: "The Tehelka team stood by me and my family. This bail is a temporary reprieve. I know I have to be mentally fit to take on this case."

The CBI was given the responsibility of handling wildlife cases in January 2001. But its wildlife cell has only 20 people. Since it does not have the needed technical expertise, it has to depend on non-governmental organisations working in the field. At any given time, there are around 250 wildlife cases pending; the city courts announce conviction orders just once or twice a year. Badal said: "I am not as much pained by the government's attitude as by the system. In jail I realised that it is the system which is rotting and which needs to be pulled up."

For now, Badal's fight seems to be a protracted one. To him and to Tehelka, the message is clear. The government has weathered the storm of the defence expose. The portal is now at the receiving end. The applause it received then has died out. Now it is the turn of death threats, income tax raids, Intelligence Bureau notices and police harassment.

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