Zooming in on the tapes

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The Venkataswami Commission witnesses heated debates between audio and video experts on the veracity of the Tehelka tapes.

SINCE March 13, 2001, when the tehelka.com images of politicians and sums of money became common currency across the nation, television viewers and Internet surfers have seen many a twist and turn in the story of corruption in high places and how investigative journalism has sought to unravel it. If the first few episodes shocked viewers with stunning visuals, the news that the portal utilised the services of sex workers for the big story removed some of the sheen of its investigative venture. Later, doubts were raised about the veracity of the tapes and the "motive" behind the expose. The present focus of the K. Venkataswami Commission, which is inquiring into the affair, is the veracity of the tapes. The proceedings of the Commission recently witnessed heated debates between audio and video experts over the authenticity of the tapes.

On September 24, film-maker Milind Kapoor demonstrated to the Commission the techniques of deletion, addition and mixing of video shots. He gave a presentation using the portions of the tapes involving former Bharatiya Janata Party president Bangaru Laxman and Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitly. "The Jaya Jaitly episode was the talk of the town and the Defence Minister had to resign over this. This was the reason why I chose it," he said.

Kapoor went through five shots of about 20 seconds each to emphasise that the tapes could have been doctored. Using audio and video techniques and computer graphics, he showed how the sound or the visual is dissolved. He also demonstrated how the answers given by a person could be attributed to another by mixing sound.

The next day, lawyers representing tehelka.com, accompanied by film-maker Pradeep Krishen, asked Kapoor a series of questions - about his professional qualifications, about the types of microphones he used in order to demonstrate the doctoring of tapes, and so on. Kapoor said that although he had studied only up to the higher secondary level he had "enough professional experience" to conclude that the tapes had been doctored.

Krishen told the Commission that it was not possible to change either the sound-track or the picture alone on the original Hi-8 camera shot in 8 mm format, which was the one used by Tehelka. Counsel for Jaitly argued that Krishen was biased, for The God of Small Things, the book written by Arundhati Roy, who is married to Krishen, was published in India by India Ink of which Tehelka's chief executive officer Tarun Tejpal was a partner.

Although Krishen contested Kapoor's claim that it was possible to change the sound and the picture without affecting the quality of either, Umashanker, an audio expert who deposed before the Commission as a witness on behalf of Tehelka, said that it was possible to mix the visual of one footage and the sound of another, thereby leaving scope for the argument that the tapes could have been doctored on the editing table. When counsel for Jaya Jaitly asked him whether it would mean that audio and video recordings made separately could be mixed, Umashankar replied in the affirmative. However, his response to a query from counsel for Tehelka Prashant Bhushan removed any doubts about whether the tapes were dubbed. Umashanker said that it was easy to tell a dubbed version from an undubbed one. "There is a whole lot of jumbled sounds in the background in the original. When dubbing is done, these sounds are eliminated. A dubbed version would not have jumbled sounds in the background. This makes the end-product on the tapes sound unnatural and identification becomes easy," he said.

Most of the questions addressed to Umashanker by counsel for Jaya Jaitly and Bangaru Laxman were based on hypothetical situations. Umashanker, who gave answers from a professional point of view, consistently maintained that there was no doctoring of the five segments that he had scrutinised.

The cross-examination of the two Tehelka witnesses as well as Kapoor showed that the three agreed that given the equipment that Tehelka had used, it was impossible for it to have doctored the original tapes. A source in the Commission said: "Seen in this perspective, the only question that remains is whether Tehelka handed over the original tapes to the Commission." The question arises because all the three experts have also agreed during cross-examination that the master tape could have been edited with the help of a computerised facility. "Thus the only fact that needs to be ascertained is whether Tehelka supplied an edited or unedited master," said informed sources in the Commission.

QUESTIONS about the audio elements of the tapes were raised in the affidavits submitted before the Commission by lawyers who had been permitted by the Commission to view the 100-hour Tehelka tapes. Some of them cited instances where the audio does not match the video. Questions were also raised about sections in the tapes that were marked "inaudible" although they were perfectly audible. It has been pointed out that the tapes should have been transcribed.

Similarly, some affidavits point to specific lacunae. For instance, parts of Tape 88, which has three pages of transcripts, are totally inaudible. Tape 67 shows L.M. Mehta, one of the persons summoned by the Commission under Section 8(B) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, being handed a small box and Mehta returning it to Tehelka reporter Thomas Mathew. However, the transcript states that Rs.50,000 and a gold chain were given to Mehta. Tapes 73 and 74 show the entry of the Tehelka team into the residence of the then Defence Minister George Fernandes at night. However, the tapes telecast on Zee television show the team entering the house in broad daylight. Images shot in bright sunlight do not figure anywhere in the 100 hours of visuals. This has prompted lawyers to suggest that there may be more tapes with Tehelka. Several factual errors have also been mentioned.

When Jaya Jaitly's counsel asked Umashanker why at times the sound was absent in the Tehelka tapes even when the video continued, he gave three possibilities: the tapes might have been damaged; the sound might have been turned off; and the equipment might not have worked properly at the time of recording.

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