Even as complaints of an official witch-hunt against the portal mount, the Tehelka chief defends the means it adopted for the controversial arms-and-deals investigation.
EVER since tehelka.com presented in March 2001 its story on the potential for corruption in arms procurement, life has not been the same for Tarun J. Tejpal, the portal's chief executive officer. For over a year now Tejpal has been crying hoarse about a witch-hunt launched against him by the National Democratic Alliance government, his message being that Tehelka has become the only casualty of the expose. Deposing before the Venkataswami Commission, Tejpal said: "Everybody loves us but nobody wants to be associated with us." A weary-looking but far-from-knocked-over Tejpal said: "Not a single rupee has been invested in Tehelka after we broke the story of Operation Westend. Our financiers have been put behind bars. We are served summons by half a dozen a week. We have been harassed by all the government agencies. I have not paid salary to my staff for the past five months."
On June 26, Tejpal's office was raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI). It was the day on which Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitly was to be cross-examined at the Commission. It was also the 25th anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency, a period when the press was stifled. Kavin Gulati, counsel for tehelka.com, said: "What it means for deposition is that if they are not allowed to come, then of course the cross-examination will not be able to proceed. We are at a crucial stage of cross-examining Jaya Jaitly and my clients were required there for whatever assistance that is required during the course of examination. Therefore I say the timing is absolutely motivated."
The CBI claimed that the raids were in no way related to the news portal's sting operations to uncover corruption in defence deals, but were linked to the filming of leopards being skinned in the jungles of Saharanpur, for which a Tehelka reporter had allegedly paid poachers money. Said CBI spokesperson S.M. Khan: "It was a pure coincidence that we raided the Tehelka office on the day of Tarun Tejpal's deposition. He could have left for the Commission as we were there to serve notice on one of his staffers and not on him." He denied that the investigative agency was on a witch-hunt against the portal.
Revealing details of the raids, Khan said that during investigations the two arrested poachers, Inam and Meherban, had stated that they were poaching at the instance of a person identified as "Pankaj" who had given them Rs. 15,000 and a video camera to shoot the poaching. The CBI has been trying to establish that "Pankaj" is in fact a staffer of Tehelka, named Kumar Badal, and that he had paid for the filming of the skinning of leopards. Khan said that the CBI has recovered a mobile phone SIM card and an appointment letter from Badal's house, which proved that he was a Tehelka employee. In their confessional statement the poachers said that they had given video recordings of the poaching to Pankaj. However, the CBI did not find these cassettes during the raid on Badal's house or the Tehelka office.
Said Tejpal: "Everybody knows how statements are taken in police custody. Tomorrow, if they get Dawood Ibrahim's mobile number from us, will they describe us as gangsters?" Tehelka has admitted that it was working on a wildlife story but denied hiring poachers to kill animals. Describing the CBI's approach as vindictive, Tehelka reporter Aniruddha Bahal said: "If Operation Westend had blown up in the middle, they would have painted us as the defence agents."
The speed with which the CBI has followed the poaching case is surprising. What adds to the scepticism about the raids is that the documents the CBI officers finally walked away with concerned not so much with the case at hand as the staffing patterns, business plans and the office accounts of the portal. Tejpal said: "The papers that have been seized from my office have nothing to do with the story. All these papers have to do with tehelka.com, the company, and issues relating to the company. This is making us even more suspicious that at a time when the depositions are beginning, when the Commission is going to begin looking into the financial aspects of the case, this particular raid is taking place."
Tejpal's counsel has also complained about the manner in which the CBI functioned. In a letter to the Home Minister, the CBI Director, the President, the Supreme Court Bar Association and the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Tehelka counsel Sidharth Luthra said that the CBI assaulted his secretary C. Vinod Varghese on June 26. He said that his employee was manhandled by CBI officials who threatened to shoot him as they claimed to have the licence to kill. Luthra wrote: "Keeping in view the events that transpired in the morning of June 26 it is obvious that I and my staff are being victimised on account of my professional commitment to my client tehelka.com and an attempt is being made to intimidate and to put pressure on myself and my office colleagues."
Deposing before the Commission Tejpal reiterated that he was being victimised for the expose. Three points came out clearly in his deposition and subsequent cross-examination: the Tehelka's motive in doing the story was the public interest; that he stood by his journalists Mathew Samuel and Aniruddha Bahal; and that in the use of sex workers Tehelka had overstepped the conventional norms of journalism in the larger interest of the story. To a question on whether the actions of the government amounted to stifling the freedom of the press, Tejpal said that the government's response had shown that it would try to make life difficult for anybody who tried to expose corruption. "However there will always be young maverick organisations which will expose the actions of the government. If we continue to hang, then we will again do Operation Westend-kind of story." He said that Operation Westend had proved that the entire system of arms procurement was riddled with corruption and that it was time to reform the system of political funding. Tejpal said: "It was an ethical way of exposing corruption. We need more and more aggressive means to unearth the rot in the system. Tehelka has made it clear from the beginning that we are not interested in exposing private life and that we are only interested in exposing public abuse of office."
Deposing before the Commission, George Fernandes said that Tehelka should have approached the Prime Minister and other official channels if it wanted to reform the system. Tejpal said that he had no trust in the establishment. "Our story was meant for the people. We see the media as a watchdog for the public. The story belongs to the public." He added that the motive behind Tehelka's sting operation was purely journalistic. "We have handed over every bit of material we had on the issue to all the concerned authorities, including the Army court of inquiry," he said. In fact, he said that handing over the entire material proved to be damaging to the portal.
During the deposition Tejpal faltered when Major-General Manjit Singh Ahluwalia cross-examined him. Ahluwalia stated that although he was nowhere referred to as having been offered or received a bribe in the tapes, he was named in the editorial comments of the transcripts. He asked Tejpal as to why when Mathew Samuel had admitted in the Army court of inquiry that he (Ahluwalia) had not taken money, the website continued to hold him guilty. In response, Tejpal offered to make amends to this effect on the website.
During the course of her deposition, Jaya Jaitly raised the question of the veracity of the tapes. Jaitly told the Commission that she wanted the tapes that were surreptiously filmed by Tehelka in order to depose before the Commission after the three journalists from the portal did so. She referred to various portions in the tapes as having been interpolated. The Commission rejected both her pleas. On June 5, the Delhi High Court had rejected Jaitly's petition seeking an examination of the tehelka tapes by forsenic experts and a direction to the Venkataswami Commission not to cross-examine her before the three correspondents of the portal were cross-examined.
Deposing before the Commission, Jaitly said that she did not recall meeting Tehelka reporter Mathew Samuel. However, Jaitly admitted that she had told the so-called Westend representative that she did not know anything about the working of the Defence Ministry. "They seemed to be confused. I only said out of courtesy that if they are sending numerous letters to the Defence Ministry which are going unanswered, she would intervene to ensure that they get a reply," she said. "I never discussed the Defence Ministry up to the extent of telling them that I did not know anything about the Ministry," she said.
"I did not know what was in the packet and that is what I have said in my affidavit also. If the packet had money in it or what amount, I didn't know these details. Every political party accepts donation and it is not illegal. This has been stated in the Income Tax also. If I asked them to give money to Srinivas then why did they not do so? That is my point," Jaitly said.
With the completion of the recording of the depositions of Jaitly and the Tehelka journalists, the Commission has moved a step ahead in its investigations. However, this has not brought to an end the selective targeting of Tejpal and his colleagues by the NDA government.