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Tehelka Ruined for Exposing Corruption


The New York Times, New Delhi, Feb. 13, 2003

"Nearly two years ago, Tehelka, which means sensation in Hindi, caused one. Nine months after its founding, the news Web site burst forth with videotape showing politicians, bureaucrats, military officers and middlemen seeking and taking bribes from arms dealers. The dealers were in fact undercover Tehelka journalists, pretending to peddle thermal imaging binoculars. The furor - after four and a half hours of the tapes were televised - was immediate. The coalition government briefly seemed to totter and the defense minister, George Fernandes, whose party leader was shown accepting funds, resigned."
"Now, far from their bringing the government down, the journalists say the government is bringing them down. None of the officials pictured on the tapes have been prosecuted. But Tehelka's main investor spent two and a half months in jail, and has watched his business shrink to almost nothing. One of the Web site's journalists, Kumar Badal, was granted bail last month, by Supreme Court order, after six months in jail; the government's Central Bureau of Investigation accused him of hiring poachers to kill leopards so that it could be recorded on film - a charge he and Tehelka's editors deny."
"There are defamation cases pending against the editors and reporters, income tax investigations, Official Secrets Act cases, and more. Their offices have been searched, their accountants kept busy. One editor, Aniruddha Bahal, sold a novel, 'Bunker 13,' to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and the British publishing house Faber & Faber, and was promptly accused by a government lawyer of receiving illegal gains. As a result,, which at its peak employed 125 people, is now down to 3; it no longer has a salaried journalist. Unable to pay office rent, it has moved to a two-room space, and its Web site articles, once sprightly, are now mostly stale. Tehelka's founder, Tarun Tejpal, said he had been unable to get a rupee of new investment. He and the other editors have gone into debt. He said they spent a third of their time dealing with the endless legal fallout, a third of their time fighting what they call a propaganda war and a third hunting for money."
"Last month, Tehelka found a champion in the writer and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who has sat on the Web site's board since its founding. He held his first news conference in 40 years of visiting India to express his concern at the government's handling of the case. He also met with the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, who is also home minister, to press Tehelka's case. 'This thing that has happened to Tehelka has been profoundly disappointing to me,' he said. 'It comes from another era. It serves no purpose. It seems to me it will profoundly damage the country.' Neither Mr. Advani nor the home secretary's office responded to a request for comment."
"Mr. Tejpal speculates that part of the government's reaction may stem from coalition politics. Mr. Fernandes is back as defense minister, and his Samata Party is a small but essential coalition member. The targets of the videotaped sting, such as Jaya Jaitley, the former leader of the Samata Party, who was shown accepting funds on tape, have seized on the journalists' tactics - among other things, they procured prostitutes for army officers as part of their sham. But Mr. Tejpal said the scrutiny of their methods was unparalleled and unwarranted. 'No story in the history of world journalism has been through this,' Mr. Tejpal said."