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<nettime> Tehelka crushed by the power elite
Bruce Sterling on Tue, 7 Jan 2003 08:49:32 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Tehelka crushed by the power elite


*Well, so much for tactical media -- bruces


http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4577231,00.html

Website pays price for Indian bribery expose
Luke Harding in New Delhi
Guardian

Monday January 6, 2003


Tarun Tejpal is sitting amid the ruins of his office. There is not much 
left - a few dusty chairs, three computers and a forlorn 
air-conditioning unit. "We have sold virtually everything. I've even 
flogged the airconditioner," he says dolefully.

Twenty months ago Tejpal, editor in chief of tehelka.com, an 
investigative website, was the most feted journalist in India. He had 
just broken one of the biggest stories in the country's history - an 
expose' of corruption at the highest levels of government.

His reporters, posing as arms salesmen, had bribed their way into the 
home of the defence minister, George Fernandes, and handed over L3,000 
to one of the minister's colleagues. The journalists found many other 
people prepared to take money - senior army officers, bureaucrats, even 
the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, who was filmed 
shovelling the cash into his desk.

The scandal was deeply embarrassing for the BJP prime minister, Atal 
Bihari Vajpayee. Mr Vajpayee sacked Mr Fernandes and ordered a 
commission of inquiry. The scandal promoted a mood of national 
catharsis, and congratulations poured in from ordinary Indians tired of 
official corruption. Tehelka, which had only been launched in June 
2000, was receiving 30 million hits a week. But the glory did not last.

"I had expected a battle. But we had not anticipated its scale," Tejpal 
said yesterday. "The propaganda war started the next day."

Nearly two years later, he has been forced to lay off all but four of 
his 120 staff. He has got deeply into debt, sold the office furniture 
and scrounged money from friends. "They drop by for dinner and leave a 
cheque behind."

The website, which once boasted sites on news, literature, sport and 
erotica, is "virtually defunct". George Fernandes, meanwhile, is again 
the defence minister.

The saga is a depressing example of how the Kafkaesque weight of 
government can be used to crush those who challenge its methods.

In the aftermath of the scandal, the Hindu nationalist-led government 
"unleashed" the inland revenue, the enforcement directorate and the 
intelligence bureau, India's answer to MI5, on Tehelka's office in 
suburban south Delhi.

They did not find anything. Frustrated, the officials started tearing 
apart the website's investors. Tehelka's financial backer, Shanker 
Sharma, was thrown in jail without charge.

Detectives also held Aniruddha Bahal, the reporter who carried out the 
expos└, and a colleague, Kumar Badal. Badal is still in prison.

"It got to the stage that I used to count the number of booze bottles 
in my house to make sure there wasn't one more than the legal quota," 
Tejpal recalls.

The government commission set up to investigate Operation West-End, 
Tehelka's sting, meanwhile, started behaving very strangely. "The 
commission didn't cross-examine a single person found guilty of 
corruption. It was astonishing," said Tejpal. Instead, it spent its 
days rubbishing Tehelka's journalistic methods.

The official campaign of vilification against the website has attracted 
protests from a few of India's prominent liberal commentators, such as 
the veteran diplomat Kuldip Nayar and the respected columnist Tavleen 
Singh. Tehelka's literary supporters, who include Salman Rushdie, 
Amitav Ghosh and VS Naipaul, have also expressed their outrage. But in 
general, India's civil society has reacted with awkwardness and 
embarrassment to the website's plight.

"I read all of Franz Kafka when I was 19 and 20, but I only understand 
him now," Tejpal wrote in a recent essay in the magazine Seminar. "He 
accurately intuited that all power is essentially implacable and 
malign."

The treatment of the website's investors has scared away anybody else 
from pumping money into Tehelka. The company owes L620,000. Mr 
Vajpayee's rightwing government has bounced back from the scandal and 
is expected to win the next general election in 2004. Last month, it 
won a landslide victory in elections in the riot-hit western state of 
Gujarat after campaigning on a virtually fascist anti-Muslim platform.

The murky world of arms dealing goes on. Tony Blair and his ministers 
are still trying to persuade the Indian government to buy 66 
Britishmade Hawk jet trainers, but the billion-pound deal remains 
mysteriously stuck over the price.

Tehelka's expose' was not about "individuals", but about "systemic 
corruption", Tejpal insists. He admits that his sting operation would 
have gone down badly with any government, but says that the BJP's 
response was venomous. "The degree of pettiness has been extraordinary. 
They have a crude understanding of power and a lot of that stems from 
the fact they are in power for the first time. Our struggle is 
emblematic of a wider issue: can media organisations be killed off when 
they criticise governments?"

The gloomy answer appears to be yes. Last night Balbir Punj, a leading 
BJP member of parliament, claimed the government had nothing to do with 
the website's collapse. "Just because you do a story exposing the 
government doesn't mean the gods make you immortal," he said. "Many 
other [internet] portals have closed down. The boom is over."

Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

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