Where does Tehelka go from here, after the allegations of sexual misconduct against its founder-editor Tarun Tejpal? Will it harm the reputation of a magazine which prided itself on doing path-breaking exposes of corruption in high places?
“The work of Tehelka was the collective effort and vision of its numerous reporters, writers and editors,” says Ashish Khetan, who worked with Tehelka for a time and has now started a news portal, Gulail.
“Tarun’s indictment in the sexual assault case is indeed a serious blow for Tehelka, but the alleged act of criminality or misconduct of one individual should not be confused with what Tehelka as an institution came to represent over a period of time. There is a distinction between an institution and an individual even if he happens to be the founder or editor,” Khetan said.
dna tried to speak to other journalists associated with Tejpal and Tehelka, including Vinod Mehta and Aniruddha Bahal, the founding member of Tehelka, who now runs the investigative news portal Cobrapost, but they refused to comment.
Bahal’s co-investigator in the Operation West End sting, Mathew Samuel spoke admiringly of Tejpal. “I have known him for 15 years. As an editor, he is one of the best, always encouraging reporters,” Samuel said.
Operation West End was one of the first big stories Tehelka did in 2001. The clandestinely shot tapes of senior politicians and defence officials openly asking middlemen of multinational defence companies for a cut in arms deals led to a huge furore, leading to the resignation of then defence minister George Fernandes. It laid the foundation for Tehelka’s fame, and by extension, that of Tejpal.
But Samuel, who stumbled on the story from a chance conversation with someone he met on a train from Pune, and, along with Bahal, pursued the story for months, is today battling it out in the courts, where he faces over 28 cases, travelling from one army unit to another, appearing as prosecution witness in court martials that continue to this day. Only one case, that of Bangaru Laxman, the then BJP president caught accepting cash from Samuel, has been resolved, with the former’s conviction last year (and later bail).
Samuel had to bear the brunt of the BJP-led government’s ire against Tehelka — he didn’t get his salary and was thrown out of his rented house. Tejpal put him up in a company guest house.
He is saddened at the present editor Shoma Chaudhury’s “completely flawed” strategy in defending Tejpal. “Tarun is the icon of Tehelka; if he’s gone, the main brand will also go.”
“If Tehelka had done this kind of sting, the first question we’d have asked was what happened to your boss?” he says, recalling how he himself had to address the morally knotty issue of using call girls in Operation West End. “But that was because the people we were recording wanted call girls and the management told us to provide them. Now, with this situation, they [Tehelka] are completely on the defensive.”