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Feature: India's crusading newsmagazine caught in its own web of scandal


Feature: India's crusading newsmagazine caught in its own web of scandal

by Peerzada Arshad Hamid

SRINAGAR, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Dec. 11 (Xinhua) -- Tehelka in Indian language means tumult. This was the name adopted by a news organization in 2000 that stirred a hornet's nest in India after it exposed on its website rampant corruption in India' s defense circles.

The organization subsequently rechristened itself as a newsmagazine and continued to practice investigative journalism.

Tehelka's investigative style was seen as a pioneering effort in Indian journalism. In 2001, it secretly filmed politicians and people in defense circles accepting bribes in return for approving shoddy defense deals. The expose shook the then government and ended careers of known politicians in the ruling coalition and the then defense minister, aside from senior bureaucrats.

The magazine also published chilling accounts of right-wing Hindu activists who confessed killing Muslims (recorded on secret cameras) during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The magazine investigated an array of issues including cricket match-fixing, the murder of model Jessica Lal (involving son of a politician), and the role of Indian superstar Sanjay Dutt's in the 1993 Mumbai blasts.

The Tehelka had dedicated its last page for years to feature first-hand experiences of its readers. Mostly the space was used by women to highlight gender violence.

For its proactive journalism Tehelka was recognized internationally. The Guardian referred to it as "one of the best sources of news in India." The BBC said, "Tehelka has invested heavily in hard hitting investigative reporting and has pushed the boundaries of editorial content further than most."

Although it attracted severe criticisms from the then government and tax officials Tehelka stood its ground and was widely acclaimed by the people. Prior to becoming a newsmagazine in 2004, the publication urged people to donate money generously and buy subscriptions so that it will continue its "crusade" in fighting graft and corruption in India.

Its call for donations was received well by Indians including the known personalities and money began to pour in support of the magazine's"ethical" brand of journalism. But the public interest journalism that Tehelka claimed it is practicing has all but disappeared after its editor, Tarun J. Tejpal, was jailed for allegedly sexually harassing a female colleague.

In fact, the weekly newsmagazine, published in English and Hindi languages, is losing most of its journalists and employees in the circulation department are being laid off by the management.

The crisis unfolded on November 18 after the victim complained to the magazine's managing editor Shoma Chaudhury about Tejpal's misconduct and demanded an in-house committee to investigate his alleged sexual assault. Two days after the complaint Tejpal stepped down as editor. In his email to the staff Tejpal said he was "recusing" himself from his job for the next six months to "atone" for an "unfortunateincident."

"A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, haveled to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for," Tejpal said.

The victim, whose name has been withheld to protect her reputation, said that after she was sexually assaulted by Tejpal, she felt "shattered and scarred."Tejpal's decision to recuse himself for six months and Chaudhury's dealing of the matter as an internal affair and shoving away fellow journalists who wanted to cover the incident came under severe criticism. India's newspapers and broadcast organizations had a field day reporting about the scandal.

The intense coverage of the incident subsided only after Chaudhury himself resigned from Tehelka and the police were forced to arrest Tejpal after a case was filed against him in Goa.

So far, six journalists, including Chaudhury and the victim, have resigned from the magazine. Tejpal used to refer the newsmagazine as the "people's paper" and the "voice of voiceless."

The magazine's unique selling point (USP) was its slogan " free, fair and fearless," something that was close to readers' heart.

But because of the scandal, it is now difficult for the publication to regain the trust of its readers.