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Update: Since this post was written, Cobrapost have done several more stings exposing deep rooted wrongs in India. From social media services for political parties to spread disinformation, slander or rig elections, to confessions of brutal murders of dalits who have been getting acquited in case after case. Today Cobrapost has exposed the "Love jihad" - a Hindutva conspiracy to intimidate couples where a Hindu girl marries a boy of another religion with shocking confessions ranging from kidnapping and assault to intimidation, threats against family, false charges of rape and even the drugging of Hindu girls.

Cobrapost and Gulail have come up with a devastating video sting of Amit Shah's misuse of state machinery on the orders of Narendra Modi in surveilling a woman for a month. The sting covers almost an hour and includes over half an hour of taped phone conversations that show the extent of surveillance. (separate post on the sting will follow). Here is the video:

The article that follows, I had written after Operation Red Spider, also by Cobrapost.

Aniruddha Bahal and Cobrapost have come up with a devastating video sting - Operation Red Spider, in which they have exposed money laundering facilities offered by top banks HDFC, ICICI and Axis. The clear implication is a nationwide moneylaundering scam. The shocking expose was done with the help of one editor Syed Masroor Hasan and was simple. Syed walked into various branches of these banks saying he was acting on behalf of a politician who had a lot of black money he needed laundered. What followed is history. Bank officials not only readily agreed to it, they provided various strategies like bonds, deposits and gold in gross violations of the Income Tax Act, FEMA. As I write, news comes in that RBI is going to investigate the banks exposed by Operation Red Spider.

Aniruddha Bahal and his cobrapost.com have been doing spectacular video stings consistently. Some of their earlier work includes:

2011 Cobrapost had done the Bollywood Black Money video stings in partnership with CNN where top Bollywood producers and directors revealed on camera how black money funds their films and how they launder it for their investors.

2007 - Operation Guru Dakshina exposed illegal dealings in school admissions.

2006 - Haj Applications Scam exposed how Mumtaz Ahmed blatantly agreed to rig the lottery system for selecting Haj applications for a price.

2005 Operation Duryodhana captured on camera 11 MPs accepting money to table questions on the floor of the Parliament (10 - Lok Sabha, 1 - Rajya Sabha) - 7 BJP, 2 BSP, 1 INC, 1 RJD. The members were all expelled:

  • Narendra Kushwaha (BSP) - Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh: Rs 55,000
  • Annasaheb M. K. Patil (BJP) - Erandol, Maharashtra: Rs 45,000
  • Chhatrapal Singh Lodha (BJP) - Odisha (Rajya Sabha) : Rs 15,000
  • Y. G. Mahajan (BJP) - Jalgaon, Maharashtra: Rs 35,000
  • Manoj Kumar (Rashtriya Janata Dal) - Palamau, Jharkand: Rs 110,000
  • Suresh Chandel (BJP) - Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh: Rs 30,000
  • Raja Ram Pal (BSP) - Bilhaur, Uttar Pradesh : Rs 35,000
  • Lal Chandra Kol (BJP) - Robertsganj, Uttar Pradesh: Rs 35,000
  • Pradeep Gandhi (BJP) - Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh: Rs 55,000
  • Chandra Pratap Singh (BJP) - Sidhi, Madhya Pradesh : Rs 35,000
  • Ramsevak Singh (Congress) - Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh: Rs 50,000

2000 - Operation West End in collaboration with Matthew Samuels (in Tehelka) exposed irregularities in defense procurements and resulted in the resignation of the then BJP chief Bangaru Laxman, defence minister George Fernandes. This was followed by an mega witchhunt of Tehelka by the ruling BJP government which shut it down.

1997 - Match-fixing sting - he was the first journalist anywhere in the world to expose the shady world of match-fixing in an expose that rattled the cricket world. Remember the end of Azaruddin?

Imagine my astonishment when the sole award to his name on Wikipedia is one for Bad Sex In Literature. Not joking. Cobrapost doesn't even have a page on Wikipedia. And we wonder why corruption is so difficult to end in a world where controversial corporations sponsor journalism awards and political parties have understandings with corporate owned media?

I had written this post for another website earlier, but it doesn't seem to have been published.

4

In 2001, Tehelka did a sting operation called Operation Westend, where they pretended to be trying to sell thermal imaging binoculars and wanted to secure defense purchases. Recording all their interactions with hidden cameras, they ended up with an astonishing expose of some 34 people bought out on tape to sell a product to the country. A product that didn't exist at all. Among those caught were Mr. Bangaru Laxman (then president of the BJP), Ms. Jaya Jaitly and others.

Here is a sample tape they have edited out of their meetings with Bangaru Laxman.

So far, so good. We have proof of massive corruption in defense deals. Something which incidentally continues to date. What was chilling was the response of the government. At that time, there was a BJP government in power. Mentioning this, because the BJP takes high moral ground often, but here was a case of 34 people offered bribes and 34 people accepting. This is not to say the same wouldn't have happened with a Congress government, as Shoma Chaudhary rightly pointed out. The corruption is endemic and ongoing.

What was horrendous was that Tehelka was targetted by the government in an unprecedented manner with the government doing all it could to demolish them and their credibility entirely. From income tax audits to cases filed against individuals, it was a witch hunt that brought the paper down from 120 paid employees to one. It shut the paper down for all practical purposes. It was another two years for them to publish an edition.

The conviction of Bangaru Laxman that has happened after so many years is a vindication of the effort Tehelka put into that sting as well as a mark of their integrity, as Shoma says in this [remarkably polite - I wouldn't have managed it] video.

So all is well and good, Tehelka survived a nightmare, is credible and publishing again, culprits have been disowned by BJP and prosecuted, etc. All is well.

NOT.

As a citizen of India and a person concerned with freedom of speech and freedom of media, this is an important moment for me. The government's witch hunt of Tehelka is now clearly visible for what it was. In my view, allowing it to stand in spite of being proved wrong is an undermining of free speech and a step toward state sponsored silencing of the media - or in other words, an invisible fence of paid media. Push the wrong buttons and get destroyed is the message.

This will not do.

I think this is a good time for Tehelka to immediately file a case against the government - ideally a PIL that safeguards truth seekers from persecution, but at the very least as a case by them against the government for persecution and demand compensation for the losses from going out of business as a result of it as well as the trauma to individuals.

Operation Westend may have been about defense deals, but what followed was about silencing anyone that challenged corruption in the corridors of power, and if that persecution is allowed to exist unchallenged, it stays as a precedent for others to fear when tackling erosion of the integrity of our country.

It is no coincidence that very few newspapers ever touch the cores of power of the government. No one will question Sonia Gandhi to ask for an explanation of the bizarre nomination of Sachin Tendulkar to the Rajya Sabha. No one will ask the president to explain her rationale for approving it. The RTI activists and journos of Moneylife had to face vague threats when they questioned the President's retirement bungalow - news comes in that she is no longer accepting it. At the same time, the threats did try to silence the truth seekers.

RTI activists are dying routinely anyway. Usually at the hands of people in power. This year we also had the inexplicable death of someone handling RTI queries.

In my view, unless the media strikes back and defends its constitutional rights vigorously, they, like all rights will keep eroding till a point in time where a journalist writing anything about anyone may send it for "prescreening" approval first for fear of losing his job, life or other things dear. News organizations may reach a point of running everything by people to prevent offense and retaliation.

The internet is fighting for its voice against the government as we speak.

If we are to survive as a democracy, then the right to free speech must be defended with all we have. In my view, Tehelka MUST sue the government for damages to business, reputation and health, so that it sets a precedent for taking the government to task in future silencing. On a larger scale, the practice of countering any challenge of wrongdoing with defamation must be destroyed for even Parliamentary proceedings to exit our paralysis.

==========================

Two questions answered before asked:

1. That was a different government.

So? It is the same country, same news magazine, same constitution, same government, even if the occupants changed. With this logic, if the BJP comes to power, the government shouldn't pay compensation for Sikh riots? They were harmed by the government, the government must compensate them. No one is stupid enough to think that the Congress would persecute anyone for nailing the president of the BJP. Unless they have individuals they know targetted them, they should aim for the Government of India.

2. What if they lose?

In my view, we shouldn't let them lose. But even if they do, the silencing must be challenged. And it must be challenged every time it happens. Every time, with every entity it happens with, because democracy is worth it.