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.
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.