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Tehelka sting: Time to speak out

By Mahesh Peri
November 07, 2007 14:07 IST
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Being the publisher of a large magazine is a blessing as well as a curse. You are in an enviable position to be a social change agent. However, you are supposed to treat all other media -- including good journalism -- as competition and treat them with suspicion.

Post the Tehelka sting, planned and executed at Tehelka's offices and later aired on Aaj Tak and Headlines Today as a joint operation, many media-watchers have asked me a very common but sinister question: "Why now? Don't you think it is motivated?" Every questioner was looking at an answer that wanted me to ignore the content and focus on the motives behind the operation. And motives, we know, can always be insinuated, even imputed.

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I have known Tarun and Aniruddha Bahal (now operating CobraPost, which has aired many exposes on many other channels), the founders of Tehelka, for long. As their publisher when they were at Outlook, I used to be both excited and fearful of their exploits, but never saw any reason to doubt their motives. At Outlook, we believe in following a story and putting it in the public domain, without bothering about the after-effects.

Even at the cost of sounding immodest, I implicitly assume that the people groomed at Outlook continue to follow the same philosophy. And, even if I hadn't ever known Tarun or Tehelka, I would still go with the contents of the sting and not look at excuses to rubbish the operation.

And lastly, if they have tried to recover some of their costs by selling it to any television channel, and that too a channel as big as Aaj Tak, I don't have a problem. Tehelka is a commercial enterprise whose survival depends as much on making their work viable as on credible journalism. And let's remember the power of television which is important in reaching a larger number of people.

However, the response that the sting has evoked from some among us is both shameful and dangerous. And when it comes from leaders -- the so-called intellectuals and especially editors who are supposed to mould public opinion -- it is despicable. I have read Chandan Mitra (in the latest issue of Outlook) and I am constrained to say that I am happy not to have ever known or met him. I think I am freer than him because I can see, hear and process everything that is said on camera not through the prism of my own magazine, organisation or people.

Will the Tehelka sting indirectly benefit Modi?

Mr Mitra wants you to investigate Godhra and the 1984 riots before the current operation is taken at face value. Just because the infamous Delhi schoolteacher sting was a contrived operation, he would have you rubbish this sting as well. He wants you to justify the timing of the operation before the contents are accepted at face value.

It just doesn't end there. Elected representatives and public officials seem to be excused on the grounds of being 'braggarts' (and no, I will not say anything about his research at Oxford University) -- 'small-time, small town politicians who are known to exaggerate their importance given half a chance'. He seemed more bothered about the money that Aaj Tak paid Tehelka and the money made by mobile phone operators than the contents of the sting operation.

Have we as a country fallen to such a state that murders, rapes, wrenching the foetus out of a pregnant woman, hacking a person bit by bit and then burning him alive have all become part of 'bragging'? If this is the country that Mr Mitra thinks he represents as a parliamentarian, then our leaders have failed us in creating a civil society and on that charge alone, they must be driven away.

Have we fallen to such a state that every political party in this country -- the stung included -- would benefit out of a systematic dehumanising of our collective conscience? Can't we as a country prevent people from benefiting out of mass rapes and murders? Do we need to see even the most despicable things that happen around us through a prism of caste, creed, religion, political parties, competition, business, sex, region, and so on?

The political compulsions are such that the stung party that should be ashamed is seems smug and even jubilant whereas the Opposition Congress, that should have been creating a hue and cry, looks visibly shaken and most unhappy. A day after the contents were aired, we had a Union minister belonging to the Congress claiming it to be a Bharatiya Janata Party operation to 'encash the sentiments of the people through an overexposed Godhra episode'.

Both the BJP and the Congress are spreading the word about the sting operation having been done at the other party's behest. No one wants to take the issue further; it is vote bank politics at the worst. Even a statesman that our prime minister is supposed to be has not uttered a single word condemning the contents of the expose.

Under the Press and Registration of Books Act (which regulates the publishing industry in India), as a publisher you are responsible for everything that is printed in your publication. At the same time, following the basic tenets of editorial freedom, I get to know about all the stories published in Outlook along with millions of our readers. And no matter what the laws say, that is how it ought to be and I am proud to be working in such an environment.

Being a publisher with tens of cases filed by Raja Bhayyas and Narendra Modis, I have become immune to cases filed by certain kinds of people, especially politicians. So perhaps I should not be too concerned by their reactions to the Tehelka expose. But when I see people becoming immune to tragedy, death and human suffering, I think it is time for the average Indian to speak out.

Mahesh Peri is the publisher, Outlook group

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