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India's cultural elite revive muckraking magazine

After declining under previous government, Tehelka.com rebounds, bolstered by reader funding.

By Dan MorrisonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 26, 2004



BOMBAY

Tarun Tejpal's story shows the perils and promise of muckraking journalism in modern India.

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His Internet news portal, Tehelka.com, was almost hounded out of existence after rocking India's political and defense establishment three years ago with a seedy exposé of high-level corruption.

Now, bolstered by a new, friendly government and favorable expert testimony, Tehelka is back as a reader-funded weekly newspaper.

"Our victory is really a huge victory for the emerging democratic consensus in India,'' he says. "If they had been able to render us extinct, it would have been impossible for anyone to try this again.''

The Tehelka tapes, declared bona fide late last month, depicted top military officials and politicians accepting bribes - and, in some cases, prostitutes - from reporters posing as defense contractors. The news portal was crushed in an alleged government backlash, and its staff fell from 125 employees to three under the weight of police raids and a lengthy judicial inquiry.

But Tehelka emerged from the rubble - again as something new in Indian media. Tehelka.com, the well-funded Internet site, is now Tehelka, "the people's paper,'' a crusading weekly focusing on India's downtrodden and the villains who tread upon them.

While the majority of Tehelka's articles are based on straight reporting and analysis, the sting operation, Tehelka's signature, remains a potent resource. The July 10 issue was headlined: "Explosive: How Government Doctors Help You Get Rid of Your Wife."

The story and accompanying hidden-camera images showed a psychiatrist at a state mental hospital accepting 10,000 rupees, about $220, from an undercover reporter to declare a reporter's wife insane so he could divorce her. The doctor said he didn't need to examine the woman.

Tehelka is Hindi for sensation. And with its images of defense officials and party leaders pocketing stacks of money, the portal introduced India to the TV-age media scandal - Watergate with a dash of Lewinsky.

Tehelka first hit the map in 2001 with an exposé of match-fixing in professional cricket, India's national pastime. But it was the defense sting, called Operation Westend, that brought international notice.

A team led by reporter Anirudda Bahal impersonated defense contractors looking to sell thermal-imaging binoculars to the Indian Army. The team's hidden cameras showed Indians a world of middlemen, bureaucrats, and politicians taking cash, booze, and flesh for access to the procurement process. The president of the then-ruling Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) resigned after he was shown accepting cash from an undercover Tehelka reporter.

While the Indian military used the Tehelka tapes as evidence against officers involved, the politicians questioned the veracity of the tapes and attacked the journalists' ethics. When local experts said the Tehelka tapes were bona fide, the commission of inquiry sent them to a British expert for more tests. The expert came back with the same result last month.

Tehelka became the focus of the investigation. Reporters were arrested and questioned. Tehelka's financial backer, Shankar Sharma, spent 65 days in jail as investigators closed his company and pored over his books.

Aakar Patel, editor of the Bombay tabloid Mid-Day, recalls asking the former deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, to explain the crackdown. Advani said the motive was retaliation, Patel says. "He was very up-front about it.'' Sharma says the assault "made Tehelka what it is today. It gained a lot of mass support.'' Otherwise, "it would have died a natural death.''

Even as Tehelka.com withered under legal and economic pressure, it spawned a wave of journalistic sting operations, including recent reports targeting corruption in the judiciary and the influence of cash in India's ultracompetitive school-admissions process.

One of Tehelka's more potent features highlights people savaged by the system. The paper profiled and raised money for Pankaj Giri, a tea vendor who was pushed from a moving train when he refused to pay railway police a bribe. Mr. Giri lost his legs. The officers weren't charged.

If Tehelka's legal troubles are fading, its survival on India's crowded newsstands isn't fully assured. The magazine was launched in February with weekly circulation of 150,000. While Tehelka says it's now selling 100,000 weekly copies, outside estimates have been as low as 30,000.

Whereas Tehelka the website was funded by a high-flying money manager, Tehelka the magazine is supported by some 200 founding subscribers who each gave more than $2,000.

The founding subscribers come from India's civil society elite - writers, lawyers, businessmen, and activists - who wanted to see the project survive. Tejpal, perhaps India's best-known journalist, "has been able to raise capital from dedicated readers, people of good will,'' says Patel. "There is not any precedent for it.''

Author Shobhaa De says she agreed to contribute "out of a kind of romantic nostalgia for a time when journalism meant something.... For some of us it was done with a lot of reservation. It wasn't a revenue model with any clear sort of future. But we had to support an independent voice.''

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