Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 1 & 2, dated 11 January 2014
The ongoing legal and media trial of Tarun Tejpal has, very unfortunately, polarized journalists, bloggers, editors, even lawyers and many others whose occupations don’t involve pens, keyboards and TV screens, into sharp pro and anti groups. Well, mostly anti: anti–Tejpal, and by extension anti–TEHELKA. While the former is understandable, the latter worries me on many levels.
Firstly, polarization disturbs me. It reminds me of the effective polarization in Gujarat where we are made to believe that anything said against Narendra Modi is necessarily anti Gujarat! This perhaps is the reason why, barring senior Supreme Court lawyer Rajiv Dhavan’s editorial plea in an article in Mail Today to “spare TEHELKA”, no one so far has dared separating Tejpal from TEHELKA.
Secondly, it is dubious and disturbing to equate one institution, irrespective of who founded it or who owns it financially, to one or two individuals.
Thirdly, the failure to resist this polarization is akin to negating the tireless and passionate work of TEHELKA’s past and current journalists, editors, marketing and admin persons.
One cause of this polarization lies in the semantics. Words chosen to express outrage on the Tejpal incident, like “TEHELKA Rape Case”, “TEHELKA’s Sex Assault Case”, TEHELKA’s moment of hubris”, force us to collapse the distinction between the person and the institution. One wonders if writers and commentators would have equated the organization with the man if the person involved were the editor–in–chief of a Times Now or an Indian Express? Would have we seen headlines saying ‘Times Now Rape Case’ or ‘The Indian Express Sex Scandal”?
Today, in the midst of speculations of TEHELKA’s demise, we are faced with two questions. Should TEHELKA be saved? And, can it be saved? My response to the first question is clear: It should be saved. It should be saved because there is no doubt that TEHELKA journalists have, for the past 13 years, covered several issues otherwise glossed over by the ‘mainstream media’. Because, undoubtedly, these journalists raised the bar of investigative journalism in this country. Because, undoubtedly, these journalists raised some very uncomfortable questions, most noticeably around Salwa Judhum (the anti–Maoist armed militia in Chhatisgarh), Operation Green Hunt, and more broadly the phenomenon called ‘Naxalism’, which most other media houses are happy carrying the versions doled out in government press releases.
I know this first hand because when my newly joined colleague at Video Volunteers, Aparna Marandi, was arrested in Jharkhand under the pretext of being a Maoist, TEHELKA was the first one to carry that story. It has readily featured our campaign (ARTICLE 17) against Untouchability, our campaign against forced land acquisition taking place in Odisha for POSCO’s steel plant…The list is much longer.
Video Volunteers, the media and human rights organization that I am part of, empowers communities from various marginalized groups and places in the country to create their own narratives on development and human rights. We believe that crucial voices on important issues are missing in the mainstream media largely because content creation has become a privilege of a few in the urban nerve centers.
This has led to lack of diversity in the mainstream media discourse, which usually writes off voices of protest and dissent either as disruptive or as propaganda. This reflects in policy–making as well.
But TEHELKA took a different approach. When we proposed that TEHELKA share the video stories created by our network of more than 200 Community Correspondents, it was accepted with a lot of enthusiasm. They shared our position of “voice as a human right” and the understanding that media ought to be more divergent and plural. Never once did it try to editoralise the voices and perspective of our community stories.
There is a growing community media movement in India and many organizations and projects besides Video Volunteers are creating relevant and important content. They all need media platforms like TEHELKA to further amplify these voices.
Having said this, whether TEHELKA can be saved and whether it will be able to retain its journalistic credibility will depend on its ability to remodel itself. Drastic steps will need to be taken: devolving family ownership model and exploring out–of–the–box models of ownership is one such step.
There are several sharp and valid criticisms coming out of the current discussions particularly around ownership, financing, conflict of interest (arising out of accepting sponsorship from companies who are known to violate rights that TEHELKA has stood up for) etc. Those who are at the helm of affairs currently in TEHELKA, staff and financiers included, have the humbling task ahead of acknowledging this and learning from it, as well as the stupendous task of reinventing the organisation.
Speaking as a human rights defender, I will say that this country needs more media media organizations that do investigative journalism to expose rights violations, corruption and nepotism, challenge the conventional ‘development’ paradigms, promote pluralistic voices, and has the guts to call spade a spade. I hope this spirit, which is what I have thus far equated TEHELKA with, continues for the years to come.