Media practices: a Tehelka story and others

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By Chitra Ahanthem

Things fall apart and how! The ‘Tehelka’ (Hindi for sensation) is still playing out in the public domain. And while the main crux: that of the alleged sexual molestation of a journalist interning at the magazine is the centre stage of debates, discussions and now a police investigation; the add ons as we can see are the slug fests between two of the nations major political parties, the Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Tehelka magazine has for long been accused and spoken if in loud whispers as being soft on the Congress party and going hammer and tongs against the BJP. That the magazine emerged as a leading ‘for truth’ and all the jazz on a series of sting operations against the BJP are there for one to see but very interestingly, the majority of coverage of Manipur in the Tehelka magazine were all very critical of the state Government fronted by Congress. The magazine was perhaps the only national publication to give a cover page story to the state when the Kangla fort protest was undertaken in 2004. Other stories worth a mention that were not too soft on the state government include the Loktak clean up scam and the BT road encounter that left a former underground cadre dead and a pregnant woman dead, besides narratives of family members killed in various other alleged extra judicial killings etc. Of the three stories that found a prominent mention in the Tehelka magazine, the one on the BT road killing case saw me dragged in a CBI investigation. The Tehelka journalist based in Guwahati who filed the story had called me (amongst many others to get their views and opinions) when the news of the killing broke out and had sent me a text message while I was in Bhubaneshwar attending a seminar to alert me that a huge story had broken out and that I should check it out. That flow of information was what probably led to the investigation team to call me up for inquiries over the source of the story and the damning photographs that the magazine published. When the call came in from the investigation officer, my first reaction was that it was a prank call from someone I knew but I soon realized that it was indeed a serious matter and that I was in the thick of things. Deciding that the official Q and A session was best done in a place that I was familiar with, I asked the officer to meet me at the IFP office. I reached earlier than the stipulated time and waited for the officer. When the questioning started, it became clear to me that the officer wanted me to feel that he knew more about me and my supposed activities, however far fetched they were. Right in the middle of a track where the officer grilled me on how long I had known the journalist who had filed the story and what I had talked with when she had called, he threw in a ‘so you keep traveling to Bangkok?’. The tone of the question implied that going to Bangkok meant other things (like meeting heads of armed groups). The poor man did not know that woman journalists from this part of the country are not considered important enough to be called in to meet the head honchos of the groups. My retort to his line of questioning was to point out that his information on me was not complete as my trips abroad have been for coverage on HIV/AIDS and drug use. And just to get back, I casually said, “If you had kept a careful tab on me, you would have been aware that the last time I was in Bangkok was this year and I came back testing positive for Swine flu.’ That got his goat! He hastily kept his chair’s position away from me and he wound up his grilling.
Of course, I had no specific information on the identity of the photographer who took the sequence of photos that eventually blew the lid off the BT road case. In fact, I still have major reservations about the fact that the photographer chose to remain anonymous while the Tehelka journalist went on to win every major journalism award that year. While I respect the volume of work she has done prior and subsequent to the BT road case, the painful truth is that without the photos accompanying the text that she wrote while sitting in Guwahati, the story would not have been a game changer. I still think that the photographer should have disclosed his identity in the immediate aftermath of the Tehelka story for any attempt to transgress his safety would have been taken up strongly by both the media and the civil society groups. But it was his call and he decided that anonymity was far better for him.

End-point: For many of us in the Manipur media, we face many a moment where we grapple over how much we share with the national level media outlets. At one level we want our issues to reach the national sphere but on another level, there is a lack of respect for the work and the resources of the local media by these ‘parachute journalists’. While the national media is mostly blank about emerging issues in the NE region, the unspoken truth is that journalists who come in from outside the state have to fall back upon the reach and contacts of the local journalists, sometimes asking for company on their story assignments, taking leads on who to speak to. They do all these and then do not bother to either give a joint bye line to the local journalist or pay them for their assistance. Worse, there is a breed of young journalists who certain mainstream media channels ‘engage’ as their eyes and ears, saying they are their stringers. They do not get paid ever or get reimbursed for their various phone calls or other related costs but are led along with vague hopes of being associated with the media outlets in a cruel irony of the word ‘stringer’ implying the one being strung along. In my long years, I have seen it all: how a journalist covering the NE region would take my assistance during a majority of his news assignment in the state did not find the time to even get me the number of an official while I was in his city, how another very senior journalist just dropped in to my house without any prior appointment and expected me to share intimate details of a public figure (would she even know me if I ran into her in her city? Nada!) and so on. And yes, I truly resent the fact that most parachute journalists portray themselves as experts of the region for I can see the wealth of information and leads that they could not have done without but do not mention.

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