'It's time the good guys won'

It exposed corruption at the top of the political establishment, so the government forced it to close. But now India's bravest website is back - this time as a newspaper. Phil Reeves reports from Delhi
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The windows are papered over to keep out prying eyes. There is a lock on the door. The acronym produced by the collective name of the journalists who will work within - the Tehelka Investigations Team - may be light-hearted. Their purpose is not. The digging, which will be carried out over the coming months, here inside a cubby-hole in the corner of a newsroom, will do much to determine the success or failure of this closely watched publishing launch.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Success will mean that a pioneering group of journalists who were hounded out of their jobs for tackling a nation's government head-on, and exposing a scandal within its highest levels, are back in business.

Failure - whatever the true cause - will be seen as a victory for the authorities, and evidence that there are limits to free speech in the country in question, India. It will be proof, too, that those limits particularly apply when the press attempts to delve into the core of one of the worst national afflictions: corruption. If all goes to plan, a 40-page weekly newspaper - tabloid in format, bright in appearance, serious in content - will appear on India's news stands next month. It will call itself Tehelka and carry the legend, "The People's Paper". According to its editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal, it will be "free, fair and fearless". And, he adds (he suffers from alliteration), "constructive and crusading".

Such pre-launch vaunts from an editor would usually be dismissed as promotional rhetoric. But not when it comes from the head of Tehelka. Every Indian already knows the name, although not all approve of it. And every Indian knows that it stands for a kind of investigative journalism practised by no one else in the country, the kind that challenges the foundations of power and demands accountability.

For Tejpal, the launch will be a triumphant return after two and a half years of persecution. He was always determined to fight back. "I could have got a fat job somewhere else on one of the media shows or something, but that would have sent the message to the establishment that they can snuff you out in the end," he says.

The story of Tehelka began in May 2000 when a small group of journalists opened a news website to offer an alternative to the complacent and largely dull mainstream press, much of which has compromising ties to big business, political parties and government. They set out to specialise in investigative and campaigning journalism, coupling this with high-quality coverage of the arts and some fine writing.

Tehelka.com got off to a great start. It began with a scoop about match-fixing in cricket, which led to an international clean-up of the game. Staff numbers swelled from 20 to 120; the site began to average 15 million "page views" a month. Big- hitters from the literary world - Kushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy, KPS Gill - began to contribute to Tehelka.com, which became required reading for the metropolitan A-list intelligentsia, as well as the foreign media, diplomats and India-watchers.

The word "tehelka" translates as "making waves", and it was soon doing just that. But in March 2001, the dot.com news outlet went a step further; it created a ruinous tidal wave by securing a gigantic scoop.

Posing as arms dealers for a fictitious London company, Tehelka reporters organised a sting in which they secretly filmed senior government figures accepting bribes. More than 30 officials were implicated, including the defence minister George Fernandes, at whose residence some of the palm-greasing was caught on camera. The ensuing uproar made headlines around the world, prompting the embarrassed government to set up an inquiry.

Any pretence that the inquiry was serious quickly evaporated. Far from rooting out the rot, it focused on Tehelka's methods. Mr Fernandes, who resigned in the immediate aftermath vowing to clear his name, reclaimed his job six months later. "The inquiry was a joke," says Tejpal, "set up to obfuscate, and it achieved its purpose."

However, the same lacklustre approach did not apply to the treatment of Tehelka. Dozens of trumped-up charges were filed against it. There were raids by tax and customs men. Its largest financial backers, the First Global brokerage, was harassed and banned from Bombay, and the owner was imprisoned for 10 weeks. Tejpal, editor and founder, was plunged into personal debt. Drowning under legal costs, Tehelka.com fell apart. It shed all but three of its 120 journalists, froze the website, and left its office.

The launch of the new weekly paper marks its resurrection. Tejpal is brimming with enthusiasm and optimism. He has, he says, visited more than 50 cities and towns across India to promote it. The response has encouraged him. "There's a wave of good feeling across the country, because we are seen as having stood up to the establishment and lived to tell the tale... We talked the language of idealism at a time when it had been discredited. That's why people have responded to us."

Plenty of hurdles lie ahead. The newspaper will be under pressure to maintain its website's record for big scoops - expectations that will not be easy to satisfy every week. Nor will it be easy to expand the readership base beyond a relatively small educated élite.

Then there's the question of money. According to Tejpal, there has been plenty of interest in the advertising market. (He has had three approaches from Bollywood to make a film of the Tehelka story.) There have been two big offers of investment - a combined total of $7.5m - which Tejpal and his colleagues refused because "there were too many conditions attached".

Instead, they have created a system of founder subscribers, each of whom contributes the equivalent of $2,500. The target is 250 subscribers; so far, they have signed up 110. These include a long list of eminent intellectuals from India, but also plenty of unknowns, and a few unexpected outsiders, such as Bill Emmott, the editor of The Economist.

With about a month before launch, the new paper has 127,000 advance orders from distributors nationwide - not a bad start, given that the aim is to build up sales to 250,000 over the next eight years. In addition, some 5,000 readers have already bought one- to three-year subscriptions.

But the Tehelka team has one asset above all others - its sheer determination to succeed. "We have been at the bottom of the well, and now we are crawling out of it," says Tejpal. "So often in India, the good guys end up losing. We are determined that this won't be the case with Tehelka. We want to show that we did the right thing, and that we're going to win in the end."