New Delhi based magazine Tehelka recently published an
investigative piece which sheds light on one of the most violent times in Indian history, the 2002 Gujarat riots. But Tehelka used ethically questionable tactics to get their scoop. Do the ends of this story justify the means? We asked Tehelka's
investigations editor, Harinder Baweja.
BOB GARFIELD: In February of 2002, a train fire in India's western province of Gujarat took the lives of nearly 60 Hindus, mostly women and children. Some Hindus blamed Islamic militants and retaliated. Women were raped, villages burned to the ground, and as many as 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, killed as Gujarat's ruling Hindu Nationalist Party and the local police stood by and watched.
Fast forward to May of this year. A reporter named Ashish Khetan, working for a New Delhi-based magazine called Tehelka, was on assignment in Gujarat when he stumbled upon an astonishing story. The violence of 2002 was not spontaneous retaliation; it was premeditated, involving members of Gujarat's Hindu Nationalist government.
In fact, perpetrators of some of the worst violence confessed to Khetan on camera -- hidden camera. Khetan was under cover, posing as an author writing a book on Hindu resurgence, and he promised his sources anonymity. He exposed a horrific crime at high levels of power, but do the ends of this story justify the means?
Harinder Baweja is Tehelka's investigations editor. She describes some of the crimes confessed on camera. One man, named Babu Bajrangi, a confidant of the ruling party's chief minister, described how he attacked a pregnant woman. HARINDER BAWEJA: He describes in detail how he actually tore open the stomach of this pregnant woman and wrenched her fetus out. We have another accused. He tells us how he ripped. And, astonishingly, when this man was talking, he had his wife sitting by his side, and he said, I'm not lying to you, I'm admitting to this in front of my wife. One of the legislators, in fact, said that rocket launchers were assembled in a factory owned by him, which is why we say that it was not spontaneous; everything was planned right down to the last detail. BOB GARFIELD: Is it common in India for reporters to be undercover, to engage in, you know, essentially a sting operation? HARINDER BAWEJA: Yes, there's a huge competition between news channels, and there are many of them now in India in the last few years who try and use the spy cam for very trivial investigations. What we believe in Tehelka is that a spy cam, a hidden camera, where you go undercover, it's actually a very potent weapon.
So this is what I tell my team every morning in the office, that use it where you cannot take your notebook and your pen. Do not use it to swat flies. And I think the kind of stories that Tehelka has done with the hidden camera is evidence enough of the fact that we only use it under very extreme circumstances. BOB GARFIELD: Well, I certainly won't argue with you about how extreme the circumstances were here. The Gujarat violence was, you know, as bloody as anything that's happened in India since partition. But I want to get to the journalistic principle involved. I don't think it's an academic one. If reporters are deemed to be misrepresenting themselves, what does this kind of reporting do to undermine credibility in the long term with readers? HARINDER BAWEJA: You know, India is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And our politicians, a lot of them use money and muscle power to subvert this entire process of law. So, really, there is very little option but to use the hidden camera. We need to either expose the abuse of power or the abuse of money. BOB GARFIELD: Was your reporter ever in danger in gathering this story? Did you fear for his life? HARINDER BAWEJA: I feared for his life every single time he went out on an appointment. In fact, there were a couple of close shaves where he did feel that his cover was close to being blown. He was traveling with this particular legislator who's on our tape. He made important revelations, one about him assembling bombs and rocket launchers at his own factory.
So Ashish Khetan was with him in his car when the legislator got a telephone call on his mobile phone. And, you know, he sort of put the phone down and told us, he says, you know what this person who called me just said, he said there's a team of journalists from Delhi who've come here to do a sting operation. And Ashish, obviously, told me that, you know, for a minute his blood just froze and he had to sort of look normal and sound normal, which was very difficult. BOB GARFIELD: What have the consequences been? Have there been arrests, official government investigations, resignations, any of the above? HARINDER BAWEJA: I will say I am disappointed with the reaction because there have been no arrests. We've had no statements from either the prime minister of India or the home minister. And as far as the state of Gujarat goes, the only thing they've done since our story hit was to actually lodge a police complaint against a reporter, not Ashish Khetan, but a reporter from the channel that collaborated with us who was not involved in the reporting of this story at all for all the six months that the story was being investigated. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I noticed that from official circles there were accusations, not that you had been unethical in your reporting but rather that you had been influenced by politics because the story broke just before elections and were deemed to be a boost to the Congress Party. Tell me about that, please. HARINDER BAWEJA: Yes, there are elections due next month in Gujarat. But if the story had been ready four months ago, we would have broken it four months ago. If the story had taken another four months, it may have been broken after the election. I mean, truth really has no timing. As a journalist, I have to say I draw satisfaction from the fact that we are being criticized by both political parties. It means only thing. It means we've got our journalism right. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Harinder. Thank you very much. HARINDER BAWEJA: You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Harinder Baweja is the editor of news and investigations at Tehelka. She joined us from New Delhi.