Here is a piece of news that has shattered the foundations of a party. It has brought a fair share of brouhaha in the parliament, made its way to television debates and has even given Bongs another reason to feverishly debate: Didi, kikorey?
Well, let us safely put it this way – it was not Didi, of course, but a dozen top leaders of Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, who are seen accepting heavy cash from reporters of a lesser-known news website, naradanews.com in a sting operation conducted by them. There is, however, a catch here. While the sting’s video has perceptibly brought to fore steady corruption in the state, ahead of a six-phase assembly election between April 4 and May 5 (ironic, isn’t it?), it has been released roughly two years after the operation was actually conducted.
In the video, many TMC leaders are seen taking cash from stingers, unaware that their supposed notoriety is on camera. CPI(M) has questioned Banerjee’s “complete silence” over the crisis, reminding her that she had quit the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-government when a similar sting video was released in 2001.
TMC, in its defence, has sent out an outright message denying its involvement in the case, terming the scam as a “political conspiracy”. It has even questioned the credibility of the video, calling it doctored.
While we are in no position to decide whether the video is authentic or not, we seek clarity on the case which currently, is presenting itself in a shadow of deceit and chaos.
Ankush Vats, a journalist, who was formerly associated with Tehelka, has questioned the integrity of the man behind the much-hyped sting operation. In a Facebook post, Vats wrote-
“Apologies for a lengthy post..
I have been wanting to write this since a long time but didn’t have the courage to do it. I think the time was ripe to expose the man who took the ‘risk and pain’ to expose all the corrupt people in our country.
Yesterday, a sting came out in the media exposing the corrupt leaders of Trinamool Congress. If what is shown in the sting is true, the guilty should be punished. But I, personally, have serious doubts over the credibility of the man, Mathew Samuels, behind the sting. Of all the parties and states in India, why did he zero in on West Bengal ruled by TMC. Interestingly, Tehelka is owned by KD Singh, who is also a TMC MP in Rajya Sabha. Did he help Mathew in fixing his meeting with top leaders of TMC? The sting was conducted during Mathew’s tenure at Tehelka, did he use Tehelka’s resources to conduct this sting? I believe yes, he did.
I have worked with Mathew Samuel in Tehelka. During my last one year at Tehelka, there have been various instances where he has compromised the ‘editorial freedom’ that he so openly boasts off. Around a month before the Bihar assembly Polls, he announced in the editorial meeting that they have done a sting on some big leaders of the state. Later, in every successive meetings he would say that they have got the footage and release it soon. However, till date those ‘big leaders’ have not been exposed. He stopped talking about that sting during the editorial meetings as well. Why did he not release it even after claiming before everyone that they have got the footage? I leave it to the judgement of the readers.
In another instance, a colleague of mine had gone to Jharkhand to do a story on land scam worth thousands of crores in which a senior political leader was involved. The colleague filed the story and it was discussed to be a potential cover for the next edition. But Mathew stalled it for one month saying he was collecting some more documents on it. Later, he scrapped the story altogether without giving any reasons for it. When our bureau chief questioned it, he was asked to leave Tehelka. Why was the story not published when it had all the contents of being a cover story?
In a similar case with me, he asked me to do a story on rubber plantation happening illegally around Maharashtra-Goa border. I asked him for some contacts for the story he said he had none. Even then I went to Maharashtra-Goa border areas, talked to locals and filed the story. He stalled the story for two weeks, again saying that he is collecting some ‘documents’. The story was later carried because I had not targeted any particular individual or a company which was involved in rubber plantation there. There were many companies which were doing it so I couldn’t pin point a particular company.
I wonder what documents did he collect when he didn’t even have a single contact to give me to go ahead with the story. There have been many instances like this in Tehelka.
The manner in which he left Tehelka was also very suspicious. He announced that he was going to leave the magazine and start a new website (Narada News) with KD Singh. Tehelka is struggling to pay salaries to its employees. The only link we had with the management was Mathew. So when he announced his decision to leave, everyone was wondering what would happen to their salaries.
Hence, he fooled everyone one in the office by saying that the new venture will be a sister concern for Tehelka and it’s profits will be diverted to the magazine. Sadly, some people in the office believed him too. At that time also, I told my colleagues that why would KD Singh invest in a new news venture when a established brand like Tehelka was not profitable for him. Now, on his website he claims that the project was shelved three years back.
Mathew also exploited Tehelka resources for Narada. People in the Web team of Tehelka were asked to write stories for Narada. They would do it thinking that it was a joint venture between him and KD Singh.
Th were two or three ‘trusted lieutenants’ of Mathew in the office. They would come to office with him, leave with him. Everyone in the office would ask about their job responsibilities but no one had any answer. They were drawing salary from Tehelka, and much more than some journalist there. The only job they did honestly was to arrange for food and alcohol during the office parties.
In his introductory note for Narada, Mathew has written that he left Tehelka when he was convinced that it was in the hands of ‘young and vibrant’ leadership. Little does he know that the magazine was turned from weekly to fortnightly and then recently to a monthly. He systematically weakened Tehelka by firing three of the best journalists I know, who would work for countless hours at stretch, even when we were not paid for it. Currently, Tehelka is on the verge of shutting down, I feel sad to say this but this is the harsh reality.
We have not been paid salaries for January and February. The salary for December we got in mid January. When the employees are asking when the salaries would come, the management has threatened to fire half of them saying the magazine is over staffed. When they told them that they were willing to leave if their salaries are cleared, the management played one of its cheapest tricks. It is harassing employees by saying that they owe money to the company for the trips that they went to.
Some of us had gone for outstation trips for work purpose, for which we would get some advance. After the trip we would file our bills with one of the trusted lieutenants of Mathew and get our reimbursements (if it exceeded) after two three months. However, now the management is saying that they have not received any bills and cut the amount from our salaries, which has been pending since two months. I was told that I owe Tehelka Rs 17,000, another colleague of mine owes over Rs 40,000.
There are times when there is no money with Tehelka employees to even travel to office. Because most of us are young and don’t have enough savings to survive on. Some of us have resigned and left Delhi because it was very difficult to make ends meet here. While there are some who are still struggling at Tehelka, hoping their dues will be cleared and they will be paid.
Mathew also offered jobs to most of us, including me, in his new venture, that too at a higher salary. We are all looking for a job, desperately. But not even a single person has accepted Mathew’s offer. Such is the trust and respect he has earned with his colleagues at Tehelka. We are all struggling to make ends meet but don’t want to be cheated again, that’s what we all feel.
On a lighter note: How Narada News Facebook page got over 3 lakh likes within hours of its launch?
Narada news was launched just yesterday. But it’s Facebook page has over 3 lakh followers. I was surprised to see it. I thought the sting has worked for Narada. While it is very likely for a Facebook page to get 3 lakh likes in hours. However it is close to impossible to get around 2400 people to review the page. When I went through the reviews of the page I found that the page already existed with some other name. They have changed the name of an existing group which had 3 lakh followers to Narada News. All previous posts of the page has been deleted.”
Mathew Samuel, the head of naradanews.com, who claims to have shot the footage himself, vouches for its genuineness and takes full responsibility. Responding to Vats’ accusation, Samuel wrote-
“Last night I was at the TIMES NOW #NewshourDebate with Arnab Goswami. There are a lot of questions in the minds of people regarding Narada News Sting operation exposing corruption in #TMC. Due to certain fellow participants in the debate and time constraints, I was not able to clear the air. Would like to state some facts that should put to rest, all questions. First of all, I am taking full responsibility for the operation. I shot the footage and I am willing for any forensic investigation by agencies to prove that the tape is not doctored. The timing of the tape has been questioned. I started the operation after the Sarada Chit Fund scam as the Mamata Banerjee government came to power claiming to be corruption-free. I started the sting operation before the Lok Sabha polls but could not finish it because I (had) joined Tehelka. After quitting Tehelka on 1st January 2016, I finished the sting this year. It is not a two-year-old sting as is being largely reported. It is a sting which took two years to complete. It can be verified as I travelled to Bengal early this year. The #Naradanews website work finished this year. The company registration took place this year. Therefore I could not release the sting footage earlier. My job as a journalist was to expose corruption and that I did. Now the footage is in the public domain for people to decide. The sting operation has not been done at the behest of any other political outfit as is being claimed by TMC. If I get a good story tomorrow I will do it no matter who it is against. Also, there are questions on how I got so much money to give to these leaders. The money was funds we got from my friends to set up Narada News but I decided to use most of it to conduct the sting as I believe that good content is the only way to create a credible brand.”
Now here is something we do not understand, Mr Samuel. How can you possibly stretch a sting operation for over two years? Are you trying to make a documentary film? Or have you been heavily inspired by the Hollywood film Boyhood? What would have happened if all those people you brought under the scanner had died/retired in these two years? All your efforts to thwart corruption would have been foiled.
Samuel claims he was funded by his friends to set up Narada News, and he used the money to conduct the sting. So the bundles of cash, as a matter of fact, were given to Samuel by his friends. If he used up most of the cash on the “corrupt” politicians of TMC, then what did he set up Narada with?
The questions raised by Vats, of which Samuel has no answer, are extremely logical. Did he really join camps with one TMC leader (KD Singh), against other TMC leaders? Or was he helped by opposition CPI(M), days before the assembly polls, to “tarnish TMC’s image” as alleged by them?
The sting video may perhaps be legitimate, but the sting operation per se, has several loopholes. In India, the process of giving donations to political parties must be kept transparent, in order to slay dishonesty and corruption. And irrespective of the timing of the operation and its motive, TMC must not dismiss the seriousness of the charge. It is expected of the party to punish the perpetrators, if found guilty.
[Note- This story is the first part of a series of interconnected stories that we are publishing. The story on Jharkhand that Ankush Vats mentions in his Facebook, will be published next.]