Done nothing illegal, says Bahal

BY Gyan Varma| IN Media Practice | 21/12/2005
"What we have done is not illegal or unlawful and since we have not done anything wrong, people cannot target us for anything."

Indo-Asian News Service

Gyan Varma

Journalist Aniruddha Bahal, who spearheaded the sting operation that exposed 11 MPs accepting cash to ask questions in parliament, is undeterred by the reported surveillance of his movements saying he has done nothing illegal.

Bahal, editor of the Internet portal cobrapost.com whose investigative reporting led to the expose of a practice in which MPs took money from companies in return for asking questions about them in parliament, says increased surveillance and charges against him of political motivation and use of unethical means are just some of the pitfalls on the path he has chosen.

?My phone is being tapped for long and maybe there are some people following our movements as well, but we have nothing to hide from anyone,? Bahal told IANS in an interview.

?Such things had happened to us after the Tehelka scandal broke out and we were being targeted,? he said, referring to a sting operation conducted in 2001 to expose kickbacks in arms purchases.

Bahal had played a key role in that investigation by the now defunct Internet portal Tehelka that forced the resignation of George Fernandes as defence minister in the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

He argued that the law would be on his side as he has broken no law and has nothing to hide. Talking about his latest sting, Bahal said: ?What we have done is not illegal or unlawful and since we have not done anything wrong, people cannot target us for anything.

?Our effort to show the darker side of the system was a journalistic approach.?

The sting operation, codenamed ?Operation Duryodhan? after a character in the epic Mahabharata who was seen as an embodiment of evil, logged more than 56 videotapes and 70 audiotapes besides recording over 900 phone calls, he said, adding it took eight months of painstaking investigation by Cobrapost and the Aaj Tak TV channel to gather footage of 11 MPs accepting cash for asking questions in parliament.

Bahal, who is from Allahabad, said that ever since the expose was shown on television, politicians had tried to intimidate the three-member team responsible for it, though indirectly.

?They do not say anything to us, but charge us with conspiring against them with other political parties to tarnish their image. Bahujan Samajwadi Party leader Mayawati also targeted us after the scandal broke out, saying that we were hired by rival parties to work against them,? he said.

He said such false propaganda had little impact because the facts were before the people who had enough understanding to decide on the honesty or dishonesty of the MPs caught on camera.

Defending his actions, he said: ?Many people allege that we targeted only low profile MPs, but this is not true. All these people are well known in their constituencies and they have had long political careers before they were caught on camera taking money.

?I strongly resent people calling an honest investigative story as entrapment because all these people (MPs) knew that we were coming to their houses to give them money. We had not gone fishing in this case,? he said.

?We posed as representatives of a fictitious body called the North Indian Small Manufacturers` Association (NISMA) and gave them a total of 60 questions to be asked in the winter session of parliament.

?Any journalist who has covered parliament for some time would know that MPs take money to ask questions during the sessions and this is what we have proved. People knew about it, we proved it.?

The plan to mount a sting operation began after Bahal received a privilege notice from parliament following an article he wrote for the Hindustan Times this year.

Bahal said there were many middlemen who can be easily found on North Avenue - one of the Delhi roads (the other is South Avenue) on which most MPs have their apartments - and it was a chance meeting with one such middleman that led him to the MPs.

?This man took us to some other middlemen who were also active in the area. One after the other, we managed to catch the MPs on camera.?

He said that though sometimes the MPs did get suspicious about their identities, things worked out finally. ?It seems luck was on our side.?

After the initial legwork was complete, Bahal himself plunged into the sting operation. ?I had to disguise myself with a wig and spectacles,? he said with a smile.

According to Bahal, the team carried out the operation on 13 MPs but one of them refused to take money and asked the team to leave his house, while another MP was kept out as he did not accept any money directly though the middleman took it.

?It would have been unethical on our part to drag in this MP`s name,? Bahal said, refusing to identify the MP.

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