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Journalists should struggle to keep societies reasonably just

This is one piece of advice editor-in-chief and publisher of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, who was in the capital as a participant at Mountain Echoes, which ended yesterday, had for Bhutanese journalists. 

Kuensel met the author of The Alchemy Of Desire and The Story Of My Assassins following his session on August 10 for a quick interview and compiled the excerpts.

What does it take to write tough stories, especially challenging the wrongs of the powerful and the influential?

Interview: One of the mistakes we all make is we fear too much in India, we’re too afraid. If we were less afraid, we would do better for ourselves and for the society.

When you do what you have to do and say what you have to, you’ll find that there is always place in the world to be heard.

The fundamental task of all journalism is to keep a check on abuse of power and abuse of money. I have often written about that; Tehelka journalists know that and that is axiomatic.

That is also the primary responsibility of good and great journalism because, before democracies came into being, there was no way of checking abuses of money and power.

The great thing about democracy is it allows for a check on abuse of money and power from abusing those who don’t have it.


Bhutanese journalists are often intimidated from writing certain stories and coerced into publishing some that go against journalistic conventions. Is there any future for journalism then?

Each journalist has to intuit for themselves, which is the precise point at which you are being fair or unfair, entering the domain of someone’s private life and moving away from public good.

In your case, editors and journalists need to understand what risk is worth taking and what is not. But there are always risks worth taking and you take those risks. For instance, when we broke the Operation West End, the arms story, I remember the night before my sister came to meet me and she asked what was going to happen. I said it doesn’t matter, that this story is so important and it needs to be broken. In 2007 we did a story, which is more important than Operation West End, which was the expose on the killings in Gujarat, one that led Supreme Court to put up a special investigation team. At that point, I remember my top business people, who knew this was the breaking story the next day came and asked what would happen. I remember telling them it doesn’t matter and that even if Tehelka had to be shut down because of the story, I’m okay. This story was the reason Tehelka was set up, to be able to do these stories. If you can’t do this story, then there’s no point to Tehelka.

It’s a personal evaluation that an editor makes, or a journalist makes on what risk is worth taking and what is not.

There will always be trouble and no one is capable of dealing with all of that. What we have to do as journalists is to do the best we can. All we have to do is struggle to keep societies reasonably just, because justice is the plinth of all societies. Any society that does not give justice to its people will eventually fail. Besides that, also ensure some degree of equality pervades in the society. These are battles a journalist must fight.


How do you face intimidation?

Nobody directly intimidates me because of the kind of crazy battle we lived through for three, four years when we were really attacked by the state. Because we survived that somehow, we almost got inoculated from other intimidations. Most people thought if they could survive the whole government, then there is no point taking them on.

So despite all the exposes we do, nobody intimidates me. Of course, often there will be friendly calls saying so and so is my friend and why I am doing a certain story. That’s the benefit of those three, four years of suffering.


 What can Bhutanese journalism learn from those of the Indian ones?

I think the idea of public good is what is the centerpiece of all journalism. For me the check on the abuse of money and the abuse of power is crucial and that is something all journalists must do whether they work in closed societies or open societies.

Your job really is to be on the side of the oppressed, those underprivileged and the disempowered.

That is the job of journalists.

I often tell my rich friends that I wine with you, dine with you, I even raise my resources from many of you, but I’m not on your side.

How skillfully you articulate your position in a country like yours where you do have a kind of semi-monarchy is very crucial, in that for you to be able to write and present your material in a way that actually forces people in power to do the right thing.

We do that also. The challenge for us is to persuade by argument, facts, eloquence and shaming people in power to do the right thing.

The thing is not to hit people with the hammer but slice it open with a scalpel.

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