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Newsmaker: Mathew Samuel

A sting that will hurt

Ishita Ayan Dutt 

Newsmaker: Mathew Samuel

If those in power knew that investigative journalist Mathew Samuel was going to launch a news portal they would have surely been on their guard. After all, it's not the first time that he has disrupted the political landscape.

Till a few days ago, elections in West Bengal were a foregone conclusion; Trinamool Congress's Mamata Banerjee was invincible, and not even an alliance between the Left Front and Congress was likely to change it in any way. Then unheard-of Narada News released a 23-minute video showing some of the most prominent faces in the ruling party allegedly taking cash to lobby for a fictitious company, and the political tranquility of Bengal was suddenly lost.

The Ethics Committee of the Lok Sabha is investigating the sting video, and public interest litigation has been initiated by leaders from the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party seeking an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). For its part, the Trinamool Congress has dubbed it a political conspiracy, though Samuel vouches for the video footage.

"I have shot it myself on an iPhone 4s. See the clarity," is his response.

The shoot for the story started a couple of months before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. "My friends, mostly NRIs who have funded Narada News, thought we should launch the news portal with a big bang story and the Saradha chit fund scam provided the perfect opportunity," recalls Samuel.

But work on the story was put on pause in August 2014 when Samuel got a call from Trinamool Congress MP, K D Singh, to rejoin Tehelka as managing director. Singh's Anant Media is a majority stakeholder in Tehelka.

"He didn't know I was working on a story on the Trinamool Congress," claims Samuel who found it difficult to turn down the Tehelka offer. After all, Samuel, then a special correspondent, was responsible for Tehelka's first and biggest investigation, Operation West End in 2001, which exposed murky defence deals.

Many heads rolled. BJP President Bangaru Laxman, Defence Minister George Fernandes and his party president Jaya Jaitly resigned. Laxman was later convicted. Ironically, Mamata Banerjee, an important ally of the NDA government then, quit the government because she didn't want to be part of a corrupt government.

"Even now I have to spend 10 days a month to depose before the CBI for the 11 accused in the scam. I have moved the High Court and Supreme Court so that my expenses are at least covered," Samuel says.

Samuel shot to fame with Operation West End but life was not easy for him. "I was completely engaged in court cases. For eight months, I didn't get my salary because Tehelka could not function properly and ultimately closed down. And I used to live in a rented house," says Samuel recollecting the bitter experience.

Having learnt his lesson, Samuel has vowed to do things differently at Narada News, funded by a clutch of NRIs based in Dubai, US and Australia, which will also focus on investigative journalism. Samuel owns 18 per cent of the company.

"We will at least cover the legal expenses for reporters and back them up. That's something I didn't get at Tehelka," he says. Narada has a team of 11.

Samuel quit Tehelka this January to finish work on the X-Files, or the purported sting video on the Trinamool Congress. "I had to go back for some spadework and editing of the video," he says.

Did he anticipate such an impact? No, he says. But with weeks to go before the Bengal elections, the fallout is but obvious.

First Published: Thu, March 17 2016. 21:05 IST