Shalini Singh is a senior award-winning investigative journalist. While most journalists have a single expose or area of specialization to their credit, Shalini has managed to create a powerful body of rigorously reported work that is impressive in scale, range, depth and impact. Of the many exposes credited to Shalini, the following continue to dominate the political, legal, academic and media discourse: the 2G spectrum scam, Coalgate, Vadragate, the Haryana land scam, the Virbhadra Singh scandal, NABARD scam and the Sahara Ponzi scam. In 2G, her charges of illegality, made in 2007, were independently verified by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court in its Order of February 2012, cancelling all 122 telecom licenses awarded on January 10, 2008.
1. The tribe of investigative journalists is ever decreasing. Why so?
The kind of ‘investigative journalism’ that is tolerated by the system is mostly what politicians or powerful business houses would like placed in the public domain. These ‘exposes’ are carefully calibrated to suit their political/business interests. Journalists who cater to this agenda are rewarded and become heroes and celebrities.
Real investigative journalism is not the replication of ready-to-go handouts but the outcome of independent enquiry backed with rigorous research and undertaken in the public interest. It is information that the politically and financially empowered would never want placed in the public sphere.
This kind of journalism is not tolerated and journalists who continue on this path despite dissuasion, threats and punishment are disrespected, ignored, denied access and eventually permanently edged out of the system.
Media companies fully support such purging, since they are either owned by politicians or businessmen or their survival depends on them.
2. Do you think good journalism is about persistence and patience to stay with the story rather than always taking the route of the 9 PM news channels?
Absolutely. Good journalism is about keeping the public interest and the common good central to the story. Journalists are meant to be change agents and thought leaders. It is their duty to guide the national discourse on issues that will lead to development and nation building. Television is essentially the medium of the routine. They typically select a few top news developments and print/digital exclusives of the day and run with that, rather than dedicating resources to gathering time-consuming exclusives.
The dynamics of any newsroom, whether television, print or the digital medium, have converged and become consumer/market driven. Editors mostly function as gatekeepers to block sensitive news that will damage their advertisers. Sometimes the owners dictate the agenda. Even when they don’t, editors will either be more loyal than the King, will crawl when asked to bend or if they are smart, use the agenda of the owners wherever possible to further their own interests.
It is a no-brainer that it is far more beneficial for an editor or a journalist to cultivate “powerful” government/corporate sources, publish their handouts and push their agenda rather than to question such sources, which would end up in them being denied access and information.
3. After you exposed the Robert Vadra dealings, were they adequately covered in the media or were they only raised after AAP's press conference? Can you also explain the story behind those dealings to our readers who may not be aware of it?
I joined The Hindu in February 2012 and submitted the Vadra story in March, 2012 after emailing detailed questionnaires to both Robert Vadra and DLF. The editorial team felt the story was not good enough to be carried, so it remained in limbo for 7 months. When I lost hope of it being carried, I sought permission to give the material to India Against Corruption. My story http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/behind-robert-vadras-fortune-a-maze-of-questions/article3975214.ece finally went to print the same day as AAP’s press conference - exactly as I had first presented it, so clearly, it was good enough from the very start.
Vadragate, with its direct link to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, helped expose the fact that corruption is entrenched in the system, its scale is mindboggling, the rot starts at the very top and finally, that the reverence and trust placed by India’s citizens in the Gandhi family is entirely misplaced. The contents of all these stories remain uncontested till date.
The Vadra story led to a series of exposes on the Haryana land scam, again spearheaded by its then Chief Minister, B. S. Hooda and supported by Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. In one of these pieces. I have clearly outlined the out-of-turn favors bestowed to Vadra, which involved gross policy violations and complete sacrifice of public interest. Since then, routine developments, which have only strengthened the charges of corruption and out of turn favors to Robert Vadra, have been regularly covered by the media, but no startlingly new material has emerged.
Like in 2G, the CAG independently corroborated my charges of illegality in the Vadra scandal in its Report of Social, General and Economic Sectors (Non-PSUs) for the year ended 31 March 2014. This report further highlighted that in the case of Vadra’s firm Skylight Hospitality Pvt Ltd, the fraudulently obtained land was sold to its collaborator DLF Universal Ltd at 7.73 times the original cost after the in-principle approval for transfer of license was granted in April 2012. Although net profit beyond 15 per cent of the total cost accrues to the public exchequer, the Department of Town and Country Planning, Haryana did not ensure that this money was deposited, neither at the time of granting in-principle approval nor at the time of formal approval for transfer of licenses. This deprived the state exchequer of sizeable revenue.
Neither Vadra nor Hooda have been prosecuted.
4. Was there any pressure on you to change the tone and tenor of your reporting, while you were doggedly pursuing these scams?
Nobody ever had the courage to directly approach me with such a suggestion. But there were several attempts to bribe, coerce and threaten. My phones were tapped and I was advised by well-wishers in the government to hire a body guard since my life was under threat.
Within the workplace too, rather than being rewarded or honored, I was patronized, even tormented. Subsequent stories were treated with suspicion. This is despite the fact that not a single story attracted any serious rebuttal and I have never been served a legal notice in my entire career.
The easiest way to kill a story is to say it is not good enough or to bury it in the inside pages without adequate visibility. Another innovative method adopted during my coverage of the 2G-spectrum scam was to call every news story that I submitted an “opinion” piece. If I submitted an opinion piece, they would tell me it was best suited for a feature page. This was after the CAG report had independently corroborated my findings and former Telecom Minister, A Raja and several others had been imprisoned. It was obviously an easier option to humiliate a journalist; a fellow colleague rather than admitting that the newsroom doesn’t respond to powerful stories but to important external affiliates. Needless to say, these stories were never published.
Despite such a huge body of investigative work and after being awarded the Prem Bhatia Memorial Award for Excellence in Political Reporting and Analysis, 2013, a second story pointing to the PM’s hand in the coal scandal as well as several other investigative pieces were rubbished and mocked with the comment: “so much for your investigative skills”.
In 2G, my charges of illegality, made in 2007, were independently verified by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court (SC) in its Order of February 2012, cancelling all 122 telecom licenses awarded on January 10, 2008. The 2G expose – undisputedly the biggest and most rigorously documented financial scam in independent India, culminated in a Cabinet Minister, A Raja, his telecom Secretary, along with several officials of privately held firm Swan Telecom being jailed for 18 months or more. Similarly, the Supreme Court cancelled 214 of 218 coal mine permits in its Order of September 24, 2014. A Public Interest Litigation against the Himachal Chief Minister is being heard in Court, while legal action is being prepared against the Haryana Chief Minister. Sahara Chief, Subroto Roy, once untouchable, has also been a resident of Tihar Jail since February 2014, while the Robert Vadra scandal became a major cause for the Congress’ debacle in the 2014 general elections in which corruption emerged as the central theme. NABARD has withdrawn its controversial scheme favoring corporates at the cost of the rural poor. All these stories remain an important part of the present public discourse.
Please evaluate the comment: “so much for your investigative skills” in this context to get a sense of the daily pressures that an investigative journalist has to face.
5. Do you think 'freedom of speech' is under threat as alleged by a certain section of the media or is it a figment of their imagination?
People are saying what they want and are being increasingly abusive, but stories about corruption, which are irrefutable charge sheets, not crazy, abusive, speculative rants are being blocked.
6. It appears that big-ticket corruption has slowly vanished with the new government. Do you agree? And if so, do you think small time corruption will slowly recede in India, or will that not happen anytime soon?
There is no question of corruption having dwindled. Nor will it ever vanish. There are just new collectors.
7. Your stories on 2G alluded to an agreement between the PMO and Raja http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/shalini-singhs-reply/article4523042.ece Can you explain to our readers briefly about that especially since no questions have been raised in the TV channels on this aspect?
It was in 2007 that I inadvertently, through the coverage of routine telecom developments, started uncovering the Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2G spectrum scandal, piece by piece. The script of a scam-in-the-making unfolded, but despite this documentation in The Times of India, India’s largest and most powerful English daily, the scam was perpetrated as per the script on January 10, 2008 with the help of key state actors, including the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.
The shocking part is that I pointed to the PM’s culpability in the 2G scandal in 2008 itself. I did a series of pieces (links below) that revealed that his and P. Chidambaram’s statements were not adding up. Nobody paid the slightest attention, even though these stories were about the Prime Minister himself. Both got away scot-free.
Our former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh actually stated in Parliament and at a TV Editors Conference that he knew nothing about Raja’s plans. This proved to be a lie. I comprehensively established this in my last story, which showed that the PM was completely apprised of all Raja’s impending plans and that it was at the PM’s behest that these plans were first evaluated and written approval issued.
I moved on to the Rs 1,86 lakh crore Coalgate scam, in which the same pattern of deliberate political complicity was revealed, but this time with the PM additionally doubling up as the Coal Minister. But it’s still being made out that his hands are squeaky clean.
This proves without doubt that some people are above the law in India, no matter what the evidence.
References to some articles:
November 18, 2008
May 31, 2010
Govt lost Rs 1 lakh cr by not auctioning 2G
December 25, 2010
February 18, 2011
February 27, 2011
October 14, 2011
March 18, 2013
March 19, 2013
April 22, 2013