International Papers

Indian Sting

Last Tuesday, the Indian Web portal Tehelka exposed a pattern of corruption in defense procurement with the release of four hours of videotape in which military top brass and senior politicians pocketed money to facilitate a defense contract. Two tehelka journalists mounted the elaborate six-month sting by approaching bureaucrats, soldiers, and politicians on behalf of a fictional London-based company in an attempt to win a contract from the Indian army for night-vision binoculars. According to the Financial Times, 34 people took money from the undercover reporters, including three major generals and two brigadiers. In the days immediately following the revelations, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee accepted the resignation of his party’s president and suspended four senior defense ministry officials who appeared on the Tehelka tapes. At first, Vajpayee refused the resignation of Defense Minister George Fernandes, even after one of the regional parties pulled out of his coalition government in protest, but when Jaya Jaitley, the president of Fernandes’ Samata Party and his longtime companion, resigned after cameras showed her accepting $4,300 in his official residence, Fernandes had to go.

Opposition lawmakers effectively closed down the Indian parliament for three days last week; Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that when Vajpayee attempted to address the body, they “stood before the Speaker’s chair, shouting slogans to force adjournment.” Although the government is unlikely to fall, the SCMP noted that its reduced majority makes it “more vulnerable to the vacillating loyalties of regional party partners, and [Vajpayee’s] public image has taken a beating.” Britain’s Sunday Times said the Congress Party, “which has been moribund in recent years, is jubilant at the opportunities presented by the crisis,” and party president Sonia Gandhi has demanded Vajpayee’s ouster. The Times of India reported, “Sonia Gandhi on Sunday indicated her party was ready for a possible snap poll and exhorted her party cadres to prepare for a countrywide assault on the … government to seek its removal.” Several papers noted that the Tehelka revelations coincided with court hearings into the Bofors arms scandal of the 1980s, where commissions were allegedly paid to set up a deal to sell Swedish howitzer guns to the Indian army. The Bofors scandal contributed to the defeat of Sonia Gandhi’s husband Rajiv in the 1989 election.

Several papers offered nominations for the most shocking feature of the scandal. The Sunday Times suggested it was “the ease with which a pair of undercover reporters managed to reach the heart of the defence establishment.” The Financial Times quoted a prominent Indian journalist’s observation that “[s]leaze in India doesn’t really shock people, but the idea that national security can be traded for money like this—that is very serious.” The SCMP blamed the diminishing professionalism of the army:

The venality of senior officers including one and two-star generals … has come as a shock to most people who considered soldiers, unlike politicians and civil servants, above such blatant misconduct.

According to a profile in Britain’s Independent, “tehelka” means “commotion, agitation, making waves” in Hindi. The site, launched less than a year ago, had another scoop when it taped international cricketers admitting to match-fixing, and on the whole its attitude is very different from the proper tone adopted by India’s English-language newspapers. Along with news and investigations, the site offers X-rated cartoons, racy headlines, and a raunchy section called “Erotic Reader.” The Tehelka CEO told the Asian Age that the site’s core editorial ambition “was to create a media platform that reflects and processes life in all its range, from high brow to low brow, from high culture to low culture, from cerebral to sexual.” The Financial Times saw the Indian cyberscoop as the latest example of technology shaking up the Asian political status quo: covers the Malaysian government far more combatively than the tightly controlled mainstream media, and in Singapore the Internet is virtually the only place citizens can express dissenting opinions. Mobile phones also help spread the word—during President Joseph Estrada’s last week in power, the Philippines’ largest mobile phone company handled an average of 70 million text messages a day as residents organized anti-Estrada protests. The FT observed, “What this will mean in China, where 2.7m mobile telephones are sold every month, is anybody’s guess.”

Visa worries: Writer Gabriel García Márquez, artist Fernando Botero, and five other prominent Colombians declared they will not visit Spain as long as the European Union requires visas for Colombians. In an open letter to the Spanish president published in El Tiempo of Bogotá, the artists declared, “With the dignity we have learnt from Spain, we will not return to her as long as we are subjected to the humiliation of having to show a permit to be able to visit that which we have never regarded as foreign.” Spain was the only country that abstained from the EU vote imposing visa requirements on 66 countries, including Cuba and Peru.  Blaming narcotraffickers, the Colombian foreign minister told El País of Madrid, “There is a minority of bad Colombians who give us a bad name abroad and who create this kind of situation that harms the majority of good Colombians.” More than 1 million Colombians have fled their country in the last three years, and after Canada, Spain is the second-most-popular refuge.

The too powerful Vatican: Citing a health hazard, the Italian environment minister has threatened to silence the pope by cutting off Vatican Radio’s electricity unless it reduces the power of the broadcasts from its giant antennae within 15 days. The Daily Telegraph of London reported that since it is an independent city-state, Italian regulations do not apply to Vatican property, and electromagnetic emissions from the 58 antennae conform with less stringent international standards. The minister, Willer Bordon, told the paper, “It is true that these pylons are technically outside Vatican territory, but I don’t think that gives the Vatican a licence to poison people.” According to the Telegraph, the number of cases of infant leukemia within four miles of the antennae is more than six times the national average, though the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has declared any link between the transmitters and cases of leukemia “wholly lacking scientific foundation.” Clarín of Argentina noted another effect: Vatican Radio’s foreign-language broadcasts interfere with Italian TV channels.