FOUR DAYS after Mangalam TV aired a clip of a lewd phone conversation allegedly involving Kerala Transport Minister A K Saseendran, prompting him to resign, an employee of the newly launched Malayalam channel has alleged that the NCP leader was the target of a “trap” laid by the news organisation.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Al-Neema Ashraf, a reporter with Mangalam TV, claimed that senior editors had asked a team of reporters, of which she was a member, to “use any means” to trap the Minister and others on a “list” of five people, including an unnamed woman VIP. She said that she informed the channel on Wednesday about her decision to quit in protest over its “unethical” methods.
Saseendran resigned Sunday, hours after the channel aired the eight-minute clip along with an advisory that the content was not appropriate for children. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has ordered a judicial probe into the incident.
Ashraf, a 24-year-old post-graduate in journalism from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, claimed that she had seen “rushes of an interview with Saseendran” conducted by a woman receptionist who was drafted in the team of reporters that was given the list of people to target. Ashraf said this team originally comprised four women reporters and a male reporter, all in their 20s.
“From June 2016, we started working on the channel’s trial run, doing various programmes. That was the time they picked five of us to form an investigation team headed by the CEO Ajith Kumar and two senior editors. In one of our meetings, they gave us a list of officials to target. We were told that the names were potential targets who were vulnerable to getting trapped,” said Ashraf.
“In that meeting, they said that we need to use any means to get exclusive news. Each member was given the names of targets and contact details. We were told that one target is a woman, who would be trapped by the male team member,” said Ashraf.
“Instantly, I opposed the idea but my dissent was ignored. Probably due to my dissent, the other four were given the targets’ details in the same meeting. One of the two editors who briefed us told me that I would be given the task later,” she said.
“Within a few months, I saw the rushes of an interview of Saseendran, which was done by this receptionist turned reporter and another team member,” she said, while refusing to reveal the names of others on the team.
“Ever since I disagreed with their methods, I was kept in the dark about the decisions regarding the team. Still, we used to know what was happening. Once, I advised two of the woman reporters in the team to not go for such unethical methods,” said Ashraf.
When contacted by The Indian Express, the channel’s CEO Kumar denied Ashraf’s allegations. Rishi K Manoj, a coordinating editor of the channel, said such a team was never set up. Chief Reporter Jayachandran, alias S Narayanan, said the channel’s journalists did “nothing unethical in our meetings”.
According to Ashraf, what led to her resignation was a report on the front page of a leading Malayalam daily, which suggested that she had laid the “honey trap” for the Minister.
“The news report appeared in the paper and a website saying that it was a woman reporter from Kollam who laid the honey trap with personal details that pointed to me. I started receiving calls from senior colleagues and friends about that report. It was unbearable for me as a journalist to face that allegation. I spent the day crying in my room and decided to resign. I met CEO Kumar, and he asked me whether I was going to create news (against the channel). He requested me to leave the office silently,” Ashraf claimed.
On Wednesday evening, in a brief Facebook post, Ashraf wrote: “I am quitting my job because this is not what I have learnt as a journalist.” Kumar, however, denied that the channel had deployed non-journalists on news assignments and refused to identify the woman who spoke to the Minister.
“We received the tape from a woman. We verified the voice of the Minister and aired it. It is a baseless allegation that we had an investigation team doing honey traps and that we used our staff in such operations. Neema resigned because she got a job in another channel with a huge salary,” he said.
“Whatever it may be, this is not the way a minister should behave with a woman. If the allegations against us are true, let the Minister say it. I am against the idea of targeting any person for a news report and I will cooperate with the judicial probe,” said Kumar.
Manoj, allegedly one of the two seniors who handed out the list of targets, said, “There is no such investigation team. Such meetings were all preparatory as we needed exclusives on corruption and favouritism featuring politicians and VIPs.”
Jayachandran, allegedly the other senior involved, said, “Almost all the reporters who were part of the trial run were youngsters and freshers. When they come and ask for assignments, we give them ideas. But there was no such investigation team. The crime-reporting team headed by Rishi (Manoj) was gathering reports. We did nothing unethical in our meetings.”
The Mangalam clip, meanwhile, has had an impact in unexpected ways, with a woman journalist complaining that she had been insulted by a senior politician who cited Saseendran’s clip.
News 18 channel reporter, Suvi Viswanathan, said that 79-year-old CPI(M) leader and former MP, T K Hamza, refused to be interviewed by her. “Soon after I sought an appointment over phone, he asked me whether I wanted to make him a Saseendran. He asked me to send a male reporter. I clarified that I would be coming with my cameraman, and protested that his remarks were unfair and unwarranted, especially coming from a senior leader. He said his response was because he was a senior leader,” said Viswanathan.
When contacted, Hamza said, “I said that while keeping Saseendran’s experience in mind. How do we trust and meet strangers?”