Conversations with Ramnath Goenka awardees: On the perils of investigative reporting

Raman Kirpal and Hakeem Irfan talk about going after the truth no matter what the risks are – and there are plenty.

WrittenBy:Manisha Pande
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Raman Kirpal, associate editor, DNA and Hakeem Irfan, who is currently principal correspondent at The Economic Times, received the Ramnath Goenka Award for Best Investigative Reporting (Print) for their series of reports on former Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Ranjit Sinha.

The series appeared in DNA in 2014 and was followed up by every mainstream media organisation, and came to be known as “Diarygate”. It exposed the nexus between powerful corporates, politicians and Sinha. The story also detailed Sinha’s links with those accused in the 2G and the Coal Scam on the basis of the visitors’ diary at 2, Janpath, Sinha’s residence. The Supreme Court later removed Sinha from 2G investigations. You can read the series here.

In an email conversation, Raman Kirpal and Hakeem Irfan talk about their love for investigative journalism, taking on the top investigating officer, and have some great advice for aspiring investigative reporters.

Were you at the time of working on the story worried about taking on a powerful person? This is the CBI chief we’re taking about… 

Raman Kirpal: Yes! I was taking on the super cop of the country, politicians and top honchos of the corporate world. The combination is deadly and, thus, it was obviously a matter of concern. Besides, I was also worried that my source may get into trouble. That’s why no byline was taken.

Hakeem Irfan: Yes! When you are taking on the chief of India’s premier investigating agency — CBI — and the top-most corporate and political personalities, it definitely means inviting trouble and worry. We didn’t take any byline for the story to protect the information chain and also to avoid any immediate trouble.

What challenges did you face during the story? Did you face intimidation from the CBI or corporate officials you were reporting on?

RK: I was chasing the diary for almost eight months. We initially did some stories, indicating that CBI Director Ranjit Sinha was taking a position diametrically opposite to what his officers have been suggesting. In the 2G case, he had almost spoilt the CBI’s stand.

The only challenge was that as a reporter I had to keep a low profile (as low as a sleeping cell) and then strike.

I remember that Ranjit Sinha had threatened my colleague Hakeem Irfan over the phone when he sought Sinha’s version. We just shrugged it off as a mild threat and never complained about it. But Sinha turned the CBI upside down. He made his officers go through the records to find who and how many DNA journalists had been visiting the CBI headquarters just before the story was published. Whom had they been meeting? He chartered out new rules of entry into the CBI headquarter for journalists after our story. Almost all the officers dealing with 2G came under Sinha’s scanner. They really had to bear the brunt on mere suspicion that they might have been the whistle-blowers in this case. Under the Supreme Court guideline, it was impossible for Sinha and his successor to remove them from 2G, but the CBI took away all the other cases from these officers.

As far as corporates are concerned, I knew Tony Jesudasan of Reliance. He had categorically denied meeting Sinha over the phone to Hakeem Irfan. Still, Tony called me to emphatically deny that he ever met Sinha. He said he didn’t even know him. I had then assured him that nothing unsubstantiated would be published. He didn’t call me after that and we published the story the next day, headlined: “Reliance honchos met CBI Director 50 times at his residence”.

HI: I spent a few hours every day for around a month outside 2, Janpath, the official residence of Sinha, noting down the numbers of cars going in and coming out of the residence. It was laborious and not that productive.

In September, when I called Ranjit Sinha for his version, he was furious right from the word go. “I know, who all are you contacting and calling for this,” he said in an aggressive tone. This was followed by a threat with Sinha saying, “Get ready to face consequences.” In the middle of the conversation, I requested for an interview and he denied. He dropped the call saying, “I am the boss and I know what to do.” However, we at DNA, concentrated not on the threat but to get the facts right and contact everybody we were naming in the story.

On the day the story was published I received a one-line message from a CBI official: “Irfan!”

My lawyer friends and senior colleagues at office advised me to be careful while travelling and to never ride a motorcycle or take a three-wheeler for at least a month. It was a little scary but exciting.

After DNA published at least five stories, around September 6, 2014, I got a call from Sinha on my mobile phone. This time his tone was completely different — mild and very gentlemanly. He tried to explain things and asked for a personal meeting. By now, I was not in Delhi and I humbly said, I would meet him at his office when I am back in Delhi. He called twice that evening and the call lasted for around 30 minutes. We haven’t spoken or met since then.

I was not in Delhi for a month because of floods in Kashmir and my landlady, who called me “Ifran”, informed me that some unknown people came looking for me at least thrice when I was away. She had asked for their cell numbers and names, which they refused to give.

The corporate officials I contacted categorically denied meeting Sinha and said I was following a wrong trajectory.

While there’s much romance associated with investigative reporting, what are the hardships one faces as an investigative reporter? Do you ever wonder if it’s worth all the risks involved?

RK: There are many risks — physical and legal — but your passion for digging out the facts overpowers this fear. Is it worth taking these risks? The mind says, “No, it’s just not worth it.” Partly because you are not dealing with plain goons these days. You are dealing with people who matter. Stakes are high and thus dangers involved are “real”. Sometimes you are left alone in your legal battle. But my passion for finding facts overcomes this anxiety.

Call it romance, but it’s worth romancing for a story like this. But one should be ready for legal suits like defamation, criminal FIRs, and so on, besides physical threats.

Many years ago, DP Yadav [a UP strongman] had filed an FIR against me and had even threatened me, when I was with Pioneer. BJP Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma had threatened me over the phone when our story in The Indian Express forced him to resign. I was then the Metro Editor with The Indian Express (1998-2000). But I feel that threats those days were made out of anger and on the spur of the moment. May be these guys never meant what they said. Threats today are rather “silent” and more potent. Nobody forewarns you these days. I joined this profession in 1988 because of my passion for reporting. And this has driven me so far despite all odds.

HI: One of the best-known facts about truth is that it comes to light. We have to choose whether we want to be the ones to dig it out or wait for someone else to do it. What follows are the consequences of the choice you make. I also fear and get scared or question my choices.

Even now, I am hesitant of following a tip-off, which I think may have comparatively dangerous consequences.

But, as a believer in justice of nature, I think we have to be a little patient and continue to struggle in the right way. Truth is always worth fighting for. You just have to choose your battles and at what level you want to fight for it.

Thus, legal attacks, personal threats, financial allurements, real estate gifts and other glamorous enticements will always come your way. We have to be physically and emotionally strong to resist all of this. It is a slippery slope and extremely difficult but not impossible.

I remember being chased out of a village in Chhattisgarh by drunken goons allegedly belonging to a powerful corporate house while I was investigating a story on land grab in tribal areas. I was also threatened of an FIR if I continued to meet controversial tribal people. Similarly, few years back, while reporting in J&K, a senior police official called me saying: “Tum ko hamare paas police station aana padega aur hamare saath rehana padega.” I refused as suggested by the seniors. I told him to arrest me from my house. He made several calls, I didn’t go and later things calmed down after few days.

Investigation can be laborious and often boring, keeping in view the constraints of a reporter and the limited power she or he can exercise while digging out information. All of us have to behave like nerdy students and not give up till the end of the semester and, in our case, till we get the final credible verified story.

What advice would you like to give to young journalists who want to become investigative reporters?

RK: Each one carves out his or her own way. So there can’t be any clear-cut guide. Passion certainly counts. Temptation discounts. Objectivity and solid homework reign supreme.

In fact, you should count on your facts the most. Do NOT write anything that you cannot substantiate. Have your documents in place. Don’t do a story merely on the basis of hidden cameras. These modern devices can at best be your tools to supplement or substantiate your stories. A hidden camera “shoot” in itself can’t be a story in 99 per cent of the cases.

And above all, extensive field work in your hunt for minute details make your story the best. Needless to say, versions of all the parties concerned are a must, no matter how strong your facts are.

HI: We all should be ready to learn, unlearn and re-learn things at all stages of our careers. Curiosity to find the truth followed by the training and rigour to follow it till the end is what matters. We need to be humble and never get excited about a rumour or tip-off without doing basic homework.

We should try to understand an issue or a story from all its angles like a scholar and follow it up with the precision of a surgeon to get the best out of the information we have. Avoid personal attacks unless and until it is extremely important for the larger public interest (after thorough consultation, of course). Don’t cheat people while getting information or documents. Honest effort and hard work to find the truth may be time consuming but is the best way to move ahead. Never try to look for a shortcut while following a story. Avoid sting operations as much as possible.

We need to train ourselves every day. Read relevant literature to contexualise stories and get enough data to substantiate them. Data is the new oil. Learn all new techniques to extract data from the Internet. Learn to use new apps and software — Tor browser, Hushmail — for exchange of information. Maintain a notebook to record everything that didn’t go to print. It will help in future.

Read and follow investigative reporters around the world on social media. Try to follow, and if possible get online membership of, different investigative journalist forums around the globe. Attend seminars of policy makers and other thinktanks to meet people who matter. They often speak on issues, which turn out to be good leads for great investigative stories.

Report and speak for the common man and marginalised people. Governments and powerful corporates and individuals already have a battery of spokespersons and hoards of PR agencies to speak and defend them. And be generous in helping fellow colleagues and other reporters.

The interview is part of a series that will involve conversations with other Ramnath Goenka Awards winners.


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