Zee-Jindal and Sudhir Chaudhary Tapes: The battle that never was

Zee-Jindal and Sudhir Chaudhary Tapes: The battle that never was

After consuming precious judicial time for years, the Zee Group and JSPL came to an “understanding”.

By Amit Bhardwaj

Published on :

Back in 2012, Zee editors Sudhir Chaudhary and Sameer Ahluwalia were stung by industrialist Naveen Jindal’s group. The media industry was taken aback by the footage released by Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL). In a complaint lodged in September 2012, the JSPL director, human resources, alleged that Zee News editor Chaudhary and Zee Business editor Ahluwalia attempted extortion to the tune of 100 crore from his company. 

Jindal, in a press conference, had also distributed a CD with a 14-minute montage of footage “culled from hidden camera recordings”. He accused the Zee editors of attempting to extort money and said, “The government gives channels a licence to show news. They are not given a licence for extortion or blackmail.” Back then, JSPL was marred by controversies pertaining to the coal block allotments.

The Delhi police’s Crime Branch swung into action. Both Chaudhary and Ahluwalia were arrested in November 2012, and were later released on bail.  In 2013, the Crime Branch went on to file the chargesheet, making Chaudhary, Ahluwalia and Zee Group head Subhash Chandra accused persons. However, the chief metropolitan magistrate did not take cognisance of the case, citing “material lacunae” in the chargesheet, and directed the police to further investigate the matter.

This triggered a marathon of legal cases filed by JSPL and its officials, and Zee Group and its officials against the other.

The investigative agency, police, state’s public prosecutors and above all the courts put in time and energy to deal with these cases. Defamation, counter-defamation lawsuits, interim application to stop Zee News’ coverage of Jindal’s coal allocations—it all happened.

Importantly, in the alleged extortion case, the Crime Branch—in order to check the authenticity of the tapes of the sting operation conducted on the Zee editors—sent the footage to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL).

Almost six years after the extortion charges against Chaudhary and Ahluwalia were levelled, three tweets—one each from Zee Group head Subhash Chandra, Chaudhary and Jindal on July 13—brought a new twist to the story. Chandra and Jindal—a former Congress parliamentarian—announced they had withdrawn the cases filed against each other. Importantly, Jindal said the legal spat was the result of a “miscommunication”.

Isn’t this a classic example of luxury litigation?

Before delving into the extortion case and JSPL’s defence to the latest development, let’s look at the language of the tweets:

Chandra, now a Rajya Sabha MP, tweeted: “I am happy that JSPL & Naveen Jindal have withdrawn FIR alleging extortion with Delhi Police against Zee & its editors, similarly Zee has agreed to withdraw all complaints & cases against JSPL & Naveen Jindal. I wish Naveen very best in his life.”

Jindal, replying to Chandra’s tweet, announced that “all differences that took place because of miscommunication” have been resolved.

Surprisingly, Chaudhary, who was stung on camera, claimed that with this development, the “truth prevailed” and his “innocence” has been proven.

Newslaundry reached out to both JSPL and Zee News to seek responses on what prompted the withdrawal of legal battles against each other. While JSPL responded, we are yet to receive a response from Zee Group. Multiple calls and text messages to Delhi Joint Commissioner of Police, Alok Kumar, went unanswered.

When asked what Jindal meant by “miscommunication” in his tweet, JSPL in its official response said, “Considering the clarification that there were communication gaps and misunderstanding on both sides as regards to the programs being aired by Zee News—and the nature of and context of deliberations in the recorded meetings—JSPL and Zee both decided not to pursue allegations against each other, and to work together in near future for the nation.”

Newslaundry was told that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the two parties on July 13, 2018.

It is important to note that the first information reports are yet to be withdrawn in any of the cases. As per JSPL, they requested the police to close the investigation in view of the settlement.

According to sources, the deliberations to withdraw the FIRs had started by the end of 2017 itself, and was formalised on July 13. Sources also told Newslaundry that both parties mutually wanted to end the long-drawn legal battle.

Sources said the process to send formal letters to the police and courts to withdraw these cases would be done by the end of this week.

While both Zee and Jindal are in a hyperactive mode to resolve pending cases, we must not forget the infamous sting. Watch the conversations between Chaudhary, Ahluwalia, and JSPL representatives available on YouTube, the videos of which might be taken down sometime soon.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had prepared a report on May 11, 2012, on the allocation of coal blocks, which was later tabled in Parliament. In 2012, Zee News and Zee Business ran news programs from September 7 to 13, and from September 24 to 26, regarding the allocation of coal blocks to JSPL.

In the complaint filed on October 2, 2012, the JSPL representative said Ahluwalia (accused no 1 in the chargesheet) and Chaudhary (accused no 2) approached JSPL officials and—during the course of four separate meetings held between September 10 and 19, 2012—“proposed that they would stop targeting the Jindal Group if they agreed to sign a four years advertisement contract with the Zee Media Group pledging a hundred crores @ 25 crores per annum”.

It was alleged the duo prepared “a document/contract” amounting to 25 crores per annum, spread over four years, assigning 15 crores to Zee News Ltd and 10 crores to Diligent Media Corporation Ltd—companies owned by Zee Group. While the first meeting took place at a Costa coffee shop in Delhi’s GK-2 area, the last three—held on September 13, 17 and 19, 2012—were held at Polo Lounge, Hotel Hyatt Regency in Delhi. Both Chaudhary and Ahluwalia were part of these meetings.

These were the meetings recorded on the hidden camera.

The Crime Branch lodged an FIR [No. 240/12], and JSPL handed over the audio and video recorded by its officials. According to the chargesheet filed in the metropolitan magistrate court, the three recordings provided by JSPL—along with memory cards—were sent to CFSL and “it has been opined by the concerned expert that there was no tampering, editing, interpolation and discontinuity in the recordings”.

The Crime Branch asked both Chaudhary and Ahluwalia to give voice samples, but they did not agree to repeat the exact words as mentioned in the transcript of the recordings. However, the matter of obtaining voice samples was pending before another sessions court. The police made Chandra accused no 3 in the case on the basis of call records and emails.

Retired deputy commissioner of police SBS Tyagi—who was then DCP Crime—told Newslaundry there is “physical evidence of the meetings between the Zee editors and JSPL officials which are undeniable”. He further added that “what transpired could only be inferred”.  

The conversation in the sting released shows Jindal representatives saying how the programs run by the two Zee news channels were placing the Jindal group in a negative light, and ways to resolve it.

Tyagi said that after the initial meetings, the series on the Zee channels against Jindal was put on hold. “We have footage of exactly two meetings,” he said. It is up to the readers’ judgment as to what transpired in the meetings as they watch the videos available on YouTube.

When it comes to evidence against the accused persons (Ahluwalia and Chaudhary) in the alleged extortion case, Tyagi said, “The evidence was seriously clinching. There was evidence to prove there was an attempt to extort money. But the entire case was dependent on the complaint of Jindal (JSPL’s complaint with the Crime Branch). If you take out the complaint, the case won’t move further.”

A senior officer who was part of the initial investigation said—on condition of anonymity—cases like this one “handles things with a little bit of caution. Irrespective of what Chandra’s political inclination might be, even then he was flaunting his proximity to five-six union ministers of that time”. The officer said the development of withdrawing FIRs in this manner “hoodwinks the legal system”.

However, the JSPL group has a different perspective. “There is nothing unusual in settling disputes out of court in pending criminal investigations, and the law also permits settlement of such disputes,” JSPL told Newslaundry in its official communication.

When asked what it means that the allegations levelled against Chaudhary, Ahluwalia and Chandra were false—as they have initiated the process to withdraw the FIR—JSPL said, “As stated earlier, the miscommunication and communication gaps between both parties stand fully resolved, hence revisiting the resolved matter is meaningless at this juncture.”

Both groups will formally initiate the withdrawal process in all cases this week. According to sources, there were 38 cases filed by JSPL and Zee Group against each other. It includes two FIRs—one alleging extortion—lodged by JSPL against Zee and its officials. Both are in the investigation stage. For a few matters, the parties had also approached the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court.

Two civil defamation suits were filed in the Bombay High Court, and rest are pending in Delhi courts. It also includes three defamation lawsuits filed by Chaudhary, Chandra and Ahluwalia against the Jindal group and counter-defamation suits. The Jindal group had also filed applications to stop the broadcast of content against them.

In one of the cases filed by Jindal—to stop Zee from writing, telecasting or airing any news directly or indirectly pertaining to the allegations made against him—the Delhi High Court in its March 2015 order had observed, “This is another unfortunate case where two known corporate personalities are fighting each other tooth and nail, oblivious of consuming precious judicial time.”

Legal experts have their own opinion on the Jindal versus Zee legal battles. “This is what we call a luxury litigation, which means the parties are fighting the cases for ego or for the sake of it,” advocate Sushil Salwan told Newslaundry. He said that in a series of cases like this, where the courts’ time is used and abused, the courts “should take a serious view and caution them”.