Satish Nandgaonkar’s death kicks up row over newsroom toxicity

The Hindustan Times senior journalist died of cardiac arrest on February 28.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
Pictures of Satish Nandgaonkar and his wife Anjali Ambekar

If Satish Nandgaonkar had not been a journalist, he “would have led a beautiful life”.

This is what Anjali Ambekar, Nandgaonkar’s wife, said during a condolence meeting held for the late journalist at the Mumbai Press Club on March 13. 

Nandgaonkar, the head of the Thane and Navi Mumbai bureaus for Hindustan Times, died after a cardiac arrest outside the newspaper’s Mumbai office on February 28. Hours before, he was allegedly “badly humiliated” by the newspaper’s resident editor in Mumbai, Meenal Baghel. 

Ambekar alleged he was “sweating profusely in a full air-conditioned office”, told colleagues he would “resign the next day”, and then suffered a heart attack.

Nandgaonkar was rushed to a nearby hospital but was declared brought dead.

Ambekar filed a complaint with Hindustan Times, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Council of India and the Mumbai Press Club. Her complaint places the blame on Baghel, whom she named in the complaint multiple times. She wrote that Baghel “would underrate him, rubbish him and humiliate him in front of his colleagues, a thing that would affect the morale of sensitive journalists like Satish.”

The Mumbai Press Club then conducted a preliminary probe. While it concluded that a “direct relation” cannot be established between Nandgaonkar’s harassment and death, it was clear that he was “put under severe stress by continuous bludgeoning and insults by the executive editor, which might have triggered a cardiac episode”.

The Editors Guild subsequently issued a statement urging HT management to “conduct a fair and transparent inquiry”. “While the Guild is working to update the Code of Ethics for working journalists and editors with a view to tackle ever-evolving challenges, it calls upon managements of all news organisations to ensure the well-being of its journalist,” the statement said. “Every journalist deserves a fair hearing and fair play.”

Newslaundry spoke to Ambekar and a dozen journalists who have worked with Baghel to piece together what had happened. 

When contacted for this story, Baghel told this reporter to send queries to HT’s legal team. We have received no response so far. We also emailed a questionnaire to Monika Aggarwal, HT’s human resources head. This report will be updated if she responds. 

HT Mumbai’s ‘high attrition’ 

Before HT, Nandgaonkar had previously worked with Baghel at Mumbai Mirror. In her speech on March 13, Ambekar said she’d heard “so many things about what happened at Hindustan Times”.

“He was harassed and humiliated in front of so many of his colleagues,” she said, adding that this “trauma” had impacted her husband’s “morale and self-esteem”. As such, Ambekar demanded an investigation into the alleged harassment of her husband at his workplace and the “circumstances” prior to his heart attack.

She also said other journalists had allegedly resigned from HT due to Baghel’s “toxic behaviour” and that she was fighting “not only for Satish but for journalists who face similar situations”.

Newslaundry read through Ambekar’s complaint. It claimed that in the last six months, Ambekar asked Nandgaonkar on several occasions to “quit his job” but he had “a hope that things would soon improve”. She wrote that she’d seen his WhatsApp chats and emails and was “horrified” to note the “constant harassment he faced at the hands of Baghel.”  

Her complaint specifically mentioned two editorial meetings on February 12 and February 21 during which Nandgaonkar was allegedly “given a dressing down and humiliated”. On February 28, she said he also “testified” against Baghel in an enquiry into HT’s high attrition rate in Mumbai. It’s unclear as to the outcome of this enquiry.

“Meenal was slave-driving and harassing the journalists in her mad pursuit of stories,” the complaint said. “...Under acute stress, Satish suffered a cardiac arrest…Had the working conditions at HT been good, Satish would have been alive today.”   

Speaking to Newslaundry, Ambekar said, “Humiliating, downgrading and abusing colleagues at the workplace doesn’t improve productivity. On the contrary, it affects their mental health and physical health. I am taking this up because I don't want other journalists to have the same fate as Satish. I don’t want others to become victims of toxic newsroom culture.”

What happened on February 28?

According to the probe conducted by the Mumbai Press Club, Nandgaonkar attended a daily meeting at 12.30 pm on February 28. 

During the meeting, Baghel “came down heavily” on Nandgaonkar over a story filed late by one of his team members. The story was apparently sent to her unedited.

HT employees told the press club that Nandgaonkar tried to “reason” with Baghel, explaining that the reporter in question had filed from an area without internet, hence the delay. He also said he sent her an unedited story to avoid further delay. Baghel then called him “brainless” and accused him of “not doing your job”.

A colleague reported finding Nandgaonkar “glassy-eyed” at his desk later. The colleague invited him to come for lunch but he did not reply. The press club noted: “He was also heard complaining to other colleagues about upper back and shoulder pain, and said he would go to a pharmacy and get some painkillers.” 

Between 2.30 and 3 pm, Nandgaonkar left the HT office, located on the ninth floor of a building in Lower Parel. He went to a pharmacy where he collapsed on the floor, hitting his head against a glass panel.

“A bystander accessed his office number from the cards in his wallet and called the HT office. His colleagues rushed to the pharmacy and tried to call an ambulance, but finally, they used a taxi to rush him to Global Hospital in Parel area. However, on examination at the emergency area in the hospital, doctors declared him ‘dead on arrival’,” the press club reported.

‘You are useless’: Regular insults, humiliation

In the week before Nandgaonkar’s death, he was subjected to “regular insults and humiliation in front of the entire office, including his juniors”, said the press club’s report.

In an editorial meeting led by Baghel on February 21, she “loudly berated” Satish, calling him “useless” and “making demeaning remarks”, a colleague told the press club.  

“Colleagues said it was the first occasion that Nandgaonkar, who normally kept his cool, shouted back. However, the stress took its toll and colleagues said his face turned red and he was sweating profusely.”

Another colleague testified that she saw Nandgaonkar crying at his desk that day. 

According to the report, the exchange was over Nandgaonkar no longer having the authority to publish stories by his team of 10 stringers on the HT website. He had allegedly negotiated with management to publish their stories online since stringers’ copies did not always make it to the print edition. Publishing them on the website ensured they got paid.

Other colleagues detailed the extent of Nandgaonkar’s work. Apart from handling the Thane and Navi Mumbai bureaus, he worked the real estate and aviation beats as a reporter. He also did deskwork – rewriting and editing stories by his team members.

Importantly, the report said Nandgaonkar’s contract with HT had expired in December. Despite his repeated reminders, Baghel had not renewed it. 

The stress and humiliation had taken a toll, and he had spoken of leaving his job in recent days. Some colleagues said he had hesitated as he wanted to protect his team.”

A ‘systemic’ culture of toxicity, journalists say 

A reporter who joined HT in May 2018 told the Mumbai Press Club enquiry committee that she resigned “in disgust” in August 2022 – months after Baghel joined the bureau – after being subject to “continuous bullying” and insults in the edit meetings. 

She told the enquiry committee that she contemplated suicide at one point. The reporter said that most of her stories were “killed” as Baghel “bore a grudge” against her and used “swear words”. 

The press club report said, “Like her, about 10 other journalists…had left HT soon after Baghel joined in May 2022 due to the toxic atmosphere in the workplace.”

HT reporter Rutuja Gaidhani, who also testified to the press club, said she “rarely heard a word of encouragement” and “always felt humiliated”. During an edit meeting, Baghel once lashed out at her, she alleged, and questioned her ability as a reporter. These “tongue-lashings” never took place in private, they were “always a public harangue”. 

The worst aspect of the toxic work culture, Gaidhani told the press club, was that it percolated down to other section heads. As a result, the head of the Mumbai desk, among others, adopted the same tactic of yelling at reporters.

Senior journalist Naresh Kamath, who worked at HT for 18 years and resigned within a week of Baghel’s appointment, told the press club her “bullying ways” were “intolerable”. 

He also said: “As a matter of course, stories she did not like or rejected would evoke either a ‘what shit is this?’ or ‘why should we pay you for this?’ response.” Kamath said the “toxic atmosphere was too much to bear” and he recorded his experience about the work atmosphere in his exit interview. Kamatha confirmed this to Newslaundry.

Another former employee told the press body’s inquiry committee that Bagel’s “insulting behaviour and demeaning comments were a systemic problem”. Though HT journalists had complained to both group editor Sukumar Ranganathan and HR personnel, “there was no serious intervention from their side”. 

Shruti Ganapatye, who worked with Mumbai Mirror, told Newslaundry: “My question is are we going to normalise such an atmosphere? Are we not going to hold the newsroom bosses accountable for this toxicity?” 

Mumbai Press Club president Gurbir Singh told Newslaundry, “Prima facie, the extensive interviews we have had with HT and former HT staffers, establishes a trail of harassment and abuse meted out to Satish Nandagaonkar by the editor Meenal Baghel. This could have triggered a cardiac episode.”

He said justice will be served if HT Media or an independent body of editors, like the Editors Guild of India, sets up an impartial inquiry into determining the chain of events in the HT newsroom. He also urged the guild to develop an “editors newsroom code” to ensure “humane conditions of work” for journalists.

Also see
article imageSatish Nandgaonkar remained a journalist to the end, despite the toxicity of the industry around him


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like