Into the Void

The curious case of Tehelka's missing archives

Sometime over the summer of 2018, Tehelka’s archives, comprising 18 years of work, seemed to be disappearing online. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 December, 2018

“Did you know all our Tehelka stories are gone?” I asked a friend and former colleague from my time at the magazine. As the words hung in the air, I saw his face fluctuate between the shock and horror that had dawned on me just a few weeks before.

In mid August, I had settled down with my laptop to tackle the tedious task of updating my résumé. A handful of my Tehelka stories have been a fixture since I left the magazine in early 2014. It had been my first job—I was tossed into the deep end of reporting and expected to teach myself to swim—and I had produced some of my best work as a rookie journalist.

I clicked on the links that I had stored for years, but instead of the comforting sight of familiar pages and words, I landed on a 404 error. I tried another link, and the browser again announced its trouble finding the page. A third attempt also resulted in the 404 error. As dread curdled in the pit of my stomach, I frantically googled my name and as many stories as I could remember—by headlines, by various combinations of keywords—but I came away empty-handed.

Sometime over the summer of 2018, the archives of Tehelka, the once highly regarded and always polarising news magazine, seemed to have disappeared. The bulk of the work done—by me, my colleagues and contributors, who included some of the biggest names in Indian media—over 18 years was no longer available online. A number of stories, erratically distributed on an old version of its website, was the only remnant of journalism that had catapulted sting operations into the spotlight and almost brought down a coalition government.

The internet never forgets. Nothing digital is ever truly lost. This is the moral of many a modern-day story—a warning, a lesson, a reassurance. Yet, in that moment and the days that followed, I truly believed that the foundation of my work as a journalist had been stolen from me.

In a bid to hunt down my work, I found myself on a quest over the months of September and October trying to figure out the sudden disappearance of these stories and the piecemeal return of only some of them. I turned to journalists who had been associated with Tehelka over the years and had helped shape the magazine’s identity from its inception to its implosion in late 2013, when its founder and editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal, was accused of sexually assaulting an employee.

Charanjit Ahuja, the current editor-in-chief, sent me a link to all my stories, which had been restored on a new archive space on the website, after I reached out to him in early October with questions about why my work was missing. Stories are slowly returning online, though much of the work—including those from Tehelka’s days as a weekly broadsheet and those by outside contributors—is still missing. Ahuja, who has helmed the now-fortnightly magazine since March 2016, informed me that a “technical glitch” in the design of the new website was responsible.

“We’re a small team and we’re working all the time to fix this,” Pari Saikia, a principal correspondent at Tehelka, told me. The disappearance happened, she said, during the summer, when the team migrated all the stories to a new website. The migration “was too heavy for the website and it crashed. Stories up till last year have disappeared. My stories are missing too.” Indeed, the oldest story under her byline still on the website is from 15 January 2018, four months after she joined the magazine.

I found Saikia through a conversation she had with my former colleague Nishita Jha. On 29 June, Jha tweeted about her Tehelka profile of Sanjay Dutt being taken down and shared a PDF version of the story instead. That tweet was the first inkling of trouble, but I ignored it since my stories were still online.

The following day, Saikia tweeted back to her: “The story was not taken down intentionally. Since the website was under maintenance the link may be temporarily unavailable but is available in archives. Tehelka respects individual opinion and freedom of press.” She also shared a new link where Jha’s stories could be found, and the magazine’s official handle tweeted to the same effect.

However, in late September, Jha told me that she still could not find all her stories using the link, and neither did they show up on Google. “They said they were in the process of migrating, which is legit,” she said cautiously, “but I don’t know if it’s some weird thing.”

By all accounts, it seemed that a technical glitch, rather than ill-intent or a political conspiracy, was responsible. Many of Tehelka’s famous exposés—such as Operation West End, which revealed corruption in defence procurement during the first National Democratic Alliance government, or former investigations editor Ashish Khetan’s scoops on Babu Bajrangi’s boasts about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s involvement in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and Swami Aseemanand’s confession that senior RSS functionaries had been involved in the Samjhauta Express and Mecca Masjid blasts—were still online. I imagined such stories, which had taken on those associated with the current NDA government, would have been the first to go if the magazine was under political pressure.

This vanishing act, however short-lived, raises serious questions about the permanence and ownership of published work. Online content belongs to the proprietors of the website, but how ethical is it for them to forbid everyone else access? How little of a say remains with the reporters and editors who create that work?

“News organisations shouldn’t be able to wipe stuff out,” Sankarshan Thakur, the roving editor at The Telegraph who was a former executive editor at Tehelka, told me over the phone. “It should become part of the permanent record. For someone to just exert copyright and wipe it out is unethical.” Thakur, who had been with Tehelka during its early days as a newspaper and wrote the cover story when it was relaunched as a magazine in 2007, discovered the loss of his work “a good few months ago,” while hunting for one of his stories. His magazine articles are still not back online, while his newspaper work can only be accessed online as barely readable, low-quality scans. The loss of the archive, he said, “is a huge setback to a lot of people. A lot of good journalism happened in Tehelka.” He added that publications should keep all of their old work, even if people have to pay to use or reproduce it.

Some of the older staff expressed surprise when I contacted them, both at the loss of their work and at the mention of a magazine they had left behind. One former staffer, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he did not know that the magazine still existed in print. “That world is so far behind me; my hair has turned white.”

Mahesh Langa, a Gujarat-based journalist who worked with Tehelka between 2005 and 2009, was similarly taken aback. “I haven’t checked my Tehelka stories in a long time,” he said. “I don’t remember the last time I checked. I haven’t spoken about Tehelka in a few years.”

The author and journalist Rohini Mohan, also a former Tehelka colleague, stumbled upon the missing stories around the time as I did. She had been searching for a profile of Medha Patkar by the former managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. “I thought it was badly archived, but it all seems to be gone now,” she told me. She believed it to be a migration or maintenance issue, since she found it hard to believe the magazine would deliberately delete Chaudhury’s work. Both Mohan and Chaudhury have had their work restored.

Over the past year, two separate instances of threats to press freedom and the presence of news archives in the public domain made headlines in the United States. DNAinfo, the Chicago- and New York-based local news website that also owned the Gothamist network of websites, was shut down in November 2017 over an attempt by its journalists to unionise. Around the same time, the Manhattan-based news and gossip blog Gawker was up for sale, having been forced into bankruptcy after losing a breach-of-privacy lawsuit to the wrestler Hulk Hogan. After one Gawker story was taken offline, panic spread that its entire archive could soon disappear.

In both cases, the Freedom of Press Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to protecting public-interest journalism, stepped up. In November 2017, it created free software called gotham-grabber, which allowed journalists to create PDFs of all their work on the Gothamist and DNAinfo websites. In January 2018, it announced that it would archive all articles on Gawker and the tabloid LA Weekly, in a manner similar to the Wayback Machine, a tool launched in 2001 by the non-profit Internet Archive specifically to redress the loss of content when websites shut down or changed hands.

However, in India, the months-long disappearance of Tehelka’s stories prompted no headlines, no calls to arms, no socialist efforts to bring journalism out of the domain of private ownership and establish the public’s right to access it.

None of the journalists I spoke to took issue with media companies owning the work done by journalists in their employ. They drew a distinction between capitalising on intellectual property and destroying it, but could not think of a radical solution similar to the Freedom of Press Foundation’s initiative that would be applicable in India.

“What can be done?” I asked my friends and former colleagues. “Can we do something?”

“Why didn’t you save PDFs of your stories?” a fellow journalist shot back. “Don’t you have hard copies of the magazine?” asked another.

Most responses, however well meant, were based on another form of private ownership: I should have a backup of my stories, to share and use as I wished. This is, of course, crucial and what largely drove my crusade. And even before I spoke to Ahuja, I had recovered cached copies of as many of my articles as possible through the Wayback Machine.

Journalists from an earlier generation had, by force of habit formed before our reliance on all things digital, saved hard copies of their work. Thakur had started to archive it on his personal online archive. Many former contributors had had their work featured in the Best of Tehelka anthologies. But dozens of personal digital archives could not possibly make up for a collection of work accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Journalism not only documents but shapes public imagination. Journalists are the antithesis of the intellectual in an ivory tower. They fan out to far-flung fields to send back dispatches from places most readers would never visit. The absence from the public record of this work leaves a gaping hole in public memory, in crucial record-keeping and in understanding our times.

According to Raghu Karnad, a former editor of Time Out’s Delhi edition as well as a former contributor to Tehelka, this erasure is an indication of something that will always be a problem. He dismissed the idea that everything on the internet is forever. “It’s more fragile than things in real life,” he said, “because formatting changes make all of this very vulnerable. The web will have future evolutions, which could do the same to our current archive of all media.”

Counting the Tehelka episode, Karnad has now lost his work twice. When Time Out closed its print operations in the country in 2014, it took down almost a decade of culture reporting. Karnad and Sonal Shah, another former editor of Time Out Delhi, told me how the magazine’s archives have been held hostage by the bureaucracy of its London office. Both pleaded for copies of their work, but an email chain that spanned two years culminated in nothing, despite numerous promises and deflections. Karnad even went to London, he said, to make a personal petition, but the hard drive containing the articles still remains “on a dusty shelf somewhere” in the London office.

In 2012, Karnad created Porterfolio, an online platform for journalists and writers to collate and share their work. His experience, he said, “makes you wish there was a copyleft establishment, ripping things off the internet. Those are radical acts but necessary to protect against the possibility that huge parts of our media landscape could be buried.”

Digital cannot replace the gratifying tangibility of seeing one’s work in print, but makes up with its promise of pristine permanence. The Tehelka glitch has driven home how tenuous this promise is when left to media companies that can flip a switch on us as and when it suits them.