Former ANN7 consulting editor, Rajesh Sundaram, told the media that he fears for his life following an incident at the ANN7 offices in Midrand on Friday, where he was allegedly threatened by an armed bodyguard and later by another senior employee.
However, it was the second incident; a mysterious burglary at the hotel where he is staying, hours after the detailed expose to the media, that has now heightened his fear. "I don’t want to say that it means anything – maybe it’s a coincidence – but I told the policeman who took my statement that if anything happens to me, be it an accident or whatever, they should ask the Guptas," Sundaram said.
Sundaram went public with the reasons behind his resignation, as well as the incident involving the bodyguard, in several interviews that were published on Sunday morning. The burglary is alleged to have happened some time between 10.30pm on Saturday and 8.30am on Sunday.
The room adjacent to Sundaram’s room was simultaneously burgled, which was also occupied by another ANN7 employee. The employee’s suitcases, personal belongings and some documentation were stolen. Midrand police confirmed the incident, adding that about R14 000 worth of property was stolen, including clothing and suitcases. No arrests had been made by late on Sunday afternoon.
Sundaram told the Mail & Guardian that he suspected the burglars thought he was occupying the other room and that the suitcases were stolen to prevent him from leaving the country. However, Sundaram’s passport and other personal documents was sent to a "safe location" on another property a few days before the burglary because he feared for his safety.
He is scheduled to leave the country soon.
"I had ordered room service before bed on Saturday night and placed my wallet near the door so that I could pay for it as soon as it arrived. But the food did not arrive for some reason, so I went to bed. I woke up on Sunday morning to find that the lock on the door had been broken and my wallet was missing," Sundaram explained.
Cause of resignation
Sundaram said his woes started almost as soon he landed in South Africa to start work at ANN7. Interference in editorial policy, as well as the general treatment of staff at the channel culminated in his resignation. But Sundaram was not satisfied with the severance package ANN7 offered – five days’ pay and a plane ticket back to his home in India.
He felt he was entitled to the overtime for the "16 to 18-hour days" he had worked since arriving at the channel three months ago. He said Atul Gupta also asked him to announce on his twitter and Facebook pages that he would be taking a two-week break from ANN7, so as not to alert the South African press to the fact that a senior editorial staffer had resigned. He agreed.
When he repeatedly turned the severance package down, he claimed he was frog-marched into an office where an armed bodyguard was present and asked to sign the originalpackage. "At that point I had had enough," he told the M&G on Sunday.
"I told them I didn’t want their money or the plane ticket; that I would find my own way back to India and pursue the issue through civil action in the South African courts. "As I walked out the door, the bodyguard followed me. My pace quickened, his pace quickened. Soon I was running down the passage and out of the door. I ran to a nearby garage where I took refuge, " he said.
Later, another senior ANN7 employee found him and offered to buy him lunch. The same severance offer was put on the table. Again, Sundaram refused. "The employee said he would see me in Delhi and I took this as a threat. As a former conflict reporter, I know what these guys are capable of."
ANN7 policy 'dictated'
Recounting his story to the M&G, Sundaram said he had been "lied to" by the Gupta family and that they had forced him to take a pro-Jacob Zuma editorial line. "The failure of this project is on my head and I take full responsibility for it. But I can compare this to a plane crash: Atul Gupta was the pilot on this aircraft and he nose-dived it into the ground.
"I warned Mr Gupta about putting the cart before the horse. From experience, I know that a channel of this nature needs certain things before it can go live: first the equipment must arrive, the staff must be properly trained and then you need at least a month of dry-runs. None of those things happened at ANN7.
"The Guptas were tearing to get ANN7 up-and-running early." Sundaram alleged that editorial policy at the channel is "dictated" to the journalists and editors. It is not intended to be overtly pro-Zuma, but the President’s detractors are to be shown in a less-than-flattering light.
"We were told that Julius Malema must be shown as an opulent person. Newer political parties were to be referred to as ‘mushrooming smaller parties’ without any political clout. We were also told to ignore the DA," Sundaram alleged. "I met with Jacob Zuma thrice – he wanted to see the technology we were using. My conscience couldn’t take it anymore and I knew I had to resign. I have been a journalist for 20 years and I have never seen editorial interference like this.
"It is not fair to the journalists at the channel who are working like slaves to make it work. None of them knew it would be like this. I’ve been lied to, Chantal [Rutter Dros] has been lied to," Sundaram said.
Nazeem Howa, The New Age Media chief executive, could not be reached for comment on Sunday. But he told the Sunday Times and the City Press that Sundaram’s allegations were "outlandish and not worthy of a response".
He also said that Sundaram had asked for "things he is not entitled to" and intimated that the former editor’s claims were the result of sour grapes.