ANN7's Sundaram back in Delhi, still fearful
While he claims to still fear for his life, Sundaram is in the meantime trying to get the money he believes he is owed for the overtime he worked in the three months he was employed at ANN7.
Several South African journalists are now being copied into Sundaram's correspondence with management over his pay dispute and some responses from ANN7 are also being sent by the channel to the journalists. It is the closest one can get to being a fly on the wall in this sensational fall-out, which made front page news last weekend when Sundaram claimed he fled ANN7 after being threatened by an armed bodyguard.
The senior executive said he had a two-year contract with ANN7, but quit due to interference in editorial policy and poor working conditions. Sundaram alleged that he and other top executives from the channel had attended meetings with President Jacob Zuma, who was allegedly given assurances that ANN7 would be pro-ANC and pro-Zuma.
In correspondence with the Mail & Guardian this week, Sundaram said that when he was offered the contract with ANN7 this year, he had just launched an Indian news channel called "News Nation" and was working as an executive editor.
"I had apprehensions about working with the Essel Group. This company is headed by Laxmi Goel and holds 35% shares in Infinity Media (which owns ANN7). The editor of one of its Hindi language news station, Zee News, had recently been arrested by Indian police and charged with blackmailing an Indian steel company," he said.
However, he was convinced to take the job after he was told he would have full operational freedom and there would be no political or commercial interference at ANN7. "After I joined, I realised that Zuma's son had a 30% stake in Infinity Media. I was told at the time by Goel that this was a statutory requirement. He told me that with 30% he was in no position to influence editorial policy."
Sundaram alleged that over the past three months he realised that promises made to him about operational independence, no interference and micro-management of editorial policy by shareholders, as well as compliance with labour laws were not being kept.
'Outrageous' finaincial demands
Before the launch of ANN7, he had already decided that after the launch he would quit his job. Nazeem Howa, chief executive of Infinity Media Networks, told the M&G this week that Sundaram was a "disgruntled employee".
"Our belief is that Rajesh is making these claims as we would not accede to his outrageous financial demands. We offered him compensation for extra days worked, but he refused our offer as being a token one. No threat was ever made on his life," said Howa.
"When he walked out of our last meeting he in fact called Atul Gupta to arrange a lift to his hotel, making a mockery of his claims of threats.We have already rejected his claims of editorial interference. Rajesh was given a free hand within an editorial positioning agreed between us. His claims regarding the president are another falsehood designed to embarrass us into acceding to his financial demands."
Howa has disputed further claims made to the M&G by Sundaram that he was informed by Ajay Gupta that Zuma had promised that R20-million in advertising from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) would be placed in the New Age newspaper, which the family owns.
The chief electoral officer, Mosotho Moepya, responded to the M&G's queries about how much money had been committed to the New Age in advertising, by saying the electoral commission was busy finalising media schedules for voter registration and elections.
"Should we decide to advertise in print, New Age will be treated exactly the same as other national or regional newspapers," he said. "The budget for advertising will be split between outdoor, television, radio, print, digital and social media."
Asked how much money has been committed to ANN7 in advertising by the IEC, Moepya said the Electoral Commission was busy finalising its advertising for television. "No placements have been done yet," he said.
Howa said these fresh claims were clearly untrue. "The claims around commercial discussions with the president again represent the ramblings of a disgruntled employee.
"If his claims were correct the proof would be in the public domain through advertisements or sponsorships on the channel. To date, we have not had a single cent of revenue from government to the channel."
Sundaram claimed Atul Gupta and Goel mentioned on many occasions that they expected to break even in the first year of operation.
"They were hoping to get about 70% of the targeted sales from government advertisements in the first year. I am not sure why they were confident of this," he said.
Sundaram has also written to the Department of Home Affairs with allegations that a number of Indian employees had illegally been working at ANN7 on "business visas," and has asked the department to investigate them.
He alleges there has been a cover-up since his complaint and some of these staff had already been sent home to India. Howa countered this by saying that ANN7 is "fully compliant regarding all legislation and regulations." In his correspondence to ANN7 over his pay dispute, Sundaram alleged he worked 18 hour days for 91 straight days.
"Would the company pay me for the hours that I have worked over and above the 45 hours a week that I was contracted to work, as an acknowledgment for the hard work I put in to help launch the channel?" wrote Sundaram. "I stayed away from my family for three months and came in and worked late hours despite ill-health, a pressurised work environment, constant abuse and non-availability of trained staff and the required equipment."
Like all Indian staff, Sundaram said he was promised medical aid through a contributory scheme where the company would pay half of the premium, but this was allegedly not honoured. "I was intimidated, chased and harassed by Mr Gupta's body guard when I refused to sign the settlement document that was not acceptable to me. This after I was threatened with bodily harm and damage to my professional reputation by Goel in Mr Gupta's presence.
"My hotel room was ransacked and all my money ($900) and cards stolen subsequently. Will the company at least reimburse me the cost of my travel back to India? I was told initially by Goel that I would be reimbursed the amount."
His health had deteriorated while he worked excessive hours in South Africa, said Sundaram, and he had had to leave behind his wife, two young daughters and an ailing mother in India.
While Sundaram declined to confirm information the M&G has received that ANN7's prime time anchor Chantal Rutter Dros is earning more than R100 000 a month, he pointed out he had a lot to lose by quitting the channel as he had been on a pretax salary of around R100 000.
Howa did not deny the generous salary being paid by ANN7 to Rutter-Dros, who is considered a coup for the channel. "ANN7 pays market-related salaries," said Howa.
"That certainly means more senior people will earn more than juniors. However, we have employed 120 people on the basis of each and every individual accepting the offer we made to them."