Gupta TV boss flees

2013-09-01 14:00

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» ANN7 editor describes regular Gupta visits to President Jacob Zuma about the news channel

» Tells how he ‘fled’ from a Gupta bodyguard

» Claims Atul Gupta monitors, shouts at and manhandles staff, calling them ‘monkeys’

» The ANN7 studios are still not fully equipped

»ANN7 dismisses his claims, calling him a ’disgruntled’ former employee

Visibly terrified and hiding in a Joburg hotel room, the former consulting editor at ANN7 has made explosive claims about visits by channel bosses to President Jacob Zuma, where Zuma made editorial recommendations and was “given assurances by the Guptas this channel was going to be pro-ANC”.

Rajesh Sundaram resigned from his senior position three days ago. On Friday, he fled the TV studios in Midrand and was pursued, he claims, by Atul Gupta’s armed bodyguard.

He says he spent five hours out in the cold on Friday night watching the hotel grounds, convinced the Guptas would send their henchmen after him.

Yesterday, a softly spoken but ­clearly nervous and visibly exhausted Sundaram turned to the media.

Sundaram told City Press his ­version of what has been happening behind the scenes at the country’s newest 24-hour news channel.

But the station’s group chief executive, Nazeem Howa, countered, saying: “Sundaram has made several ­outlandish allegations, which are not worthy of response. Mr Sundaram is a disgruntled former editorial consultant who ­resigned this week.”

Howa included in his emailed ­response a polite and respectful resignation letter from Sundaram.

“He this week spoke highly of the main shareholders of the channel,” said Howa.

Sundaram says the letter was sent before the real conflict set in and that he is by nature polite.

“There was a lot of interference on an editorial level by Mr Atul Gupta,” says Sundaram.

“The policy was to support the ANC and President Zuma ... I was taken to see President Zuma thrice, where he was given assurances by the Guptas that this channel was ­going to be pro-ANC. There were commitments given to him about election coverage.

“I was asked to make presentations and then when I went out of the room, I was told there were commercial deals done, asking various ministries for money in advertising support.”

The meetings, says Sundaram, were at Zuma’s official residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu, in Pretoria.

“We were taken to a room to the right of the main entrance. There was Ajay and Atul Gupta, Howa and (editor in chief) Moegsien Williams on a couple of occasions.”

On the third visit, at the end of July, according to Sundaram’s recollection, the team took a prerecorded news ­bulletin for Zuma to watch.

His son Duduzane was also there.

“The president said it was better than the SABC and comparable to some of the stuff he had seen abroad. He discussed the editorial policy.

“At one point, there was a suggestion that a TV (crew) be made available to ­follow the president.

“He said there should not be any ­direct propaganda, that all sides should be represented, that the stance should be subtle and not direct.”

Presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj did not deny the meetings. “President Zuma always makes time to meet management of news houses that ask to see him, who wish to get the government perspective on the country and to share what they intend to do. He is always ready to do so,” he told City Press.

Rule by fear

Sundaram describes a bizarre working life at ANN7. “Mr (Atul) Gupta sits on the mezzanine level. There is a glass wall there and he stares into the newsroom, looking at how many minutes any person has spent in the toilets or the cafeteria. There is a constant scrutiny.

“Mr Gupta moves everywhere with bodyguards, even in the newsroom. The bodyguards are all white and have guns strapped on to their jeans, even in the studio.

“There were two occasions where my blood pressure shot up so high there were blackouts. And not just me. There are other members of the team who had situations like that.

“They would come in at 4.30am or 5am and stay until past midnight. Most were doing it out of passion. Some of them were coerced into ­doing it because Atul Gupta would come in at 6am and, if the people were not there, there was a lot of yelling and screaming. He would storm into the gallery and verbally abuse people. I personally saw him grab their arms and yank them.

“These are people who’ve been working for 14, 15 hours. One time he went into the gallery because the news bulletin had been delayed by two minutes, shouting ‘You monkeys! F*****g get out of here, pack your bags and go back to India!’ He’d have a camera with him and take pictures of people because he didn’t know their names.”

The showdown

Sundaram told City Press nothing happened for two days after he ­handed in his “very polite” ­resignation letter.

“What happened on Friday has ­really rattled me. I told them I don’t want a fancy package, but I want to be paid for the extra hours I have worked.

“I worked over 100 hours a week. I was called to a meeting where Mr Gupta hurled all kinds of abuse at me. He called me a ‘zaleel’, which could be translated as ‘scum of the Earth’.

“They were offering me just the five days since the last payment on ­August 25 and no overtime.

“I was told by (ANN7’s technical boss from their Indian partners, SL Media) Mr Laxmi Goel: ‘You sign and you get out and I’ll see you in Delhi.’ It was a veiled threat that he’d ruin my career or harm me. He’s told me this many times in past conversations that if I ever got away he’d ensure my career is over.”

Sundaram says that as soon as he left the room, “one of Mr Gupta’s ­bodyguards asked me to follow him into a room”.

He further said: “Magriet (Coetzee, the channel’s HR manager) was there with the same document I had refused to sign. I told her very civilly I will not sign something I don’t agree with. I opened the door and I walked out. The bodyguard followed me. Fortunately, there were a lot of people around. I walked down the flight of stairs and through the entrance to the building.

“The bodyguard called out to me. I ignored him. He called out to me again. I looked back and he said: ‘Mr Gupta wants you upstairs.’ I said: ‘Look, I am going home now. I will buy my own tickets.’ He fastened (sic) his pace and I ran from there and I ran out through Corporate Park South and found a petrol garage with a lot of people. I was scared and tired, and my phone battery had run out.”

Technical nightmare

“I’ve been part of five new TV ­channel launches. They put the cart in front of the horse in this case,” says Sundaram.

“For any operation like this, the machinery and systems must be ­installed, and the people simultaneously hired and trained and everything integrated. Then there must be at least a one-month period of dry runs that take place.

“In our case, the joint-venture partner from India gave a date first and then got the equipment in. In fact, the equipment is still not all in. By the launch on August 21, they had barely enough equipment to start

operations. On the broadcasting system they are using, ENPS, just about nine ­people out of 130 were trained.”

Howa said that Sundaram had on Friday “made certain financial ­demands to which he is not entitled and is in dispute with the company”.

He said further: “Now, clearly, he has an axe to grind and is using unfounded, wild statements to support his vendetta against the company.”

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