Associates of Edmonton MLA Peter Sandhu orchestrated what is alleged to be a public smear campaign, featuring defamatory news stories, against a local Punjabi-language journalist, a CBC News investigation has found.
- Click here for the Punjabi-language version of this story (PDF)
- Interactive: CBC Investigates uncovers the story behind what happened to Jarnail Basota
Edmonton-based, OMNI-TV journalist Jarnail Basota said the campaign against him began after Sandhu threatened to teach him a lesson for reporting on the political fallout from a CBC News investigation into Sandhu’s debt problems.
Sandhu resigned from the Conservative caucus shortly after the CBC story appeared on May 14. The second-term MLA is now under investigation by Alberta’s ethics commissioner.
Basota said Sandhu threatened to sue him, despite the fact the MLA had failed to respond to several interview requests before OMNI broadcast the story. Basota said about six weeks after the lawsuit threat, Sandhu approached him at a public function.
“He said straightforward to me, ‘We will teach you a lesson,’” Basota said, adding that he now fears for his, and his family’s, safety. He sought, but failed, to obtain police protection because he said the police told him it was a civil matter.
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Sandhu has denied threatening Basota and he also denied any involvement in the defamatory news stories.
But two men from the Punjabi community, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sandhu independently told each of them he was going to “fix” Basota for daring to broadcast the story about his debt problems to the Punjabi community.
CBC News showed the findings of its investigation to former British Columbia premier and former federal Liberal cabinet minister Ujjal Dosanjh, who immigrated to Canada from the Punjab in 1968. He believes the smear campaign against Basota represents the importation into Canada of Punjabi-style “thug” politics, in which intimidation and fear are used to silence perceived enemies.
“Mr. Basota is simply a reporter, a journalist in the mainstream tradition, and he reported a story that you did some time ago,” Dosanjh said in an interview at his Vancouver home. “Nobody will touch you [in the mainstream English-language media], but they will touch him.
“And obviously they have tried to defame him [because] that is how you take down opponents in a crude way in that culture,” said Dosanjh, who was attacked and seriously injured in Vancouver in 1985 after speaking out publicly about Sikh extremism in Canada.
Defamatory newspaper articles
Desh Videsh, an Edmonton-based Punjabi-language newspaper, published two articles which contained defamatory statements about Basota. CBC News had the articles independently translated by a Punjabi-speaking student-at-law.
The articles allege a drunken Basota went to a farmhouse on Edmonton’s eastern outskirts. After his demands for alcohol were denied, Basota allegedly insulted and attacked the residents. In return, Basota was beaten before fleeing when police were called, leaving behind his shoes and his turban.
In the Sikh religion, it is disrespectful, and personally humiliating, for a man to remove his turban in public.
“They made a false story in their newspaper against me with the aim to spoil my image, to humiliate me,” Basota said, adding later: “And they did so.”
CBC News has confirmed from direct witness accounts, and other information, that both stories were fabricated.
Inderjit Mullanpur is the owner and editor of Desh Videsh, and authored the stories about Basota. Public records show Mullanpur lived at Sandhu’s house for years and his newspaper’s registered address was at a property owned by Sandhu.
A recent record search shows Mullanpur changed his personal address to an address in Calgary the day after CBC News first asked Sandhu about his threat to Basota.
For six years, up until 2012, Sandhu’s wife, Kamaljit, had been 49 per cent owner of the newspaper, which people in the Punjabi community say has regularly published positive stories about the businessman and MLA.
False affidavit sworn
Desh Videsh based the stories on affidavits sworn by four men, including Jaspal Singh (Paul) Boparai, a Punjabi businessman who is a friend and political supporter of Sandhu.
The other three affidavits were sworn by employees of Boparai, who owns the farmhouse where the incident is alleged to have occurred. One employee, Amarbir Singh Sandhu, manages A-1 Delivery and Moving, a trucking company owned by Boparai.
In August, immigration officials caught another employee, Amit Chibber, working illegally at Boparai’s Wild Wing restaurant in northeast Edmonton. Chibber is now awaiting deportation.
Interviewed at a south-side Edmonton hotel, Chibber admitted to CBC News he lied about the incident in his affidavit. Chibber, who supports a wife and child in India, said he felt pressured by Boparai to file the false affidavit.
“I didn’t have a legal work permit so, under pressure, I signed [the affidavit],” Chibber said. “I thought, ‘Maybe after signing this, I will get a work permit soon.’ Because it had been delayed for so many months and I had been asking Paul [Boparai] every month the same thing.”
Chibber said Boparai told him Mullanpur, the Desh Videsh editor, would be coming to take photos of him and another temporary foreign worker, Sandeep (Sunny) Ghuman. He said Boparai told him in a second call that he and Ghuman would be taken to sign a statement.
Chibber said Mullanpur separately drove first Ghuman and then himself to the lawyer’s office to swear affidavits, which had been prepared for them.
Both Boparai and Amarbir Sandhu, the A-1 Delivery manager, had often boasted about their close relationship with Peter Sandhu, Chibber said. But he said he had no idea if Peter Sandhu was personally involved in the scheme against Basota.
Boparai and Amarbir Sandhu declined to be formally interviewed but both insist their affidavits are truthful.
Drunken incident never happened
Jarnail Basota had been a prominent and well-respected journalist in the Punjab of India for 25 years before immigrating to Edmonton five years ago. In addition to his work as the OMNI-TV correspondent, he hosts Radio South Asia, a program on World FM, Edmonton’s ethnic radio station. He is also part owner of Lok Awaaz, one of several Punjabi-language newspapers in Alberta which competes with Desh Videsh.
Basota said he went to the farmhouse to visit a friend, a truck driver employed by Boparai. The driver, another temporary foreign worker, had been injured in an accident and had repeatedly asked Basota to visit him.
Basota and two friends went to the farmhouse on May 19, three days after Basota broadcast his story about Peter Sandhu’s debt. Basota said he was not drinking, which was confirmed by his friends. He said after a few hours visiting with the injured driver, Paul Boparai summoned him outside the farm house.
The journalist said Boparai told him he was unhappy with the story about Peter Sandhu. Basota said he told Boparai he thought he had done a professional job on the story.
Basota said he and his friends left the farm yard without incident, a version of events confirmed by Chibber and Basota’s two friends.
False allegations published
But nearly two months later on July 12, Desh Videsh published an article under the headline: “OMNI TV reporter, radio host Jarnail Singh Basota is beaten for his discourteous behaviour at farmhouse in Edmonton.” The story, quoting Amarbir Sandhu, also said a complaint about Basota would be filed with the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission based on a petition from the Punjabi community.
Several weeks after we interviewed Amit Chibber, he wrote to CBC management claiming his participation in our story was coerced and denying what he has told us. Based on the statements he gave to the Law Society of Alberta and Edmonton police, which matched what he said in our interview, as well as our knowledge of how the interview came about, we have proceeded to tell the story as planned.
“For this, we need support from our community because an alcoholic person, who was usually seen in a drunken state during cultural, sports, and other programs, how could he perform a responsible job of radio host?” the article states. “Because this kind of journalism may work in India but the peaceful and clean environment of Canada does not permit this kind of behaviour.”
The article claimed Desh Videsh had received a written description of what happened from Amarbir Sandhu. The story alleged Basota and his friends drank free alcohol until about 2 a.m. when a drunken Basota insulted and attacked Paul Boparai and others, was beaten and fled, leaving behind his shoes and turban.
The story said police were not called because the residents didn’t want to cause Basota any problems.
Basota said no one from Desh Videsh contacted him before the article appeared. He subsequently served Mullanpur with a notice of intent to sue him and Desh Videsh.
On Aug. 9, Desh Videsh published a two-page spread, which repeated the allegations contained in the July 12 article and included yet more defamatory statements. The story was accompanied by four sworn affidavits from Boparai, Amarbir Sandhu, and the two temporary foreign workers, Amit Chibber and Sunny Ghuman.
The story was repeatedly posted on the Desh Videsh Facebook page, and Boparai and Amarbir Sandhu also hosted a news conference for Punjabi-language media on Aug. 17, which was duly reported by Desh Videsh on Aug. 23.
The Aug. 9 story claimed Chibber had “exposed Jarnail Singh Basota’s one more secret,” according to the translation done for CBC News.
“Amit Chibber testified in this affidavit that Jarnail Singh Basota, who is a radio host as well as a journalist, used to visit them in alcohol parties and used to bring his girlfriends in our absence.”
The two Desh Videsh articles, however, are riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies.
The July 12 story said the incident at the farmhouse had occurred a few days before the article was published. The Aug. 9 story said the incident happened May 19.
The July 12 story said police were not called. But the Aug. 9 story claimed a 911 call had been made, and included a blurry photo of two RCMP officers standing in front of their cruiser.
Desh Videsh claimed the incident at the farmhouse occurred at about 2 a.m., but the photo was clearly taken in broad daylight.
An online search revealed the photo is of two Mounties from Steinbach, Manitoba, and appears on the city’s web page. The farmhouse is actually policed by the Edmonton Police Service (EPS). A freedom of information request reveals EPS received an anonymous hang-up 911 call about an alleged drunk driver in that area, but no calls about a fight at a farmhouse.
CBC News also interviewed temporary foreign worker Sunny Ghuman. The 28-year-old insisted his affidavit was truthful, but he repeatedly contradicted his sworn statements, often changing his story about what he witnessed.
Ghuman finally admitted all he knew was what he had been told. He said he simply signed the affidavit, which he said was based on statements provided to the lawyer by Amarbir Sandhu.
After publication of the first Desh Videsh story, Basota’s newspaper, Lok Awaaz, published a front-page article, which contained statements from several prominent members of the Punjabi community, decrying “yellow journalism” and the publication of “baseless” news stories.
Desh Videsh responded by suing Lok Awaaz, Basota and his partner in the newspaper, lawyer Gurpreet Gill, for $5 million. Basota is counter-suing for $3.5 million, alleging a conspiracy to smear his reputation which involves MLA Peter Sandhu. None of the allegations in either lawsuit has been proven in court.
After his interview with CBC News, Amit Chibber agreed to meet Jarnail Basota.
When Basota opened the door of his Mill Woods home, Chibber touched the elder man’s feet, a sign of deferential respect and humility in Sikh culture. Overcome by emotion, Basota stood in his kitchen and sobbed into a handkerchief for a few minutes before he gained enough composure to face Chibber in the living room.
Chibber apologized and explained why he had told lies about him. Basota said he forgave him.
“He has told the truth in front of the camera,” Basota said. “I appreciate it. And no man is bad in this universe; only circumstances make you bad.
“I believe that sooner or later, honesty will win, truth will win.”