RIP Free Media: Sting Operation Reveals Media Houses Willing To Push Communal Reports For Cash
Sting operation reveals 17 publications agreed to push communal agenda in exchange for cash.
NEW DELHI: The deep rot in the media has long been talked about, with the functioning of an independent media entirely compromised by patterns of funding that dictate what is packaged as news. Anyone with the means can now push their own agenda and vested interest, with the media ditching all forms of ethics and accountability and working on moulding public opinion to perpetuate entrenched power hierarchies.
While the crisis in the media has been talked about at length, a recent sting operation by CobraPost is definitive proof of just how deep and wide the rot is. ‘Operation 136’ -- named after India’s rank of 136 in the World Press Freedom Index 2017 -- sent an undercover journalist to a number of publications, several of which agreed to push communal reports for cash, without raising a bill.
CobraPost has released part 1 of the sting, which implicates 17 media outlets that agreed to publish the stories put forth by the journalist. These include DNA, Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, India TV, Rediff and ScoopWhoop.
Journalist Pushp Sharma went undercover as Acharya Atal, donning a red scarf embossed with “Radhe Radhe” and adopting malleable identities ranging from a representative of an Ujjain based ashram to head of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party.
17 media houses agreed to push Acharya Atal’s explicitly hindutva agenda. The agenda was as follows:
“In the initial phase, the first three months, promote Hindutva through customized religious programmes to create a congenial atmosphere. Then, the campaign will be geared up to mobilize the electorate on communal lines by promoting speeches of Hindutva hardliners, the likes of Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti, Mohan Bhagwat and others. As elections approach, the campaign will target opposition leaders, namely, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, caricaturing them using less than dignified language like Pappu, Bua and Babua, respectively, for them, in order to show them in poor light before the electorate. They will have to run this campaign on all platforms – print, electronic or digital including, e-news portals, web sites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.”
The media houses agreed to run the stories for a cash amount, keeping the matter off the books by not raising a bill.
Sharma met owners or personnel of more than two dozen media houses in decision making capacities -- meaning either the publisher/ owner or senior professionals on the business side. The cash sum offered was between Rs. 6 crore and Rs. 50 crore if the publication agreed to provide a platform to the agenda.
“To our utter shock, most of them not only agreed to do what he asked for but also suggested myriad ways for undertaking a well-orchestrated, overtly communal media campaign on behalf of their prospective big-ticket client,” notes CobraPost’s report.
CobraPost provides a gist of the interactions Sharma had through the course of the investigation:
“They agreed to promote Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism and religious discourse.
They agreed to publish content with potential to polarize the electorate along communal lines.
They concurred to besmirch or thrash political rivals of the party in power by posting or publishing defamatory content about them.
Many of them were ready to accept cash, which in other words is black money, for the job to be assigned to them.
Some of the owners or important functionaries, who the reporter interacted with, admitted that they were either associated with the RSS or they were pro-Hindutva and would thus be happy to work on the campaign, forgetting the cardinal principle of journalism: neutrality. A typical example of conflict of interest.
Some of them agreed to plant stories in favour of the party in power in their publications.
Many of them agreed to develop and carry advertorials especially for this purpose.
Almost all agreed to run this campaign on their platforms – print, electronic or digital in its various avatars such as e-news portal, e-paper or social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
Some of them offered to do a complete media management to plant stories favouring the party in power in other publications with help from journalists other than their own organizations.
Some of them even agreed to run down Union ministers Arun Jaitly, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and her son Varun Gandhi.
Some of them also agreed to run stories against leaders of BJP alliance partners, like Anupriya Patel, Om Prakash Rajbhar and Upendra Kushwaha.
Some of them also agreed to defame the most noted and celebrated among the legal tribe and civil society like Prashant Bhushan, Dushyant Dave, Kamini Jaiswal and Indira Jai Singh.
Some of them even agreed to paint agitating farmers as Maoists in their stories.
Many of them agreed to create and promote such content as would aim for the “character assassination” of leaders like Rahul Gandhi.”
In addition to agreeing to push the agenda for cash, there are other bits in the interactions between the media house representatives and Sharma that should raise concern. The quotes below speak for themselves in terms of just how compromised the media has become:
Jitender Kumar, Deputy Vice President (Sales), India TV, Noida
“If you have seen we already running a campaign in favour of the Aadhar … oh you saw it. We are running a good campaign in prime time … That is already running Acharya Ji … As you said that you have lost seats, we had done a programme UP Samvad after the elections. But we did not put that on air because we did not feel good about this defeat, especially when Yogi Ji had claimed that they will win all seats. So, we mellowed it down and we did not run it much on our channel”
… “So, when I spoke to you over phone yesterday, I thought you are a very busy person. You were to go to Guwahati, Kolkata and Nagpur. In this case as it is expected I could have shot a mail to you. Now this is not an initiative. Let us take initiative and then and there I bought a ticket and shot a mail to my boss … all the documentation work. She said okay.”
Sanjay Pratap Singh, Area Manager (Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa), Dainik Jagaran
“Some stingers will go there who will work on that hidden agenda to dig out news. So, some will be internally working on another layer to manage editorial … nobody at this stage does work without vested interest”
“Yes, we will support you, don’t worry. I will release your ad from here itself … okay. What will happen? If you tell us they will write and publish articles for you. We will also publish your news from time to time”
Rajat Kumar, Chief Revenue Officer, Zee Synergy and DNA
“I will work on it on a war footing”
Atul Aggarwal, Director and Editor-in-Chief, Hindi Khabar, Noida
“Yes. It will be great fun. It will be great fun Guruji. We will fix …”
Sanjay Singh Srivastav, Editor and Business Head, Swatantra Bharat, Lucknow
“Yes, there will be no ifs and buts. There will be 100 percent commitment [on our part], there is no problem at all. Rather, when we deliver it will be more than what we promise”
Satvik, CEO, ScoopWhoop, Delhi
“If you are doing in smart way … everything is possible.”
Harinder Singh Sahni, Business Head/Branch Head, Aj (Hindi Daily), Lucknow
“I told you that I am here for making business. As long as I get it, I will be doing [what you ask for]”
Alok Bhatt, Director, Sadhna Prime News, Lucknow
“Tell me how aggressively you want us to run your campaign because we are here only for that cause. We are the ones who do it openly”
CobraReport’s story can be accessed here. Detailed interactions with each media house are also available, and can be accessed here.
The media houses in question have either refused to comment, dismissed the videos as fake, or said that the representative was not authorised to make such a decision and action will be taken if the allegations are confirmed.