By Qrius Staff
Independent investigative website Cobrapost released a set of incendiary videos late on Friday exposing Indian corporate media’s complicity in running pro-Hindutva advertisements, in a roster that features 25 leading media organisations, including the Times group, India Today, Zee Media, ABP News, Dainik Jagran, Network 18, Hindustan Times, OPEN Magazine and DNA, amongst others. Of the 27 organisations approached by the undercover reporter as a part of Operation-136, only two refused to be baited, those being Bengali newspapers Bartaman and Dainik Sambad.
Here’s what happened
Nearly two months after Cobrapost first reported about media organisations that were ready to strike lucrative business deals to promote the Hindutva agenda, visuals from their sting operation released this week, captures the sorry state of the free press in India. The videos shot surreptitiously by the undercover reporter are revelatory of a complete breach of journalistic ethos and confirm longstanding doubts about the extent and scope of paid news in Indian media.
As Cobrapost’s reporter assumed the fictitious identity of a religious-political figure Acharya Atal, he met Chief Revenue Officers and in certain cases even the proprietors of these media houses over the course of his operation. Claiming to represent an unnamed sangathan which they were led to believe was RSS, the parent body of the BJP, he pitched and even negotiated a lucrative advertising contract with media stalwarts like Times Group’s Vineet Jain and India Today’s Kallie Puri.
The undercover reporter explicitly proposed a phased campaign beginning with “soft hindutva”, which would accustom the electorate with hindutva politics, before proceeding to lampoon the opposition as the election draws nearer. Another exposé by Cobrapost also revealed that the central government had requested for user data to identify and apprehend rioters in Kashmir. Senior VP Ajay Sharma claimed to receive a call from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), at a time when stone-pelting had reached its peak in the Kashmir Valley, although it is not clear if they followed through with the request.
Why you should care
Far from serving as a searchlight or an independent fourth estate, said Siddharth Varadarajan of The Wire, the exposé demonstrates a complete abuse of the free press, where one of the most important pillars of modern democracy could potentially be used an instrument of divisive politics, to polarise the electorate in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The willingness they have displayed in running election-related paid political campaigns is a direct challenge to Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who tweeted about the Cambridge Analytica controversy that “any covert or overt attempt to misuse social media including Facebook to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be tolerated, nor be permitted.”
On Thursday, the Delhi High Court banned Cobrapost from screening the composite documentary of these videos at the Press Club of India, after Dainik Jagran filed an injunction against them. Excerpts of these video recordings were then uploaded on their website. Since then, several of these media houses, including India Today, have threatened legal action, while most are keeping a disturbingly low profile about the entire affair abetted by the stunning silence of the Editors Guild of India.
It's unlikely that any news channel will carry the #CobraPost expose. Especially when powerful people like Vineet Jain are a part of it.
So Social Media, do your thing.
Don't let this die down.
— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) May 25, 2018
The opposition has been quick to seize the occasion and comment.
— Congress (@INCIndia) May 25, 2018
This exposé naturally draws attention to the chasm between management and editorial teams, when it comes to making crucial decisions about paid advertising. Had absolute content-making powers resided with editors and reporters, perhaps this fiasco could have been averted. Operation-136, titled after India’s rank in the 2017 world press freedom index, has only served to highlight the gaping holes in Indian media that needs to be plugged.
A senior journalist at Bartaman, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke to Qrius, saying that under-the-table transactions have always taken place since the dawn of Indian parliamentary politics. Although not legally tenable, political implications of the recent findings may be far-reaching, he said, as they cast serious doubt about the sorry state of election campaigns and media management today. Corporate media has often faced scepticism and criticism, but with this exposé, public doubt has been confirmed. The role of media in shaping public opinion is universally acknowledged as immense but abusing that position to restructure the nation’s political ideologies on religious and communal lines amounts to a pure fallacy, an absolute mockery of the freedom of the press.
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