The state already has a high number of government-accredited journalists who are entitled to various concessions. The latest move to woo the media further legitimises bribing journalists for favourable reporting.
The Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to outsource the public relations for chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s office to journalists has drawn flak from various quarters.
Media practitioners and democratic activists have said that at a time when the curse of paid news is haunting the independence of the media, the state government’s move legitimises bribing journalists for favourable reporting.
Following the recommendations of the state’s information and public relations department, the Andhra Pradesh government agreed to hire 25 journalists on December 7 on a one-year contract “to carry out the publicity and other works as back office of hon’ble chief minister’s office”. The government order also mentioned that each journalist would be paid a monthly salary of Rs 51,468 and would cost the exchequer Rs 12,86,700 per month.
While the names of the journalists have not been disclosed yet, media watchers see this as a clear case of poaching by the government, which has been continuously trying to attract journalists with monetary and non-monetary perks. In April, Naidu had even distributed health cards to journalists.
The state also has an astonishingly high number of government-accredited journalists. An IndiaSpend investigation found that under the Naidu government, the number of accredited journalists had gone up to 15,000 – an unusually high number if compared to other states like Karnataka (815), Bihar (770), Punjab (450), Orissa (157), Jammu and Kashmir (81), Himachal Pradesh (76) and Goa (72). For just 1,648 media publications in the entire state, according to a 2014-15 report by the Registrar of Newspapers for India, the state has more than 900 accredited journalists for every district – a conspicuous violation of the strict accreditation norms.
Since the accredited journalists are entitled to concessions on trains, buses and in health facilities, the state government has clearly used this accreditation to lure reporters. At the chief minister’s behest, the ruling Telugu Desam Party has already established a ‘knowledge centre’ that monitors media coverage of the government and is in charge of countering negative stories.
The salaries that will be paid to the journalists that the state government has hired have set a new benchmark since the amount is much higher than what a journalist working in an Andhra Pradesh-based media group is generally paid.
Senior journalists with whom The Wire spoke said that while a Telugu media group spends anywhere between Rs 6,000-Rs 15,000 on each journalist’s salary depending on their seniority, an English media group generally pays Rs 25,000 or less.
The AP government’s latest move to outsource PR tasks to journalists – a job usually done by the public relations departments in various states – has also raised doubts over whether the journalists on government payroll would relinquish their current positions in various media houses.
The government’s justification
Parakala Prabhakar, the communications advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government, told News Minute, “They will not be embedded journalists. They will not write for any other organisations, while they are employed by the government.”
“They will write curtain raisers for AP government events, analyses of our programmes, and will summarise for the government how the mainstream media is covering the government,” he said, adding that some of their work may, however, be published in the government-produced English and Telugu magazine titled Andhra Pradesh.
Justifying the move, Prabhakar said that the government was forced to hire experienced journalists as it has not recruited any regular public relations officers in the chief minister’s office or in other ministries.
The explanation has, however, failed to convince the old-timers in the field, especially given that the Andhra Pradesh government’s desperate attempts to woo journalists in the recent past. While some said that the present decision is extraordinary and may set a precedent for other governments, others also felt that such moves severely undermine the role of the media – referred to as the fourth estate – as a watchdog of democracy.
“AP government’s decision legitimises bribes and commission. A section in the corporate world has been demanding that commissions should be legalised. Now we see the government moving towards that corporate goal,” Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, senior associate editor at Frontline, told The Wire.
Eminent advocate and founder of the political collective Swaraj Abhiyan, Prashant Bhushan also tweeted criticising the move.
Now AP CM officially bribes 25 journos to do his PR & publicly work! pic.twitter.com/f52UQuv80T
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) December 12, 2016
Similarly, The Hoot commented, “This has come at a time when in neither of the two Telugu states (Telangana and AP) is the media playing much of an adversarial role. The restive media houses are being quickly silenced with backroom deals. According to journalists from some of the national newspapers, neither of the CMs is averse to calling up the newspaper offices demanding positive coverage nor better play for their pet stories, often with great success.”
The government’s decision “represents a ‘pioneering’ new twist to the profession of journalism,” it further said.
The governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been trying to woo journalists by instituting various awards and benefits. It is increasingly becoming a trend for political parties to launch or indirectly sponsor mainstream media publications. Following the trend started by other regional parties in South India, Telangana Rashtriya Samiti also did its part to gain a footprint in the media by launching the English daily Telangana Today earlier this year.
The Hoot had reported that out of the 24 television channels in (united) AP, 21 are controlled by corporate and political giants. “For instance, Sakshi daily and its sister TV channel are owned by politician Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. Chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s close aide Vemuri Radhakrishna owns ABN Andhra Jyothi.”
“T News belongs to Telangana Broadcasting Private Limited, the official mouthpiece of the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti,” the report further noted.
It has also been reported earlier that Naidu’s government has often incorrectly invoked the ‘public interest’ clause of the cable regulation act to muzzle the media.
Following the political practice, the Telangana government, too, is leaving no stone unturned to spend public money to get positive coverage. Led by Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s K. Chandrasekhar Rao, it had announced a grant of Rs 25 lakh as welfare fund for journalists and instituted an award for journalists who cover state issues.
While the AP government’s decision has become controversial, it has rejuvenated the debate on what constitutes “favours” to journalists. The Press Council of India (PCI) in a report had clearly stated that extraneous benefits like government accommodation, concessional land, free air tickets and company shares given to journalists were undue favours. However, none of the PCI recommendations was implemented.
Civil society activists believe that this has led to a situation where the media has failed to play a healthy adversarial role in the society. At a time when the line between journalism and public relation exercises is thinning down, political commentators say that the Andhra Pradesh government’s move may only aggravate the problem.