Large Media Houses Accused of Striking Deals for Paid News to Promote Hindutva Agenda

In sting operation, CobraPost records major newspapers, TV channels discussing biased coverage before the 2019 elections in exchange for huge payments.

New Delhi: Several media houses were prepared to enter into a ‘cash for coverage’ deal with an undercover reporter posing as a representative of an organisation promoting Hindutva for electoral purposes, investigative portal cobrapost.com revealed at a crowded press conference here on Monday.

As part of its investigation, Cobrapost surreptitiously filmed the interaction its reporter had over several months with top executives at dozens of leading newspapers and television channels across north India. The reporter, Pushp Sharma, assumed the identity of ‘Acharya Atal’ from the ‘Srimad Bhagvat Gita Prachar Samiti’. At various times he would refer to his organisation as the ‘sangathan’, and many of the media executives he filmed assumed he was from, or was close to, the Nagpur-based Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The pitch ‘Acharya Atal’ made at these media houses, with some variations, was that in the run up to the 2019 election, his organisation wanted to promote the Hindutva agenda, beginning with ‘soft Hindutva’ content for the first three months with largely religious messaging, followed by ‘semi-political’ material which would include ‘character assassination’ of opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, followed also by content that would eventually help polarise Hindus and Muslims.

In the first part of ‘Operation 136’ – which derives its name from the rank India got in the World Press Freedom Index of 2017 – cobrapost.com has reproduced the excerpts of interactions its undercover journalist had with India TV, which belongs to Rajat Sharma, an editor known to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s largest Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, local Uttar Pradesh channel Hindi Khabar, the entertainment and news television company SAB Group, the English newsaper DNA (Daily News and Analysis) which is owned by Zee and Dainik Bhaskar, Amar Ujala, the news agency UNI, the entertainment channel 9X Tashan, the UP news channel Samachar Plus, the Uttarakhand channel HNN 24×7, the Hindi newspapers Punjab Kesari and Swatantra Bharat, web portals ScoopWhoop and Rediff.com, IndiaWatch, Hindi newspaper Aaj and the influential Lucknow-based news channel,  Sadhna Prime News.

These platforms represent some of the largest north Indian newspapers and TV channels. Some of those recorded include big names in the media industry, including Pradeep Guha, formerly a top executive at the Times of India group and now at 9X Tashan.

On Monday, Cobrapost.com uploaded excerpts from the video recordings the portal made of the undercover reporter’s conversations with media executives at these firms.

The degree of enthusiasm displayed varies from media house to media house but the response ‘Acharya Atal’ drew was uniformly positive. None of the business representatives of the media houses shown seemed to consider it problematic that a client wanted to use their platform to influence the upcoming election to polarise voters and tarnish the reputation of opposition leaders, or that the boundaries between advertising and news coverage was being erased.

Their willingness to implement an election-related paid political campaign is a direct challenge to Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who tweeted in the wake of 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.”

Explaining the rationale for its latest sting, Cobrapost.com said in a press release, “What Operation 136 establishes, for the first time in the history of Independent India and the world at large: Yes, Indian media houses do have the propensity to `influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means’.”

Interestingly, some of the media houses expressed a willingness to take payment in cash so that the transaction was kept off the books and GST could be evaded.

‘We can do any kind of work for you’

In an echo of the recent Channel 4 expose of Cambridge Analytica – where executives promised dirty tricks to a reporter posing as a Sri Lankan businessman seeking the agency’s help in engineering a favourable election result in his country – at least one of the media executives was filmed making similar claims. According to cobrapost.com, Dainik Jagran’s area manager of Bihar-Jharkhand-Odisha offered their undercover reporter some unconventional services, including sex workers:

“Insisting that he can get anything anti-establishment published in his paper, Singh reveals more darker sides of his character. It is as revealing as it is shocking to listen to what next he tells us about his abilities: “Ek dum aur doosra hum aapko kahan help karenge personally mere itne saare log hain Bengal mein gents, ladies har form mein hain jo har tareh ka kaam karte hain har tareh ka … aap jaisa boliyega agar kisi ke saath so ke data lena ho toh kar denge (Sure and second I will tell you where I can help you personally. I have a network of people, of gents and ladies, in every form, who can accomplish any task … If you ask them to sleep [with a fellow] and steal the data for you, they will do that as well).”

Undercover journalist was arrested in 2016

Cobrapost is the venture of the celebrated investigative journalist Aniruddha Bahal, who rose to prominence in the wake of the sting operation he conducted on behalf of tehelka.com during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee against the then BJP president Bangaru Laxman and others.

Pushp Sharma is an investigative journalist who last came into the public glare in 2016 when he filed a story in Milli Gazette on how the Ministry of AYUSH had in an RTI reply admitted that Muslims were not considered for overseas assignments as yoga trainers in 2015 as a matter of policy. In the wake of the controversy the story triggered, The ministry denied sending the RTI reply Sharma had reproduced in his story and filed an FIR against him for forgery.  Sharma was subsequently arrested and released on bail. The matter is still pending before the trial court.  Sharma said that an official forensic examination of his computer had contradicted the government’s claim that his computer had been used to forge AYUSH ministry documents.

Cobrapost.com said that for ‘Operation 136′, Sharma adopted “malleable identities’. He used his association with an Ujjain-based ashram; he claimed to have been schooled at Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan; to have been to IIT Delhi and IIM Bangalore, settled in Australia and running his e-gaming company out of Scotland” in order to make himself appear credible.

Media groups fell for ‘diabolical’ proposition

Cobrapost.com editor Aniruddha Bahal said that though the “proposition [we made] was diabolical – If I reward you handsomely, would you peddle Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism to polarise the electorate and allow the party in power to harvest electoral dividends in coming elections?”  – most of the media houses fell for it because of the money involved instead of ideally rejecting the proposition outright. “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.”

On how the exposé was planned, Cobrapost.com said Sharma met owners or personnel of more than two dozen media houses and offered to pay them anything between Rs. 6 crore and Rs. 50 crore if they agreed to provide a platform to his media campaign.

The agenda put out by ‘Acharya Atal’ involved promoting Hindutva through customised religious programmes to create a congenial atmosphere for ‘soft Hindutva’ during the first three months; mobilising the electorate on communal lines by promoting speeches of Hindutva hardliners, including Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti and Mohan Bhagwat; and then, with the elections approaching, turning the campaign to target opposition leaders such as, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav by “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”.

Despite the proposition being “violative of various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)”, which hold publication of content that is inflammatory or communal a “criminal act punishable by imprisonment”, the portal said the media executives still fell for it. It also alleged that by agreeing to take money, these media houses and their owners also stood in violation of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 1951, the Conduct of Election Rules 1961 framed by the Election Commission of India (ECI), Companies Act 1956, the Income Tax Act 1961, and Consumer Protection Act 1986 and Cable Television Network Rules 1994, and the guidelines laid down under Norms and Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India.

A reminder of what happened at Kasganj

Cobrapost.com also noted that the investigation revealed yet another example of the Indian media’s penchant for twisting facts or serving pure rumours as news, as was recently witnessed during the Kasganj communal riot in Uttar Pradesh recently. “What our investigation shows is symptomatic of the malaise that has set deep in the labyrinths of the citadel called Fourth Estate. It also shows that Indian media is on sale, lock, stock and barrel!”

The portal said it had received responses which showed media houses were willing to provide a variety of services to their paying client:

  • 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.

‘Media bias in favour of Hindutva on display’

Some of the owners or important functionaries with whom the reporter interacted admitted that they were either associated with the RSS or were pro-Hindutva and would thus be happy to work on the campaign. Some raised legalistic queries – about whether the ‘sangathan’ could indemnify the channel or newspaper from legal liability – but none of the executives appear to have misgivings about what such a campaign would mean for the integrity ‘of the journalism it produced.

Some of the media houses agreed to plant stories in favour of the party in power. 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 organisations.

Some of the media houses also agreed to run down Union ministers Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and her son Varun Gandhi when ‘Acharya Atal’ said the ‘sangathan’ had proof that their ‘lobby’ had acted against the BJP in the recent elections.

Similarly, some of them also agreed to run stories against leaders of BJP alliance partners, like Anupriya Patel, Om Prakash Rajbhar and Upendra Kushwaha.

Varying his script in some of his meetings, ‘Acharya Atal’ asked a few media houses if they could also implement the sangathan’s demand that liberal critics of the government like Prashant Bhushan, Dushyant Dave, Kamini Jaiswal and Indira Jaising be attacked or that agitating farmers be painted as Maoists in their stories. Cobrapost said the answer they received was invariably ‘yes’.

Big budget proved big bait

‘Acharya Atal’ also gave out two jingles in which Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been lampooned as “Pappu”. The portal said “although the jingles look harmless, yet they are plain defamatory, showing the political leader in question in poor light before the electorate many of whom would definitely take him as someone to be not fit to lead them.”

The portal said that the media groups agreed to play these because Sharma had told them his “sangathan” has set aside a budget of Rs. 742 crore for the Karnataka elections alone; that it had spent about Rs. 8,000 crore in the last general elections; and that the budget for the 2019 polls was even more. His offer to each media house ranged between Rs. 6 crore and Rs. 50 crore, it added.

Bahal told The Wire that his team is working on producing the video recordings of other media houses, “including some of the largest in the country” and would release the second part of its investigation as soon as it was ready. Asked whether any of the media houses they had targeted had baulked at ‘diabolical proposal’ or turned it down, Bahal said, “We were very keen to have some examples of principled media houses, of owners and executives who flatly refuse our proposition. Sadly, we got none. Every one of the channels and newspapers we approached showed a willingness to enter into a deal despite fully realising the divisive agenda involved.”

In an initial reaction to Cobrapost’s story, some of the media houses have denied doing anything wrong. “I don’t believe in the credibility of the video,” Sanjay Gupta, head of the Jagran group told the Indian Express. The company executive caught on tape went “way beyond his boundaries” and had no authority to “commit such thing”, and would be proceeded against if the recording were found to be authentic, he added.

Sudipto Chowdhery, president, sales, of India TV told the Indian Express the video was “doctored”. He insisted that all the “proposals discussed or put forward” by the CobraPost reporter “were in fact entirely turned down by the editorial and legal teams of India TV”.