Panjim: Goa chief minister Pramod Sawant turned 50 on April 24. The personal milestone fetched him “special” interviews in almost all the local newspapers with some exceptions.
In the English daily O Heraldo, Sawant’s birthday interview made it to the top of page one, as it did in the Marathi newspaper Navprabha.
Preceded by full-page ads that glorified him to almost cult status à la Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the chief minister’s golden anniversary interview found space on page three in the Navhind Times and Lokmat.
The Goa edition of Lokmat scored over 14 pages of Sawant’s birthday ads – there were six full-pagers in Pudhari – gushing in fawning admiration for the once backbencher BJP MLA who has quickly picked up the art of self-projection and media management.
Goa’s print media were not the only ones obsequiously falling in line to cover the non-news event of a politician’s birthday. Homegrown digital players, most of which exist only on social media, went a step further to provide live feed of Sawant cutting his birthday cake at his home in Sanquelim.
The “enterprising” Goa News Hub even managed an “exclusive” interview with the chief minister’s father, Pandurang Sawant who welled up over his son’s childhood and his unlikely climb to the top after the former defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s death in March of 2019.
Till last year, O Heraldo which claims to be “the largest selling English daily” in Goa, had hitched its media group to almost exclusively promote Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party in the state’s February 2022 legislative assembly election.
When that partnership sank with the TMC’s zero score in the Goa election, the newspaper did not hold back its punches. With stinging and editorialised reporting it blamed TMC for not holding its end of the bargain and for “forcing” Luizinho Faleiro to give up his Rajya Sabha seat. Faleiro who had moved from the Congress to TMC in September 2021 with an eye on the Goa February 2022 election was elected to the Rajya Sabha in November 2021 from a seat vacated by a TMC MP.
Goa’s print and broadcast media have a long-standing reputation for peddling promotional content as “news” with little compunction, particularly during elections. The regional media’s notoriety as purveyors of “paid news” has found a smart investor in the chief minister who is proving to be far more hard-nosed and wily than his critics had given him credit for.
While the Union government has cut down drastically on its media advertising expenditure in the last few years, with most legacy media brought to heel, Sawant has given himself a bloated budget to sugar-coat media coverage around his person and leadership.
Between April 2020 to February of this year, the Goa government spent over Rs 32.68 crore on advertisements to media organisations big and small, according to documents tabled in the state’s legislative assembly on March 27, 2023.
In response to a question from Aam Aadmi Party MLA Venzy Viegas, Sawant said no agency had been appointed to “publicise” government schemes, but this was being done directly through government ads released by the state’s department of information and publicity (DIP), which of course is one of the chief minister’s portfolios.
Among the big ticket beneficiaries of the government’s media ad spends are The Goan group which cornered a bonanza of Rs 5.15 crore over the last three years, the Navhind Times group which got Rs 3.17 crore, the Sakal-owned Gomantak group (Rs 2.67 crore), Tarun Bharat (Rs 2.58 crore), O Heraldo group (Rs 2.2 crore), Lokmat (Rs 2.26 crore), Pudhari (Rs 1.83 crore), Times of India (Rs 1.48 crore) and Republic Media (Rs 1.19 crore).
Sawant’s publicity splurge also extended to those with connections to the BJP and Sangh-affiliated publishing houses. Mirchi Republic Media Productions an events management company run by one Bansi Balbhim Khedekar got Rs Rs 3.31 cr in ad support as a “radio agency”.
Among the Sangh publications, Bharat Prakashan, which brings out Organiser and Panchjanya, and Kovai Media which publishes Swarajya and a handful of others got Goa government ads worth over Rs 1 crore collectively. Even the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) souvenir managed a generous Rs 10 lakh.
While hardline right-wing publications like Sanatan Prabhat (which got Rs 21.64 lakh) have been generously supported by Pramod Sawant, India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati got a paltry Rs 5,310 in Goa government ads.
Can any media largely dependent on government advertising as a revenue stream remain truly independent?
Raju Nayak, editor and director of the Marathi daily Dainik Gomantak which also claims the largest circulation in the state, denies there’s a quid pro quo for the government’s advertising support. It has in no way influenced his group’s policy or bent coverage for the Pramod Sawant government, he says.
Dainik Gomantak does produce some hard-hitting stories, more than most other vernacular dailies. It also runs a sometime biting segment on Gomantak TV. Nayak says for 35 years he has focused on environment issues, specifically the damage inflicted by the mining lobby on Goa. “My concern is to save Goa for Goans. As one of the leading papers, there’s no way the government can ignore us for ads.”
That clearly is not the case with The Goan group which has been favoured with the largest package of government ad revenue. Owned by the Timblo’s mining company Sociedade de Fomento, Fomento Media and Prudent Media run the English daily The Goan Everyday, the Marathi Goan Varta, Goan Varta Live, Bhaangarbhuin, Konkan Saad and Prudent TV. Though authentic figures are hard to come by, newspaper distributors peg the Konkani daily Bhaangarbhuin’s circulation at just a couple of hundreds, which hardly makes it a pragmatic choice for advertisers. Yet Bhaangarbhuin alone got Rs 1.32 crore in ads from the government, enough to sustain staff and offices owned by a cash rich mining firm that can well afford to pay for its own.
An MLA who did not wish to be identified says Sawant’s advertising generosity is creating “an unholy nexus between the government and the fourth estate in Goa, with the media becoming increasingly subservient to the official narrative”. His comment is not far from the truth. The Goa edition of one of India’s largest newspapers gave Pramod Sawant’s March 30 budget a four-page government-friendly splash, with no critical analysis to speak of.
In a small state like Goa, small players in the media pool also count to amplify the message. Over the last few days a host of local channels have persistently replayed Goa BJP president Sadanand Tanawade’s claim that the saffron party will win both the Lok Sabha seats in Goa next year.
Little wonder the Sawant government spent over a crore rupees plus in advertising support to sustain them. In Goa TV for instance got nearly Rs 56 lakh, RDX Goa Rs 46.5 lakh, Prime TV Rs 39.7 lakh and Daily Scoops Media Rs 10.32 lakh.
The lifestyle Viva Goa magazine which has carried Sawant thrice on its cover got government ads worth over Rs 25 lakh in three years. It also got a government contract of Rs 80 lakh for its hoarding business under M/S Impact.