A recent sting operation conducted by Cobrapost may have revealed that brown-envelope journalism is prevalent in India. Cobrapost alleges that a number of highly prominent media houses accept bribes in exchange for media play that has the potential to incite communal sentiments.
Among the accused are the owners of the Times of India, the largest selling English language newspaper in the world.
Free and independent media is an essential part of any democracy. According to government data, in 2015-2016, India had over 100,000 registered newspapers and periodicals. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of television channels in the country grew from 130 to 788. However, according to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, freedom of press in India has decreased in recent years. India ranks 136 of 180 countries, and is the third most dangerous country for journalists.
Besides censorship and threats to journalists, another factor that limits the growth of free media is commercial interests. Global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International notes that “The radical transformation of the media landscape in the digital era has brought about a scenario” where powerful commercial interests can muzzle criticism. This “is beginning to undermine the purpose, if not the power, of a free press.”
In recent years, issues such as fake news have emerged as a significant challenge to the authenticity of press. Facebook has often been criticised for acting as a platform for fake news. In May 2017, it was reported that Facebook was a key influencer in the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit vote. Last September, Facebook admitted to finding approximately $100,000 worth of ads connected to Russia. Russia allegedly played a role in flooding social media platforms with fake news stories depicting Hillary Clinton negatively.
The recent Cambridge Analytica controversy drew further attention to political consultancies and targeted political advertisements. In an exposé by UK’s Channel News 4, CEO Alexander Nix was also caught on tape claiming that the company does “a lot more” than just investigation, alluding to entrapment and bribery. The agency was involved in over 200 elections across the world, including in Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India, and Argentina.
Following the Cambridge Analytica controversy, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted 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.”
Cobrapost is a non-profit news website founded in 2003 by Aniruddha Bahal. It is best known for investigative journalism and controversial sting operations. Cobrapost’s first major sting was the so called “Operation Duryodhana”, carried out with Aaj Tax. The expose showed 11 MPs accepting cash for asking questions in parliament. The 11 MPs were expelled from parliament after the investigation broke.
On March 26th, 2018, Cobrapost released details on its “Operation 136” sting investigation. 136 is a reference to India’s ranking in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Senior investigative journalist Pushp Sharma took on the persona of “Acharya Atal”, the representative of an Aashram. Sharma approached media houses with a proposition to “bolster the prospects” of “the party in power in coming elections.” The proposition constituted three phases: the first to “promote Hindutva through customized religious programmes to create a congenial atmosphere,” the second to “mobilize the electorate on communal lines by promoting speeches of Hindutva hardliners,” and the third to target opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi.
Cobrapost noted that agreeing to such a proposition would violate a number of laws including the Indian Penal code for publishing communal and defamatory content. Accepting bribes would also violate laws that protect the election process, as well as the Norms and Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India.
On May 25th, Cobrapost released video recordings of high ranking executives of 25 media companies agreeing to accept money up to Rs. 500 crores in exchange for this coverage. The outlet cited a number of prominent media houses including Times Group (which owns Times of India), HT Media (owns Hindustan Times), India Today Group, Star India, Zee Group, TV18 and others. Cobrapost claims that besides Bengali newspapers Bartaman Patrika and Dainik Sambad, all other media houses were willing to act as a platform for polarising content. Some executives were caught on camera discussing a deal to make the payment through black money, while other local papers claimed that they had enough sway to influence state elections.
“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,” Cobrapost wrote. The story has received limited coverage from online media organisations including the Wire, Scroll, and The Print.
Some journalists have criticised Cobrapost for sensationalism and unethical tactics. The method of sting journalism has been met with a substantive amount of critique. The Hindu Readers Editor A.S. Panneerselvan has previously called sting journalism “a lazy substitute to meticulous investigative reporting.” Greg Marx from the Columbia Journalism Review noted, “If the reporter has forfeited the high ground of transparency and honesty, how can his conclusions be trusted by the public? The fallout may not be limited to the case at hand.”
The India Today Group noted in a statement to the Wire that it “stands for the highest standards of journalism.” “The business side of the organization, irrespective of their seniority or personal political and religious leanings, do not influence our editorial coverage in any way, nor is any sales representative of ours authorized to offer editorial coverage. The India Today Group has always condemned paid news, and in its 43 years of existence, never indulged in any such practice. Any suggestion to the contrary would be malicious,” the statement read.
The Times Group also denied all allegations. “They have maliciously presented a one sided view of the events, with intention of creating sensationalism at the expense of our organisation and to adversely affect our reputation, standing and integrity before the public,” the organisation said. The Times of India reported that that Sharma was arrested in 2009 for staging fake accidents and extorting money from policemen. The Times of India wrote that the Times Group was aware that Sharma was an imposter. It claims the organisation was conducting a “reverse sting” to find out his antecedents.
New Indian Express noted that Sharma had met with its advertising team, which is separate from and has no influence over its editorial team. It denied that it accepts advertisements with potential communal implications. Meanwhile, the Dainik Bhaskar made a plea to the Delhi High Court to restrict Cobrapost from releasing more videos.
Our assessment is that ethics in journalism is essential in order to maintain a truly independent press. If these allegations are true, the operation may have revealed a critical failure of India’s fourth estate. We believe that insidious influence campaigns designed to incite communal sentiment pose a major threat to democracy and the principle of a secular nation. Media is a critical institution in any democracy, and plays an important role in maintaining a healthy public dialogue. We feel that there is a growing need for unbiased, non-partisan news.