Two months since Cobrapost highlighted how certain media organisations were ready to strike deals to promote the Hindutva agenda, the website has released a second batch of videos that show managers of major media groups giving in to the same pressure for money and to promote the same political agenda.
The sting operation that was carried out by Cobrapost on 27 media houses, was titled Operation 136 – Part 2 and released on May 25. As a part of the operation, undercover videos were shot by journalist Pushp Sharma who went and met owners and managers of media houses under a pseudonym with the offer of promoting Hindutva advertorials for huge sums of money.
Apart from Bengali daily Bartaman Patrika’s general manager (advertisement) Ashish Mukherjee and an executive of another Bengali paper Dainik Sambad, the sting operations reveal that almost all publications, including a few leading ones, were willing to go ahead with Hindutva advertorials.
Cobrapost had earlier released the videos of the first part of Operation 136 earlier this year in March. In the video, many senior-level employees of media houses such as India TV, Dainik Jagran, DNA, ScoopWhoop, etc were seen willing to plant stories in favour of the current Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
The journalist Pushp Sharma had earlier made headlines when he wrote a story for The Milli Gazette in March 2016, which claimed that the current government’s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) did not recruit Muslims as per government policy. In the story, he had claimed that he came to the conclusion based on an RTI response.
However, AYUSH Ministry categorically denied these claims and the journalist was eventually arrested as well by the Delhi Police for allegedly fabricating the RTI response.
The journalist Pushp Sharma, under the pseudonym Acharya Atal, went undercover posing as a representative of a Hindutva organisation with a particular agenda of creating a Hindu nationalistic discourse in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Some of the big media houses whose owners or managers seemed to be willing to run Hindutva advertorials were the Times Group, Hindustan Times, Zee News, ABP, Dainik Jagran, Lokmat and the The New Indian Express.
Vineet Jain, who is the managing director of the Times Group, during the course of the conversation with journalist Pushp Sharma is heard saying, “As a corporate, we have to look neutral. As neutral as possible.”
The media honcho seemed to have no problem with peddling what was described as ‘soft Hindutva’ – preachings of Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita in the Times as advertorials for huge sums of money, even after he is told that it is for purely political purposes.
Similarly, Kalli Purrie, who is the vice-chairman of The India Today group, talks about how she has absolutely no problem in running preachings of Lord Krishna and the sayings of the Bhagavad Gita for peddling a Hindutva agenda.
However, Kalli Purie does point out that there would be absolutely no editorial interference and that they would criticise the organisation editorially if they were doing any in-field activities which they did not agree with.
Pushp Sharma also warns that during the course of the election campaigning they may take part in some polarising activities and do some ‘nasty kind of things’. Purie asks them to not do it but this doesn’t end up in her refusing to do business with Pushp Sharma.
Responding to Cobrapost, India Today has claimed that there was no relationship between the ‘business side’ of the organisation and its editorial coverage in any way.
HT Media Limited associate vice-president Avneesh Bansal even gave suggestions to Push Sharma on how he should go about doing his job for maximum impact. He urged him to tie up with media houses and give crores of rupees, which would automatically put the editorial team under pressure. On top of that, he also recommended him to hire a PR agency to control reporters who work for ‘monetary desire’.
However, Dainik Bhaskar successfully managed to get an ex-parte order from the Delhi High Court which prevented Cobrapost from making public the communication it had with the media house.
Media funding has always been a cause of concern and controversy in India. It is said that since a majority of the funding that most media houses receive is in the form of advertisements – government or private enterprise – their hands remain tied. This makes them editorially vulnerable and also prevents them from doing very powerful stories against the organisations which may be funding them.
However, these particular sting operations aren’t just about editorial independence. They are also about how these advertisements were about a particular political agenda and the reporter blatantly mentioned that the organisation would communally vitiate the environment in India before the elections if required. While it may not be against the legal framework to create and showcase such advertorials, it puts the independence of the media in jeopardy since it promotes a particular political narrative.
Whatever may be the past credentials of the reporter Pushp Sharma, no media house has come out saying that the videos are fake. Even India Today’s response does not claim that it is not the voice of Kalli Purie.
The fact that 25 media houses in the world’s largest democracy were willing to go ahead with such controversial advertorials promoting a political agenda should ring alarm bells amongst the citizenry.