At a media briefing on Monday, investigative news portal Cobrapost screened a two-hour-long purported sting operation dubbed ‘Operation 136’, conducted on major media outlets, claiming to expose how media owners, publishers and managers agreed to peddle content and political propaganda in return for money. These outlets allegedly agreed, in exchange for money, to run political campaigns, mythology and spirituality cloaked in political terms and a “soft Hindutva” agenda for electoral gains by way of content. Cobrapost indicated that this was just part one of the sting and that part II would follow.
Cobrapost also posted several clips from the purported sting operation on its YouTube channel. One can be viewed below:
Masquerading as a representative of Bhagwad Gita Prachar Samiti, Cobrapost said undercover reporter Pushp Sharma met managers and owners of around 20 media houses. He recorded the conversation and the video with the help of spy cameras and the edited version was screened for the media on Monday.
Describing the deal as ‘commercial’, a media executive is purportedly seen declaring to undercover reporter Sharma that he had no problem diluting or blanking out news ‘against Hindutva’, belittling political parties such as Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal, or defaming political leaders like Congress President Rahul Gandhi as long as they were paid fully in advance.
Most media representatives told undercover reporter Sharma that they had no problem accepting 50% of the payment in cash. The money had to be paid in advance though, and the receipts could indicate that the rest of the money were in the form of donations. One of the media managers is heard telling the undercover reporter, “There are smart ways of doing it and there are foolish ways of doing it.” He offered to do it the smart way.
Among the media outlets which figure in the purported sting are India TV, Dainik Jagran, Hindi Khabar, SAB TV, DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Amar Ujala, UNI, 9X Tashan, Samachar Plus, HNN 24*7, Punjab Kesari, Swatantra Bharat, ScoopWhoop, Rediff.com, IndiaWatch and Sadhna Prime News.
Significantly, halfway through the screening, several media personnel and camera crew switched off their cameras and some also left the venue. Indications are that the screening will be blacked out by major media outlets.
In the World Press Freedom Index for 2017, India slipped three positions to 136. To highlight slipping press freedom, Cobrapost dubbed its purported undercover sting on Indian media outlets ‘Operation 136’.
Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal, who is known for the Tehelka sting Operation West End, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan, and senior journalists Siddharth Varadarajan and Paranjoy Guja Thakurta were present at the screening.
A Shopping List of Content for Cash
In a statement, Cobrapost listed a summary of what the media outlets were purportedly prepared to do for payments ranging from ₹6 to ₹50 crore:
- They agreed to promote Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism and religious discourse.
- They agreed to publish content with potential to polarise 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.
- Some of the owners or important functionaries, who the reporter interacted with, admitted that they were either associated with the RSS or they were pro-Hindutva and would thus be happy to work on the campaign, forgetting the cardinal principle of journalism: neutrality. A typical example of conflict of interest.
- Some of them agreed to plant stories in favour of the party in power in their publications.
- 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 them even agreed to run down Union ministers Arun Jaitley, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha and Maneka Gandhi, and the latter’s son Varun Gandhi.
- Some of them also agreed to run stories against leaders of NDA parties, like Anupriya Patel, Om Prakash Rajbhar and Upendra Kushwaha.
- Some of them also agreed to defame the most noted and celebrated among the legal tribe and civil society activists like Prashant Bhushan, Dushyant Dave, Kamini Jaiswal and Indira Jai Singh.
- Some of them even agreed to paint agitating farmers as Maoists in their stories
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