Caught on Camera: India’s Broken Media

What a sting operation reveals about press freedom in the world’s largest democracy.

Supporters read a special edition of a local newspaper in Chennai, India, on Dec. 6, 2016. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters read a special edition of a local newspaper in Chennai, India, on Dec. 6, 2016. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Media companies here sometimes use hidden cameras to expose dirty deals at the highest levels of power. Last week, it emerged, the lens had also been focused within, revealing ugly warts across the entire body of the Indian news industry. In a series of video recordings released by Cobrapost, an Indian nonprofit news website, top executives of leading Indian media companies are allegedly seen negotiating contracts worth millions of dollars in exchange for spreading Hindu nationalist propaganda — ostensibly to benefit the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the lead-up to national elections next year.

Cobrapost had deployed a reporter posing as a representative of a bogus Hindu nationalist group. Among the media giants that supposedly fell for the sting operation was Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. (BCCL), the media conglomerate that owns the Times of India and several other publications and TV stations. The Times of India is the country’s biggest English daily by circulation. Other influential media targets included the India Today Group, which publishes a top weekly magazine and also owns a popular set of TV news channels; and HT Media, which publishes the Hindustan Times, a major English daily. In all, 26 media groups were exposed through scores of videos. (Cobrapost released a first batch of video recordings, involving 17 media organizations, in March.)

The video recordings each show senior corporate leaders from media groups interacting with a reporter who is not visible in the frame. The reporter — in disguise, we assume — is heard proposing a three-pronged media strategy that aims to exploit religious fault lines by propagating Hindutva, the right-wing Hindu belief system that guides the politics of the BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. About 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu, and nearly 172 million Muslims living here constitute its largest minority. The national election, which is slated for next year, will decide if Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lead India for another five years.

For the proposed first phase of the propaganda, the news companies would use their media and sponsored events to spread teachings from the Hindu religious text the Bhagavad-Gita. The second phase, according to the videos, would involve endorsing staunch Hindu leaders while lampooning Modi’s political rivals such as Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, India’s oldest political party; Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, who is hailed as a champion of the Dalits, the lowest rung in the Hindu caste hierarchy and often the subject of fierce discrimination; and Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party, an important group in the opposition with a predominant voter base in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state with about 200 million residents. The reporter from Cobrapost is heard repeating in various videos that the third and final leg of the media strategy would hinge on aggressive Hindutva campaigns to incite and polarize the electorate. Incredibly, the representatives from the media companies are seen continuing these conversations and discussing how much money they could get in return.

But, unsurprisingly, the exposé has failed to garner mass public attention in India, with the media reluctant to publicize its own failings. While some companies have dismissed the videos as doctored or fabricated, a few have sought legal recourse to have the videos and related stories taken down. The India Today Group said in a legal notice to Cobrapost: “The videos appear to be manipulated and edited in a manner so as to create a false impression in the eyes of the viewer.” BCCL went a step further in claiming that Cobrapost was actually the victim of what it called a “reverse sting” — and that it knew the reporter was a “fraudster” all along. HT Media’s CEO told an Indian newspaper his comments in the Cobrapost video were “conveniently edited.” Questions are also being raised about the past of the reporter who went undercover.

Swapan Dasgupta, a conservative member of parliament, dismissed the Cobrapost sting as a “honey trap” but remarked that it was not a surprise that some media outlets take sides or agree to run coverage favorable to a particular political party.

“There are people who are pro-Modi and people who are anti-Modi,” he said. “There would have been a problem if only one point of view was allowed in the press.”

Dasgupta is also a journalist and a member of the Press Council of India, a media regulatory body.

Despite sting journalism’s controversial reputation, the exposé, if accurate, reveals the ease with which the Indian press seems willing to peddle a political agenda. And, if true, the videos are all the more troubling given that India’s history has repeatedly shown mixing religion and politics can lead to violent sectarian clashes.

Aniruddha Bahal, the editor of Cobrapost, said he wanted to “expose the endemic nature of paid news in India.” Bahal founded the website in 2003 and it is known mostly for sporadic sting operations; previous targets have included corrupt politicians and banks accused of money laundering. He added, “When publications agree to polarize society and defame your political opponents, then it gets to criminal territory.”

Bahal’s Cobrapost codenamed the sting “Operation 136” — a reference to India’s dismal ranking in the World Press Freedom Index in 2017. Out of 180 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders, India was ranked 136th. Its position has since fallen two spots to 138th in the 2018 rankings, well below countries such as Afghanistan, which is ranked 118th. The rankings are based on parameters including pluralism, media independence, self-censorship, transparency, and abuses.

Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan, an Indian magazine featuring long-form narratives on politics and culture, said, “The current condition of the Indian media is such that, even without the lure of money, journalists across the board are willing to kowtow to the government.” Bal said he had formed this opinion based on his regular interactions with journalists from various media organizations.

“It is not as if the Congress Party was not using the media to its advantage. But resistance to this government is more difficult,” said Bal. “We have an autocrat in power. [Modi] is opposed to any media criticism. There is a clear message to the press to leave Modi, Jaitley, and Amit Shah alone.”. Arun Jaitley is India’s finance minister; Shah is the BJP’s president.

Raju Narisetti, who founded Mint, India’s second-largest business newspaper by circulation, said there is anecdotal evidence that the current Indian government is one of the “most covertly vindictive and coercive administrations in India’s 71-year history when it comes to press freedom.” Journalists risk their careers if they report news critical of the government or expose wrongdoing of big business groups that enjoy government support.

“While there is still the veneer of an open debate in the [Indian] media, there is massive self-censorship, or a very narrow range of topics and stories that can actually run in terms of true enterprise journalism or pointing out issues,” said Narisetti, who has also previously been a managing editor of the Washington Post and deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Although no money changed hands in the Cobrapost sting, according to Bahal, the videos seem to show how easy it would be to try to buy influence at India’s top media companies. With less than a year to go before national elections in 2019, the stakes could not be higher. This sting is yet another example of how media could be misused to influence democratic elections, a much-debated issue especially after the alleged data breach in the U.S. elections in 2016 — after which Russian meddling is being investigated — where leaked emails were disseminated in the media.

“The question for India is whether winning the next election would make the ruling party even more brazen in its continued suppression of independent journalism and whether Modi sees good role models in Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban for his second term,” Narisetti said.

“There is clearly a growing movement — often sparked by governments themselves — to sow seeds of doubt about what one reads and sees and hears in mainstream media about politics, political parties, and elections.”

Pamposh Raina is a New-Delhi based journalist. She can be reached on Twitter @PamposhR.