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More Allegations and Counter-Allegations

In a letter to the Press Council of India dated January 23, 2010, Shri Vijay Darda of the Lokmat group of newspapers wrote: “at the outset, it would not be out of place to mention that the Press Council has ‘woken up’ to this issue pretty late in the day. Media organisations have been officially selling their news space for quite a long time and the Press Council of India has been a mute spectator. As the number one Marathi newspaper group in the country, we have a firm commitment to maintaining credibility and the faith of our readers. We adhere to the highest standards of professional excellence of our volition, it is our chosen path and shall remain so.”

Yet another Hindi language newspaper, Hindustan, published by HT Media, had prominently carried advertisements of a politician, without identifying him as such, in its Varanasi edition – the text size and the font were designed to give it the look of a news item. On April 30, 2009, the day when elections took place, the Varanasi edition of Hindustan carried an item that deceptively looked like a news story on top of its front page with a headline that suggested that there was a “wave in favour of the Congress”. The following day, the newspaper later apologised to its readers for the mistake and said that it made a distinction between news and advertisements. The representatives of Hindustan told the Press Council of India that when they realised their mistake they were quick to point this out to readers.

The representatives of HT Media provided the Council a letter that had been published in Outlook weekly (January 18, 2010) wherein Shri Rajiv Verma, Chief Executive Officer, HT Media Limited wrote: “We do not pass off sponsored news in the garb of editorial content. To the specific instance related to the Varanasi edition of Hindustan…, the articles were published under the advertiser sponsored content tag. Owing to a mistake by an overzealous advertising manager, the style and look turned out to be similar to the main paper. To remove any confusion among our readers, a clarification was issued the very next day on the front page of Hindustan’s Varanasi edition. The erring manager was also suitably reprimanded. We have had no instance of any editorial transgression other than the unfortunate incident stated above….For all our publications, we have clear guidelines for ‘sponsored’ features that get carried with a clear notation or marking and in a look and style that is visibly different from our editorial content.”

HT Media also denied that the former editor of Hindustan Smt Mrinal Pande had resigned owing to the incident in the paper’s Varanasi edition, among other things. “Nothing could be farther from the truth as the said incident took place in April 2009, while the editor resigned five months later in September 2009 due to entirely different reasons…”

Speaking to the Press Council of India, a representative of Punjab Kesri too denied of ever having sold editorial space for money. When the Council specifically asked him what he had to say about a senior manager’s comment to Outlook that the same newspaper had earned anywhere between Rs 10 crore and Rs 12 crore for carrying “paid news” items during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the representative said that it was not his prerogative to comment on the internal matter of another family-held publication. (Punjab Kesri’s editions are published from Delhi and Jalandhar but under different managements.)

That the malaise had spread through the country, infiltrating big and small newspapers alike is evident from what Haryana Chief Minister Shri Bhupinder Hooda’s admission that he was so disturbed by a series of negative reports in a leading multi-edition Hindi daily in his state that he offered to pay in order to ensure that the reports were factually correct! In fact, Shri Hooda was also questioned by the press for the expenditure incurred on advertisements that praised his government in the run-up to the assembly elections of Haryana in 2009.

Newspapers continue to deny that editorial space was put up for sale during elections. But reports coming from Gujarat, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh showed how editorials of various newspapers were pressurised by their respective managements to stop asking questions. Shri Hooda went as far to state that news reporters were not at fault for the malaise of paid news. “The journalists are not at fault here because fact-finding journalism has now become a commercialised activity with the present owners having turned newspapers into a business proposition,” said Shri Hooda to Outlook.

Several politicians have blamed the media, on record, of trying to extort money from them by either subscribing to their rate cards devised especially for the elections or by paying a certain sum in lieu of substantial positive coverage.

In a letter to the Press Council of India, Shri K. Ramasubramanian, state secretary of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Tamil Nadu said how he was assured of positive publicity by the media during the election campaign provided he shelled out money in the range of Rs 4-5 lakh for a period of 15-20 days under a special scheme designed by the newspaper management. “Further I was also enlightened by a publication’s management that if I released advertisements soliciting votes in newspapers I was accountable to the Election Commission which was monitoring the election expenses of candidates contesting in elections. Whereas, when the message appeared as an editorial piece, it would help the candidate conceal the expenses incurred”, said Shri Ramasubramanian.

Congress Member of Parliament from the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency in Delhi, Shri Sandeep Dikshit narrated as to how he was asked by newspapers and television channels to pay up if he wanted his favourable editorial coverage. “I refused to pay up when reporters (under pressures from their management) came up to me asking whether I wanted to get into an arrangement with their newspapers if I wanted news in my favour,” he said.

Shri Atul Anjaan of the Communist Party of India named television channels Aaj Tak and newspapers Dainik Jagran and Punjab Kesari for demanding money to publish positive news about him. When he refused to pay, the newspapers responded by blacking out any news about him altogether from its pages. His election campaign went unreported.

Shri Parcha Kodanda Rama Rao of the Loksatta Party, in a letter to the Chairman of the Press Council of India dated February 10, 2010 and his subsequent deposition before Press Council of India members on February 10, 2010, stated: “I made (a) representation to the Returning Officer of my constituency to include the expenditure on paid news in respective candidates expenditure account, all in vain. I enclosed copies of all the paid news items of three candidates namely, K. Daya Sagar Rao of Congress, M. Ravindra Reddy of PRP (Praja Rajyam Party) and Vinay Bhaskar of TRS (Telegana Rashtra Samithi) from March 16, 2009 to March 28, 2009 and also calculated the amount of total paid news for the said period based on the prevailing market rates as approved by the state government department of public relations and information. Further as the Telugu newspapers were completely ignoring my campaign and my expenditure, in their coverage, I called up the Eenadu advertorial executive on April 10, 2009 to cover my campaign. For the remaining days he demanded Rs 1 lakh but I agreed to pay Rs 50,000 and paid it there and then in cash. He neither gave me any receipt nor acknowledgement for the said amount. The result of my payment was evident in the news coverage given to me on April 13, 14 and 15, 2009 as compared to inconsequential coverage given to me from March 28, 2009 to April 12, 2009.

“What is happening between the candidates and the newspaper managements is known only to both of them and it is a perfect cash transfer scheme from one to the other. It cannot be proved unless a secret detective operation is carried out with video cameras. However, I have established circumstantial evidence for the whole shady transaction in an election petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh.”

Shri K. P. Reddaiah Yadav, former Member of Parliament and Vice President, Praja Rajyam Party, Andhra Pradesh, wrote to the Press Council of India on August 21, 2009, alleging that Sri Ramoji Rao, who heads the Eenadu group of publications, had “hatched a plan with other newspaper managements” to charge money from candidates for “election packages” for each Parliamentary and assembly constituency. The “package” envisaged that each candidate should pay Rs 10 lakh to each newspaper for 15 days for favourable coverage about himself or herself. Shri Yadav alleged that a number of publications such as Eenadu, Andhra Jyothi, Sakshi, Vartha and Andhra Bhoomi and television news channels like TV9, ETV-2, TV-5, HMTV News had received money for publishing or broadcasting “paid news”.

Among other publications, Eenadu, quite predictably, denied accepting any money. Shri Ramoji Rao, who heads the Eenadu group of publications stated that the problem of “paid news” was part of a larger malaise afflicting the media in the country. He, however, claimed that Eenadu maintains a strict distinction between advertisements and news. In a letter to the Press Council of India dated February 1, 2010, Shri Ramoji Rao wrote that the “the politician of the old days enjoyed popularity and people’s love,” adding: “His involvement in the freedom movement, his activism in various social reform movements and his service to the public earned him great respect in the society. But the latter day politician, the one from the ranks of moneyed and muscled sections needed positive coverage to earn name and fame. With the money power at his command the new entrant manipulated the local media person to gain popularity and public acceptance.

“Gradually, favourable coverage in the press and the capacity to spend big money in poll campaign became the sole eligibility on the basis of which political parties chose their candidates. Money thus acted as a ladder to gain political power. Quite naturally, those who spent money also began expecting returns. Thus was formed the vicious cycle of corruption. Elected candidates justified their corruption by citing the amount they spent for getting elected. The so-called paid favourable coverage by the press is one of the off-shoots of this tendency,” Shri Rao stated.

On the other hand, campaign managers of the Congress openly admitted that television channels were open to accepting money from any political party if it wanted to improve its fortunes in the opinion polls and surveys telecast over their channels. Still others, like Shri Sudhakar Reddy of the Communist Party of India from Andhra Pradesh said that his party was assured of news space only after it had committed itself to some advertisements. “We were told that if we placed advertisements, news could be published,” said Shri Reddy.

Member of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council, Dr K. Nageshwar, told the Press Council of India in Hyderabad on February 10, 2010, that as attempts were made by the Election Commission of India to control money power in politics and as this effort intensified, so did the phenomenon of “paid news” which became a “new and creative channel” for illegally funding election campaigns. “After the candidate of a political party pays money to a particular newspaper, he starts treating journalists working for the newspaper as his servant or slave,” he said, adding that the phenomenon of “paid publicity” had degenerated further to become “paid mud-slinging”.

He provided an example based on his personal experience: “On February 6, 2009, the day elections to the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council took place, Sakshi quoted the Mehboobnagar district president of the BJP virtually describing me as a traitor. What was worse, the newspaper defamed me by claiming that I was visually challenged because I had ignored the advice given by scientists and stared at a solar eclipse. This was a complete cock-and-bull story. I wrote to the newspaper and also represented to the Election Commission but nothing happened thereafter.”

Independent analyses of newspapers like the Gujarat Samachar, done by a non-government organization, People’s Media Initiative, indicates that in one particular edition the newspaper carried reports of all three candidates winning from two assembly constituencies in Maharashtra, Magathane and Malad. This naturally raises the question as whether the reports were paid for to be published. Gujarat Samachar, however, vehemently denied the charges. “We will conduct an enquiry into this and check whether it is for a fact,” a representative of Gujarat Samachar told Outlook.

Shri Jatin Desai of People’s Media Initiative told the Press Council of India in Mumbai on January 28, 2010: “So arbitrary is the paid news phenomenon that sometimes two conflicting news items appear on the same page because the paper would have reached an understanding both with a politician as well as his rival. The paper ‘reported’ that candidates belonging to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Nationalist Congress Party were both going to win from the same assembly constituency of Magathane in Borivli. On October 13, 2009, the second page of the Gujarat Samachar carried an article without a byline that stated that Gujaratis of Magathane should vote for Shri Prakash Surve of the NCP. The same page carried another article stating that because of the support of Gujaratis, the MNC candidate Shri Pravin Darekar would win.

“The management of Gujarat Samachar (which claims a readership of 46.2 lakh) has predictably denied having sold its editorial space despite being confronted with two issues of its paper from Mumbai where conflicting reports on the fortunes of a single party were published. The Congress candidate in the Malad constituency of Mumbai was shown as trailing and winning on the same day! The same page of the newspaper on the same day published an article stating that the Gujaratis of Malad are supporting the candidature of Shri Aslam Sheikh of the Congress and also carried a photograph of Shri R.U. Singh, the BJP candidate from the same constituency, with a caption that stated that the Congress was losing ground.”

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 23, 2018Total views: 9