THAT much of Indian media has turned rotten is an open secret. Everyone who regularly watches television news or reads newspaper is sick and tired of all the hate, bigotry and intolerance openly peddled by the leading players in the name of journalism, investigative reporting and debate.
Not a day passes without leading English, Hindi and regional media raking up some issue or the other to foment sectarian hatred and strife. If it’s not the wicked Pakistanis and their mischievous support for Kashmiri militants who are out to undermine the unity of mother India, then it is Indian Muslims who find themselves in the dock for some imagined sin or the other.
Summoning some moth-eaten, perpetually ranting former military types and some out-of-their-depth ‘maulvis’ who can barely articulate, let alone hold forth in English, they hold a kangaroo court every night whose outcomes are all too well known.
In mature democracies, the media deals with minorities with utmost sensitivity. The fourth estate, like the judiciary, is supposed to stand with the underdog. Not in India. In the world’s largest democracy, minorities, especially Muslims, are the softest and most tempting target for the media.
From portraying the voiceless minority that has all but disappeared from all spheres of national activity as the dead weight to demonizing it as terrorists and criminals, the favorite pastime of much of the media is to prey on the Muslims.
On the other hand, it has not just criminally failed to confront Hindutva fascism in its many manifestations and its crimes against minorities, it has been openly pushing its dangerous agenda.
This one-sided approach of the media has hardly been a secret. But little has been done to confront it all these years, neither by the victims nor by toothless bodies like the Press Council of India.
Now an expose by Cobrapost, known for its undercover investigations, reveals that almost everyone in the media, from respectable names such as DNA of Zee and India TV to Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala to UNI and Rediff.com, is willing and ready to push a particular agenda and support or malign a particular party for a price.
In an undercover investigation, senior journalist Pushp Sharma, presenting himself as a representative of a Hindutva outfit, met owners and senior management of more than two dozen media entities, seeking to influence their editorial agenda. He found out that the media has a propensity to shed what should be its editorial objectivity and neutrality to “influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means.”
The proposition was simple: If we pay you, would you push Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism to polarize the electorate and allow the ruling party to harvest electoral dividends in upcoming elections?
“The lure of lucre proved too irresistible for almost all media houses, be it print, electronic or digital, to say no. To the utter shock of the investigative journalist, most of them not only agreed to do what he asked for but also suggested myriad ways of undertaking a well-orchestrated, overtly communal media campaign on behalf of their prospective big-ticket client,” notes Cobrapost.
In return, Sharma offered to pay them anything between Rs 6 crore ($922, 800) and Rs 50 crore ($7,690,000) if they agreed to provide a platform to his media campaign. He clearly outlined his agenda:
1. In the initial phase, they were to promote Hindutva through customized religious programs to create a congenial atmosphere.
2. Then, the campaign would be geared up to mobilize the electorate on communal lines by promoting speeches of Hindutva hardliners.
3. Ahead of elections, the campaign would target opposition politicians like Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, caricaturing them using less than dignified language, in order to show them in poor light before the electorate.
4. They were to run the campaign on all platforms — print, electronic and digital including news portals, websites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
Here is the upshot of what came out of all interactions that the Cobrapost had during the course of its investigation:
Those approached all agreed to promote Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism and religious discourse.
They agreed to publish content with potential to polarize the electorate along communal lines.
They agreed to malign or thrash political rivals of the ruling party by posting or publishing defamatory content about them.
Many of them were ready to accept cash for the job.
Some of the owners or important functionaries, who the reporter interacted with, confessed that they were either already associated with the RSS or they were pro-Hindutva and would thus be happy to support the campaign, forgetting the cardinal principle of journalism: neutrality.
Some of them agreed to plant stories in favor 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.
Some of them offered to do a complete media management to plant stories favoring the party in power in other publications.
In conclusion, Cobrapost notes: “Although one may argue that such violations are hypothetical, given Indian media’s penchant for twisting facts or serving pure rumors as news, especially during civil strife to foment communal sentiments, pleasing political masters of the day and tweaking news in favor of corporate interests, one can imagine how dangerous it is for Indian democracy.
“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!”
Having studied media and repeatedly written about its increasing and disturbing saffronization and total lack of objectivity and neutrality, one couldn’t agree more.
This would be perhaps tolerable if the issue had only been about a negative portrayal of minorities and pushing a certain political line. What many leading voices of the media like Times Now, India Today TV and Republic TV, not to mention hundreds of regional language publications and television networks, have been doing is often purvey hatred, intolerance and even violence based on fake news, rumors and mere prejudice. In their open support for the Right and the ruling dispensation, most of them do not observe even the basics of fair and balanced journalism.
Anchors like Arnab Goswami hold court every night dispensing summary, swift ‘justice’. It’s no coincidence that he and his kind are most unforgiving on opposition Congress and other secular parties being almost reverential to Prime Minister Modi and other BJP bigwigs.
But it all makes sense considering most of television channels and newspapers are owned by big corporates friendly with powers that be. As much as 80 percent of media is owned by business groups like Reliance.
This is a disturbing state of affairs, to say the least. And this is not a problem of minorities or secular parties. The threat is to the Indian democracy itself. For a free, independent and objective press is essential to a healthy democracy. One cannot exist without the other.
— Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and editor. Email: Aijaz.firstname.lastname@example.org