On March 1, the day after the Maharashtra government legalized slums that came up in Mumbai between 1995 and 2000, several local dailies carried large, adulatory pieces on veteran Congress leader Gurudas Kamat, crediting him with the “achievement”.
The articles highlighted Kamat’s proximity to the Gandhi family, and lauded his secular credentials and dedication to his Mumbai North-West Lok Sabha constituency, and to the Congress party.
The articles looked and read like political ads, but they weren’t marked as ads in any of the publications. Sources in two of the publications, including an editor and an executive, said that these “news items” had been paid for.
Kamat, who is also a Congress national general secretary, rubbished the “allegations”. “I know the rules,” he told The Indian Express when asked if he had paid for the coverage.
“I did not pay any money to any publication,” Kamat said, adding, “Some of my friends and well wishers compiled a report of my work which was circulated as a press release to newspapers. Some chose to publish it, some didn’t.”
The headlines, narratives, pictures and display of the reports in the newspapers were however, much more than a routine reproduction of a press release.
“Gurudas Kamat ki rang laayi mehnat, gareebon ka hua aashiyana”, said the headline in the Hindi daily Hamara Mahanagar, which devoted half of its page 3 to the report. The piece in Navabharat was accompanied by several boxes lauding Kamat’s work in his constituency and party.
One box said: “Many a time Congress president Sonia Gandhi doesn’t even consult chief ministers on big decisions, but she always confers with Gurudas Kamat… Kamat is part of Similar “reports” appeared in at least half a dozen other local newspapers, mostly Urdu. The Urdu Times carried the “news item” on page 12. The placement and pictures were similar to those in Hamara Mahanagar. Both the newspapers carried pictures of Sonia, Rahul, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Kamat.
The “package” also appeared on the same day in several other publications like Inquilab and Avadhnama.
Hamara Mahanagar editor Raghvendra Nath Dwivedi denied any money had changed hands. He said: “It was an important development. Obviously, we will give it prominent display.” Besides the celebratory coverage spread across the bottom half of page 3, the daily did carry an objective news report on page 1.
Reached for a comment, the editor of Inquilab, an Urdu daily run by Mid-Day Infomedia Ltd, part of the Dainik Jagran Group, hung up the phone saying he would call back. He did not. He also took no more calls from The Indian Express.
Khalil Zahid, editor of Avadhnama, said: “I had met him (Kamat) after the announcement (of legalization of slums). After that I sent a reporter for the interview. We weren’t paid for the items we carried.” Avadhnama gave prominent display to the “interview-cum-news story” on its page 3.
An editor who did not want to be identified, however, confirmed that the “package” had been paid for. “What you have heard is true. Several dailies got this advertisement. The directive was to carry it in the form of a news story,” he said.
The Aam Aadmi Party has filed a complaint with both the Press Council of India (PCI) and the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee of the State Election Commission about the alleged paid news.
The complaint names Hindi dailies Navbharat and Hamara Mahanagar, and four Urdu dailies — Inquilab, Urdu Times, Sahafat and Avadhnama.
“We noticed that similar half-page news articles have been published in several Urdu, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati newspapers. There were also a few television segments on a similarly positive note on Kamat but we had no real proof to report such cases,” AAP national executive member Mayank Gandhi said. Gandhi is the AAP candidate at Kamat’s seat.
Jatin Desai, who is part of the seven-member monitoring committee of the state election commission, said the panel would look into AAP’s complaint. “In case we find that this is paid news, we will write to the returning officer, who will in turn ask the candidate for his defence. If the candidate pleads guilty, which happens in 80 per cent of cases, the expense will be included in his election expenditure of Rs 40 lakh,” Desai said.
PCI chairman Justice Markandey Katju denied any knowledge of the development, but said action will be taken if anybody is found guilty.