WEEKS after its first set of sting videos on 17 media groups, web portal Cobrapost on Friday released 49 videos of senior officials of 27 media organisations purportedly talking to an undercover reporter regarding a proposal to promote “Hindutva” politics and content criticising leaders of political parties including the Congress, BSP, SP and the JD(S) in return for money.
The videos purportedly feature executives of Network18, Star India, Zee News, Times Group, India Today Group, Dainik Jagran, Hindustan Times and Paytm, among others.
In some cases, owners or editors of the media groups also feature in the videos. These include Kalli Purie, vice-chairperson of the India Today Group; Vineet Jain, managing director of Times Group; Ajay Shekhar Sharma, vice-president of Paytm and brother of the company’s founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma; Brijesh Mishra, CEO and editor-in-chief of Bharat Samachar.
On Thursday, the Delhi High Court had restrained Cobrapost from releasing a documentary on “media malpractices”. The Dainik Bhaskar Corporation Limited had sought the injunction from the court, which ordered that “till further orders unless varied by the court”, Cobrapost’s parent organisation is “restrained from in any manner releasing in public domain the documentary ‘Operation 136: Part II’ in any manner”.
Following the injunction, Cobrapost cancelled its press conference and released the videos online.
The title, Operation 136, refers to India’s ranking on the press freedom index in 2017.
The undercover reporter, Pushp Sharma, in a report in 2016, had claimed that documents accessed by him under the RTI Act showed that the Ministry of AYUSH was not employing Muslims. The government had claimed that the documents Sharma claimed to have accessed were forged. He was arrested and later released on bail.
Sharma approached media groups with hypothetical offers ranging from Rs 1.5 crore — for local news channels — to Rs 500 crore for national networks including Star India and the Times Group. None of the videos shows that any money was exchanged or a contract was signed or if any of the news groups ran content in lieu of money.
Posing as an “acharya” and representing a fictitious Shrimad Bhagvad Gita Prachar Samiti, Sharma asked these media groups to promote Krishna’s quotes from Gita and promote “Hindutva” on their platforms in the first phase of his campaign. In the second phase, he asked these media houses to run content, including jingles to “thrash” his “political rivals” by using terms like “pappu”, “bua”, “babua” etc and promote “firebrand Hindu leaders”.
As the General Election approaches, Sharma told the media houses, the third phase would include aggressive campaigning. He also said that his organisation would use this content to “polarise” and “communalise” the atmosphere on the ground.
‘Acharya’ gets access to Kalli Purie
Kalli Purie is heard saying: “…for any kind of advertising the content is not decided by us in any way. Anyone is allowed to put whatever content they want on the platform as long as [it] is within the guidelines…” She purportedly says twice during the conversation that there will be no “interference” in India Today Group’s editorial line. She, however, agrees to create the content internally at the India Today Group.
The undercover reporter tells Purie his organisation will use the campaign to “polarise” the atmosphere through “in-field activities” and that they will not be answerable to the India Today Group for that, to which Purie purportedly says, “Agree. But at the same time, if you are doing some in-field activities that we don’t agree with editorially we will be criticising you”.
The Sunday Express sent an email to 25 of the media groups named in the sting, asking them about the authenticity of the video and whether there was a follow-up to the chat. No comment was received from India Today, which issued a statement referring to Cobrapost saying: “Your reporter was told in no uncertain terms that the Group will not do anything unethical, and that any advertising creative that divides the country on religious or caste lines will not be acceptable, and will not be aired on our channels. However, in your video posted online, this has not been adequately reflected and has distorted the truth.”
It said the video is “out of context and has been manipulated with clear intention to sully, tarnish, disparage, discredit and to running down an otherwise impeccable standing and reputation of the India Today Group”.
‘We have to look neutral’
In his interaction with Times Group MD Vineet Jain, Sharma is purportedly discussing possible ways he can give money to them. Sharma tells Jain that he wants to pay about Rs 50 crore cash, to which Jain and an associate purportedly try to convince Sharma to pay by cheque.
According to the video, Jain explains they are ready to work with him but they need to appear neutral. “As a corporate we have to look neutral, as neutral as possible. Matlab dekhne mein toh neutral hone chahiye poora, jitni koshish karke… Matlab we can’t be seen ki…,” Jain purportedly says.
Jain and his associate, Sanjeev Shah, head of Merger and Acquisitions at the Times Group, are also seen discussing the possibility of payment through big corporate groups to avoid cash exchange.
Jain says, “Gujarat mein jo businessman hain, kya naam hai unka, the biggest koi bada businessman (The businessman in Gujarat, what is his name, the biggest one)…”
Shah, who is not in the frame, is heard saying, “Essar is big, Ambani is big, Adani is there.” Jain says, “Essar also aap dekh sakte ho… Adani bhi hai (You can consider Essar, Adani too”. Shah adds, “hum ko kisi bhi corporate se lene mein problem nahi hai… Koi bhi aap pakad lijiye, aur jahan aapka comfort ho, woh zaroori hai (We have no problem taking from any corporate house… Pick any, whatever you are comfortable with).”
The Sunday Express sent two emails to Jain but got no response.
‘First two is possible’
Discussing the three phases that Sharma pitched to HT Media, its chief revenue officer Anil Dua is heard saying, “So third one honestly…come back. first two is possible. Dekhiye aap jo apni taraf se karna chahte hain uss mein humein karne mein koi problem nahin hain (Look, what you want to do, we don’t have a problem doing that).” Dua adds, referring to a possible meeting with HT Media’s chairperson Shobhana Bhartia: “Bhartia-ji se milwane-wali baat hai (On getting you to meet Bhartiaji)…that I want to go once we start doing business with each other so that we know each other better. Only then we kind of push up — that is my word to you. I will get you to meet her; that’s not a problem, right. But I can’t do that right away when nothing has started. That’s a promise, I can get you to meet my CEO, and then we can start.”
In an email to The Sunday Express, Dua said: “We have an editorial policy which unequivocally discourages any paid news, and which we are very proud of. We follow it very religiously… My personal comments clearly convey that if the content is legal and appropriate, and meets our editorial guidelines, we will carry it post-internal approvals. However, my entire comment has not been reproduced and has been conveniently edited.”
Paytm boasts of links to RSS, PMO
Ajay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm is seen telling the undercover reporter that he has done a lot of work for the RSS.
He is purportedly heard saying, “Hum kya bataein hum kya kya kaam kar rahein hote hain. Kuchh hum bhi nahin bata sakte aapko, matlab aise kaam humse karvaye Sangh ne main aapko bata nahin sakta, theek hai (how do I tell you what all we have to do…the Sangh has made us do such work that I cannot tell you…).” He is seen telling later that they have even been asked by the Prime Minister’s Office for help.
Regarding stone-pelters in Jammu and Kashmir, Paytm’s Sharma says, “toh humse personally PMO se phone aaya tha, kaha gaya thha ki data de do ho sakta hai ki Paytm ke user ho (I got a phone from PMO; I was asked to share data, as they may have been Paytm users).”
After the video was posted online, Paytm tweeted: “There is absolutely no truth in the sensational headlines of a video doing rounds on social media. Our users’ data is 100% secure and has never been shared with anyone except law enforcement agencies on request.”
The PMO did not respond to an email sent seeking comment.
Zee CEO, regional channels
The undercover reporter also met Zee’s CEO of regional channels, Purushottam Vaishnava, in Odisha. Vaishnava tells him that Zee has a proper system called Advertiser Funded Programme for sponsored content. Vaishnava’s colleagues are heard discussing the terms of payment of the promised Rs 25 crore.
In response to an email sent to him, Vaishnava, editor-in-chief and business head of Cluster 1 for Zee News, said it was Zee News which had stung Pushp Sharma, who was “distributing” money. He said Cobrapost had run an edited clip of the meeting.
‘Already promoting Hindutva’
Sharma also met several officials of news products owned by Jupiter Capital, BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s company. Ravi Hegde, editor-in-chief of Kannada Prabha, is seen telling Sharma that they are “already promoting” Hindutva on their news platforms, and are seen as pro-BJP.
Responding to an email, Hegde called the allegations baseless. He wrote, “We had instantly informed the police authorities of the ill intention of the person who approached us and brought it to the notice of the public by publishing a news in our newspaper.” He said the video put out is “maliciously altered by Cobrapost to show the contrary by picking lines from different parts of the conversation and making the viewer believe their lies. We condemn this attempt to tarnish our group’s brand image.”
Hegde also shared the news they published and the police complaint filed by Suvarna News, the television news channel run by Jupiter Capital.
Responding to The Sunday Express, a Lokmat spokesperson said: “Ethics and integrity have been the hallmark of Lokmat’s 100-year-long history. The views expressed in the video are personal and the publication neither support or subscribe to it. We have (a) robust editorial policy with multi-level checks and balances to ensure unbiased reporting for our readers. The person in question is no more a Lokmat employee and is not associated with the publication in any capacity now.”
The videos feature officials of Zee News, Star India, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, India Today Group, Network18, ABP Group, Paytm, Radio One, Suvarna News, Indigo 91.9FM, Dainik Jagran, Bharat Samachar, Swaraj Express News, Sun Group, Lokmat, ABN Andhrajyothi, TV5 News, Dinamalar, Big FM, K News, India Voice, The New Indian Express, MVTV News, Open Media Network, Bartaman and Dainik Samvad.
Bought sting: Cobrapost
Asked who had funded the sting, Cobrapost’s Aniruddha Bahal told The Sunday Express that the investigation was conducted by Sharma on his own and that Cobrapost “bought” it from him. When told that the videos featured just chat, he said: “The reporter had gone with a specific intent and they took him very seriously… none of (the media executives) would have given us any time if they didn’t think that we have money”.
Asked whether any money exchanged hands, Bahal said, “How could we give money? We don’t have any money.” He said it was all about showing “intent”.