Cobrapost has released a series of sting operations and claimed that senior employees of 17 media outlets in the country had agreed to push polarising stories for money when they were approached by an undercover journalist. The video of the sting operations purportedly showed that representatives of many of these media companies were willing to accept cash, and not raise a bill for that amount. Some of the major media outlets named in the sting operation include DNA, Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, India TV and ScoopWhoop.
The investigation was called Operation 136 by Cobrapost, in reference to India being ranked 136th on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, 2017. Journalist Pushp Sharma posed as Acharya Atal, who introduced himself in some of the meetings as belonging to an Ashram in Ujjain and in others as representing some Shrimad Bhagvad Gita Prachar Samiti.
In the videos of the sting operation, employees of the 17 media companies seem to agree to push Acharya Atal’s “soft Hindutva” agenda, and closer to the upcoming general elections, many of them are seen willing to run content that would have shown Opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, and BJP’s Arun Jaitley, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi in a negative light.
Most of the media representatives the undercover journalist met were either owners of regional news outlets, or worked as senior executives on the business-side of the media companies.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Sanjay Gupta, Chief Editor of Dainik Jagran and CEO of Jagran Prakashan Limited, denied the allegations and said Sanjay Pratap Singh, Area Manager of Dainik Jagran for Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, had no authority to make the claims he is seen making in the video. “Firstly, I don’t believe in the credibility of the video,” said Gupta. He added that Singh was “way beyond his boundaries” and had no authority to “commit such thing”. After verifying authenticity of the video, if the allegations are proven to be true, “action will be taken against” Singh, he said.
In a statement to The Indian Express, Sudipto Chowdhery, President, Sales, of India TV called the video “doctored” and “edited” and said “none” of the “proposals discussed or put forward” by the undercover reporter were accepted, and “were in fact entirely turned down by the editorial and legal teams of India TV”. Nothing shared by the reporter, the statement said, was aired on India TV. Claiming to take “strictest legal actions”, it said “the allegations made in the offending footage are emphatically denied”. Further, it stated that Cobrapost had “concealed important aspects of the discussion only to sensationalize the story and for their self-serving interests”.
The other media organisations named in the sting operation include Sadhana Prime, Punjab Kesari, UNI News, 9X Tashan, Samachar Plus, Aj Hindi Daily, Swatantra Bharat, India Watch, HNN 24X7, Rediff.com, SAB TV, Hindi Khabar. The Indian Express tried to reach out to most of them through text messages or calls to mobile phones of senior executives, or through emails.
Incidentally, Sharma had been arrested by Delhi Police in May 2016 on charges of forging documents. He had claimed in a story in 2016 that documents accessed by him under the RTI Act showed that Ministry of AYUSH was systematically not employing Muslims. The government claimed that the documents on which the story was based were forged. He was later released on bail.
Aniruddha Bahal, the Editor-in-Chief of Cobrapost, said this was the first part of a two-part series. The second part of the investigation will be released soon, he said.