India has perhaps the fastest growing media industry in the world. With over 70,000 newspapers and over 500 satellite channels in various languages, easily accessible to most of the country’s population - the fourth pillar of democracy, needless to say, has been crucial in not just shaping opinions of its masses but also determining how those opinions impact the development and the future of the country. However, what has been unfortunate is that such great power hasn’t been exercised with great responsibility. Press freedom and unbiased journalism have always been on rocky roads here, but few futures have looked quite as treacherous as the present - as was brought to light by the recent Cobra Post Sting Operation that revealed how 24 mainstream media houses were willing to promote Hindutva ideologies and run Hindutva advertorials for a handsome price. In the age of out-and-out propaganda and illicit (mis)information, this comes as no shock. But a pleasant surprise that emerged out of this much-required sting were the ethics of two mainstream media houses who upheld the ideals of journalism by refusing to entertain Hindutva propaganda. These were the West Bengal-based popular Bengali daily Bartaman Patrika and a Bengali daily newspaper published from Agartala, Tripura - Dainik Sambad.
Cobrapost’s undercover reporter posing as a representative of an unknown Sangathan having close relations to RSS met big shots of almost two dozen media houses persuading them to run Hindutva propaganda in exchange of a lucrative price. While most readily agreed, some even suggested ‘creative’ ways to run this proposition. But when Cobrapost approached Bartaman Patrika’s Senior General Manager (advertisement) Ashish Mukherjee, he outrightly refused, stating, “Absolutely not...It is not permissible,” further elaborating the lessons he had learned from his former editor, Barun Sengupta who he referred to as the soul of the organisation. Reportedly, “Mr Sengupta had preferred to go to jail during the Emergency in the 1970s to resist Indira Gandhi’s diktats on media rather than adhere to them.” Citing him, the GM said, “Ashish Babu, you carry all advertisements except those wherein anyone claims to be a god, to be good, to be best.” Ashish did not even budge when the budget for the Hindutva advertisement was raised from 1.5 crores to 10 crores for the paper.
The undercover reporter encountered something similar when he persuaded the executive of another Bengali Paper, Dainik Sambad. As soon as the executive heard the proposition of running Hindutva jingles in light of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the executive simply mentioned how this was against their policy. He was found saying, “Yeh Humara policy hai ki hum koi Dharm ka ad nahi chapenge (It is our policy that we will not run any religious adds).”
The investigating team in the sting went on to appreciate these media houses stating how they send out a ray of hope that Indian media is not completely sold out. However, it should be noted that it may not be a complete coincidence that both these newspapers belong to states where Trinamool Congress and CPI(M) still dominate the political landscape of the states - though BJP has recently come to power in Tripura. Nevertheless, giving them the benefit of doubt, they do set an example for other mainstream media houses that have given in to crony journalism.
However, it not just the media organisations that are to blame here. Us, the citizens who buy, read and view these papers and channels regardless of their biased advertising and reportage encourage these kinds of malpractices that incite communal hatred and violence thus creating a greater divide in the country. This is not just evil but also illegal according to the Advertising laws in India.
At a time when almost the entire front page of newspapers get sold out for advertisements, where voices of dissent remain unheard and those who pay enough get a shortcut to fame, we need to be thinking of the kind of content we are consuming. Apart from the two Bengali newspapers, there are several independent portals and online mediums that are not just credible, but also objective in their voice and thought. The two are easier to differentiate than we think. An unrestricted and unbiased press is an aspect of democratic India that was long-applauded and respected. The flame is still alive somewhere.
Countless journals, magazines and quarterlies are birthed during periods of strife, as more and more people turn to media and arts to find an avenue of self-expression. A small space where their voice matters. Some use writing to fight censorship, others create a space for gender equality, and others take it upon themselves to rightly criticize government policies. Some examples of these are Scroll.in, The Wire, The Caravan, and The Quint, Firstpost that are constantly and fearlessly striving to deliver well researched, credible and verified content – leaving a positive and respectable mark in Indian Journalism.
You can watch the complete series of this sting operation here.
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