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Paid news: A cancer in Indian media

By Nava Thakuria

Indian people, election commission, parliamentarians, media watchdog

and even the media persons have finally woken up to the menace of

'paid news' culture in the mainstream media. The practice that

involves money in acquiring unethically media space by the

beneficiaries remained an important issue in India for many years. But

lately a number of influential media persons' organisations have shown

their concern with the ill practice of journalism in the country. Then

it was picked up by the Press Council of India, the Election

Commission of India and the upper house of Indian parliament.

The practice of offering envelopes to reporters remained visible

across Asian media and especially India and China for decades. But

lately the practice appears to be becoming institutionalized, not by

poverty-stricken reporters but by the publishers themselves.

It is alleged that many media houses in India irrespective of their

volume of business have started selling news space after some

understandings with the politicians and corporate people without

disguising those items as advertisements.
First it was a meet of South Asia Free Media Association (India

chapter) in Mumbai during the first week of December, where the issue

of paid news was officially discussed with serious concern.

Then came the annual general meeting of the Editors' Guild of India

during the fourth week of December, where most of the members

expressed concern at the growing tendency of a section of media groups

(both print and visual) to receive money for some 'non-advertorial'

items in their media space.
Condemning the unethical media practice, the guild even appealed all

its member-editors to stand against the paid news. The editors' forum

sent a letter to all of them asking for pledges that his/her

'publication/TV channel will not carry any paid news' as the practice

'violates and undermines the principles of free and fair journalism'.

The letter, signed by Rajdeep Sardesai and Coomi Kapoor, president and

secretary general of the Guild respectively, expressed hope that 'the

entire journalist fraternity would come together on this issue' and

defend their credibility with public declarations on the subject in

order to restore public trust.
Indian media has been recognised as sensitive, patriotic and very much

influential tool in the socio-political sphere since the days of

freedom movement. The father of Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi initiated

his movement with the moral power of active journalism. Today, India

with its billion population supports nearly 70,000 registered

newspapers and over 450 Television channels (including some 24x7 news

channels). The Indian media, as a whole, often plays the role of

constructive opposition in the Parliament as well as in various

Legislative Assemblies of the State. Journalists are, by and large,

honoured and accepted as the moral guide in the Indian society. While

the newspapers in Europe and America are losing their readership

annually, the Indian print media is still going stronger with huge

circulation figure and market avenues. For the democratic India, the

media continues to be acclaimed as the fourth important pillar after

judiciary, parliament and bureaucratic set-up.
But unfortunately a cancer in the form of paid news has been diagnosed

with the Indian media in the recent past. Millions of rupees have been

reportedly been paid to media houses.
Some veteran editor-journalists like Prabhash Joshi, the founding

editor of the Hindi daily Jansatta, who died in November, and BG

Verghese, previously the editor of both the Hindustan Times and Indian

Express, warned the Press Council of India that paid news has already

turned into a full-blown scandal.
It is worth mentioning that the Mumbai SAFMA meeting had serious

discussion and concern on the recent trend of commercialisation of

mainstream media, and degradation of media ethics and practices in the

country. All the speakers in the meeting of SAFMA (which is recognized

by the SAARC), were unanimous that media in the entire region must

come forward in a transparent way with maintaining public trust.

Addressing the audience, eminent journalist and the rural affairs

editor of The Hindu, P Sainath disclosed that that the corporatisation

of the media world had simply threatened the existence of free media.

"Newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout," P

Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, warned another media

group. It was Sainath who raised the issue of paid news through his

regular columns in The Hindu, urging the press council and election

commission to take appropriate action.
"The proprietors now grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of

their 'friendly politicians' in the newspapers," Sainath warned in his

speech. "Furthermore, to entertain their growing demands, many media

groups have even gone for arranging extra space (during election

periods). Let's finish the culture of paid news, otherwise it will

finish us in the coming days."
An official statement of the SAFMA meet, which was attended by many

distinguished editor-journalists of India including K K Katyal, Satich

Jacob, Kumar Ketkar (editor of Loksatta), Om Thanvi (editor of

Jansatta), Vinod Sharma (political editor of Hindustan Times) etc,

expressed serious concern at the growing trend of selling news space.

"Recent assembly elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere revealed the

spread of the pernicious practice of accepting money for giving

editorial space to contestants. In fact, this evil had been

perpetrated by institutionalising it," according to a statement by the

South Asian Free Media Association.
Meanwhile, the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body, has

decided to investigate, establishing a separate committee to examine

violations of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting.

The press council Chairman GN Ray, a retired justice, acknowledged

that a section of Indian media had 'indulged in monetary deals with

some politicians and candidates by publishing their views as news

items and bringing out negative news items against rival candidates'

during the last elections.'
The committee has already discussed the issue with the representatives

from Indian Newspapers Society, Indian Language Newspapers Association

with other stakeholders.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an eminent media critic and also the member of

the press council investigative team said in an interview that the

committee had received many complains from the journalists that a

large number of newspapers and television channels (in various

languages) had been receiving money to provide news space (and even

editorials) for the benefit of politicians.
Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, Guha Thakurta claims that the

paid news culture has finally violated the guidelines of the Election

Commission (of India), which makes restriction in the expenditure of a

candidate (for any Legislative Assembly or Parliamentary elections).

"Amazingly, we have found that some newspapers even prepared rate

cards for the candidates in the last few elections. There are

different rates for positive news coverage, interviews, editorials and

also putting out damaging reports against the opponents," Guha

Thakurta asserted.
The Indian Election Commission recently asked the Press Council of

India 'to define what constitutes paid political news', so it can

adopt appropriate guidelines. During a December meeting, the elections

body also directed the press council to 'formulate guidelines to the

media house' to require that the money involved be incorporated in the

political party and candidate expenditures.
Lately, the Guild had submitted a memorandum to the election

commission expressing its grave concern over the paid news phenomenon.

A delegation from the Guild, led by its president Rajdeep Sardesai met

the election commission on January 22 and urged the chief election

commissioner Navin Chawla to 'take strong action against both

candidates and media persons who violate the disclosure norms of

election expenditure in regard to media publicity.'

Rajdeep Sardesai, the editor's guild president and also the chief

editor of the CNN-IBN television news channel, speaking to this

writer, said that the Guild was 'deeply shocked and seriously

concerned at the increasing number of reports detailing the pernicious

practice of publishing paid news by some newspapers and television

channels, especially during the recent elections'.
"We strongly believe that the practice of putting out advertising as

news is a grave journalistic malpractice. Moreover the trend threatens

the foundation of journalism by eroding public faith in the

credibility and impartiality of news reporting. It also vitiated the

poll process and prevented a fair election, since richer candidates

who could pay for their publicity had a clear advantage," Sardesai

added.
While admitting the right of news media to go for advertisements in

various occasions, Sardesai insisted that the 'media houses should

distinguish the advertisements with full and proper disclosure norms,

so that no reader and viewer is tricked by any subterfuge of

advertisements published and broadcast in the same format, language

and style of news'.
The Indian Women's Press Corps, the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working

Journalists and the Network of Women in Media, India had also

expressed concern over the issue.
Condemning the practice, NWMI, the forum of women media professionals,

stated in a recent release, "We strongly believe that the present

crisis in the media, of which paid news is a grim symptom, requires

urgent, serious intervention by media professionals working together

to safeguard the principles and values of journalism and the

credibility of the news media, which are both critical factors for the

effective functioning of our democracy."
Lately, the Rajya Sabha witnessed a debate on the culture of paid

news. Responding the questions of MPs, India´s Information &

Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni admitted that the practice is ´a

serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press´.

"The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct

and true information to the people. However, when paid information is

presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby

hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion. Thus, there is no

denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect the public's

right to correct and unbiased information," Ms Soni added.

The opposition leader Arun Jaitley (Bharatiya Janata Party) earlier

arued that the practice of paid news should be perceived as a trade or

business with an unlawful purpose as it has nothing to do with the

freedom of speech. Jaitley, who is also a senior advocate, insisted

that a regulator should be set up with judicial authority (with power

to impose deterrent penalties) to which all such complaints can be

referred.
The readers or the viewers have the right to honest, unadulterated

news, which is being denied to them. They are not even being informed

that the news is motivated by monetary considerations, he added.

Jaitley went on saying that the paid news interdicts the process of

free and fair elections as it violates the limits set out by the

election commission for expenditure (by a candidate) in the polls. It

also reflects the violation of income tax laws, he asserted.

Speaking to this writer, Hiten Mahanta, a Guwahati-based media

observer claims that many regional newspapers in Northeast India in

effect sell favourable reporting for extra income.
"You can find a number of examples in Guwahati, where the proprietors

of the media houses had misused the media space for their individual

benefits. It is amazing how some newspapers (and also news channels)

change their point of views towards a politician or party suddenly

after getting money (in cash or kinds)," Mahanta said.

There are specific allegations that many journalists in Guwahati, who

are among the lowest paid in India with starting salaries as little as

US$50 a month, enjoy regular payments like monthly lump sum

compensation from politicians in power. Licenses for wine shops are

offered to reporters (and accepted happily by many) with the inherent

understanding that they only write positive stories and if possible,

kill negative reports against their politician-financers.

However, the newspapers of Assam still maintain ethical values in

respect of editorial space, as those are not being utilized visibly

for earning extra hard cash till now, observers say.

But how long it will continue that remains a bigger question!