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Videos allege Indian media houses promised to favor Hindu nationalism in exchange for cash

Operation 136 Logo. Via Cobrapost. Fair use.

A viral series of videos on social media show that Indian media houses may be accepting large sums of money in exchange for flattering coverage of the ruling party and Hindu nationalist ideology.

With a few exceptions, Indian mainstream media outlets have become notoriously gentle in their journalistic treatment of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So when the New Delhi High Court attempted to block news site CobraPost from publishing a cache of videos showing evidence of collusion between government and media last week, it caught people's attention.

A small media outlet known for taking risks and sometimes employing unorthodox tactics, CobraPost nevertheless went ahead and released the videos on social media.

CobraPost made the videos in a “sting” operation in which one of its journalists posed as a wealthy religious man from a monastery. He approached various mainstream media houses proposing to pay large sums of money before the elections of 2019, to ensure Modi's BJP wins the vote. Most of the publications agreed to join the crusade. Others said they were already on the job.

Some of the videos show prominent executives in media houses agreeing on camera to promote Hindutva ideology (the preferred form of Hindu nationalism of the BJP party) and describing how editorial content could be tailored through strategic public relations, all in exchange for large sums of money in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

The videos also allege that many news organisations including Benett and Coleman Ltd (publisher of Times of India, Mirror tabloids, Economic Times, et al) had become part of a broader campaign to normalize Hindutva ideology and to polarize the country in an effort to shore up political support for the ruling party.

This campaign has coincided with numerous lynchings of Muslim men, attacks on Dalits (groups historically treated as an underclass in India's caste system) and protests against Muslims offering prayers on Fridays.

Journalist Meghnad commented on the revelations:

CobraPost used no other secondary sources to confirm that these media houses were accepting money for promoting pro-government content. But it is almost open knowledge in India that the practice takes place.

Alongside the ethical questions raised by CobraPost's methods, the videos immediately cast doubt on the editorial integrity of news organisations covering the Modi administration in India's highly polarised political environment.

In a press release quoted by Scroll, CobraPost stated how India's leading publications are willing to “not only cause communal disharmony among the citizens but also turn the electoral outcome in favor of a particular party – and all in return for cash.”

The report has come to light amid a rapid rise of “fake news” websites in India that seem intended to promote religious and communal tension.

Indian regional daily Dainik Bhaskar moved the Delhi High Court to seek an injunction against CobraPost, but the publication stood firm and published its findings.

Major publications including the Times of India, HT Media, India Today, the Zee group, and TV18 have been named in the stinging sensation as well. But since the release of the videos, most of these outlets have stayed mum and avoided reporting on the video revelations.

Politician Yogendra Yadav questioned the coverage of CobraPost in Indian newspapers or lack thereof:

Indian singer Vishal Dadlani questioned the news coverage and BJP's involvement:

On May 31, six days after the videos went public, India Today media group filed a legal notice demanding that CobraPost remove the videos implicating India Today and claiming that their content was manipulated. A subsequent article on the Times of India website described the videos as “a case of doctoring of content and falsification, as no media organisations named in it agreed to any illegal or immoral activity and no contracts were signed.”

YouTube vlogger Dhruv Rathee retorted to trolls questioning CobraPost's journalism and ethics:

Several media personalities and senior journalists also expressed their views on the sting and about editorial integrity.

Prominent media personality Raju Narisetti offered insight on how this affects India's media credibility in the long run:

Indian TV anchor and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai meanwhile questioned the investigations for painting the entire country's media as compromised:

Journalist Sagarika Ghosh followed Rajdeep's lead and said publications she had worked for had never pressured her to cover government agencies in a flattering light.

Independent researcher Akshaya Mukul demanded that India's Editors Guild step in and take action against erring publishing platforms:

Novelist Manu Joseph poked fun at the incident:

Marathi journalist Wagle Nikhil underscored the need for independent media to counter the polarising narrative:

The incident also highlights the degree to which a healthy media environment requires independent streams of funding. Without this, media outlets are often left with little choice but to compromise their coverage at the behest of their benefactors.

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