There had been much excitement on the news that report of the two-member subcommittee comprising Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy set up by The Press Council to examine the Paid News scandal on its own was ready. Particularly because the report, titled “Paid News”: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy, according to the Hindu:
...explicitly names newspapers and channels — including some of the biggest groups in the country — seen as having indulged in the “paid news” practice.
...traces the emergence of the paid news phenomenon over years and phases
...Seeks a pro-active role from the Election Commission in initiating action against offenders
But, surprise surprise, the explosive report was not released as scheduled on April 26. It has been "deferred" -- it has now apparently been referred to a larger group of Council members who will decide by July 31st on how it should be presented because, well, "some council members argued that it would destroy the publishers’ credibility and hurt their long term interest".
Some extracts from the report that was considered too hot to handle:
Examples of “paid news” from the Hindi press:
Here is a selection of examples from the Hindi language press that could be construed as examples of “paid news”:
The Ranchi edition of Dainik Jagran published a “news package” on page 3 of its April 15, 2009 edition, in favour of a candidate belonging to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) Shri Kameshwar Baitha. This news item stated that Shri Baitha was “getting the support of each and every section of society” and that he would win elections from the Palamau Lok Sabha constituency. There is no credit line to this news item and the font used for this news item was different from the font used in other news items in the publication. On the same page, the newspaper had published another news item stating that there would be a triangular contest between three candidates belonging to the JMM, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha and an independent candidate. This report has been credited to a reporter of the newspaper.
On April 13, 2009, the Ranchi edition of Dainik Jagran published two “news” items on page 7, both relating to the Chatra Lok Sabha constituency. The first item was in favour of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) candidate Shri Nagmani (one name) with the headline stating: “Nagmani is getting support from every class and section” virtually declaring that he would become the undisputed winner. The same page had another “news” item claiming that Shri Arun Kumar Yadav, a candidate belonging to Janata Dal (United), who contested from the same constituency, would emerge a “clear winner”. Both the items do not carry any byline although the font used is different from the font used for other news articles in the publication.
Two other newspapers published from Ranchi, Prabhat Khabar and Hindustan, also published articles praising various candidates before the Parliamentary elections but the former placed the following line on top of each such item “PK Media Marketing Initiative” while the latter publication added “HT Media Marketing Initiative” at the bottom of such items.
Former Civil Aviation Minister Shri Harmohan Dhawan was quoted in Pratham Pravakta magazine (in its edition dated July 16, 2009) stating: “I was contesting the 2009 elections on a ticket of the BSP from Chandigarh. Representatives of the print medium came to me and asked for money. They said their newspapers will give me coverage if I paid them money. They offered a ‘package' to me and in one such ‘package' I was told editorials would be written in my favour. I have been contesting elections since 1974 but not a single newspaper asked me for money before this. Among the newspapers that offered a ‘package' to me was Punjab Kesri. A representative of Dainik Jagran came to me 20 days before the election and clearly told me: ‘If you want coverage in this election, you have to buy a ‘package'. These packages were worth lakhs of rupees. After that, a representative of Dainik Bhaskar visited me in my home. He too offered me a “package”.
“I turned down all these offers. I felt that newspapers would cover large election rallies where many people are present but the rallies that were conducted on my behalf were not mentioned in these newspapers whereas the rallies of other candidates were covered in considerable detail. When I raised this issue with representatives of the managements of these newspapers, they told me that nothing could be done unless I paid for a ‘package'. On April 28, 2009, I spoke about this ‘paid news' business publicly in the presence of (Kumari) Mayawati (Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and leader of the BSP). On April 30, a general manager of Dainik Bhaskar came to me and said that he was personally of the view that the pre-election activities of the BSP and its candidates should get full coverage in his newspaper but that he was helpless in this regard because his newspaper's management had taken a decision not to publish any news about any party or candidate that would not pay the newspaper. He offered me a ‘package' worth Rs 5 lakh but I refused to pay. Certain reporters also told me that reports that they had written about my election campaign were not published. I realized that newspaper owners were using reporters as their tools.”
The Congress candidate from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh Dr Santosh Singh stated the following in an interview to Pratham Pravakta (July 16, 2009): “After I had filed my nomination paper, a representative of the Varanasi edition of Dainik Jagran contacted me and asked me to buy one of two ‘packages' worth Rs 5 lakh and Rs 10 lakh respectively, for which I was offered comprehensive coverage of my election campaign. Another newspaper, Aaj, asked for an amount varying between Rs 50,000 and Rs 5 lakh. The representatives of these newspapers who met me said they were merely following orders given to them by their managements… These representatives told me that they are just following the order of management. I did not pay any money”.
Shri Ramakant Yadav of the BJP who contested and won the Lok Sabha election from Azamgarh stated the following in an interview in Pratham Pravakta (July 16, 2009): “Hindustan newspaper asked me to pay Rs 10 lakh for publishing ‘news' about my election campaign. I refused to pay any money. In an article, the newspaper claimed I would lose the election. But, now that the results have been declared, you know that I won.”
Here are excerpts from what three contestants from the Ghosi Lok Sabha constituency in Uttar Pradesh told Pratham Pravakta (July 16, 2009):
Samajwadi Party candidate Shri Arshad Jamal said: “Newspapers such as Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, Amar Ujala, Aaj and Urdu Sahara asked me for money and offered ‘packages' varying between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 10 lakh.”
Communist Party of India candidate Shri Atul Kumar Anjaan said: “I have received phone calls from representatives of two of the largest newspapers in north India, Dainik Jagran and Hindustan. They asked me for Rs 15 lakh each for coverage of my campaign in their publications. When I rejected these offers, Dainik Jagran did not published anything about my activities between March 22 and April 16, the newspaper did not even publish any report about the rally that was addressed by the CPI General Secretary Shri A.B. Bardhan. When I contacted reporters and correspondents based in the Mau bureau of Dainik Jagran and Hindustan, they said they have to follow instructions issued to them from their offices in Varanasi and Delhi. When I complained to representatives of these newspapers based in Varanasi and Delhi, they slashed the rates of their ‘packages' and I was asked to pay Rs 12 lakh.”
BJP candidate Shri Ramiqbal Singh said the following in an interview to Pratham Pravakta reporter Shri Rupesh Pandey in Lucknow on February 5, 2010: “During the election campaign in 2009, the bureau chief of Dainik Jagran came to me and asked me to pay money for coverage. He said that members of his bureau were just following instructions given to them by their head office. He demanded Rs 15 lakh from me. During those days, his newspaper had published a few lines about me. But much more space, in fact, two full pages, was devoted to reports about the activities of Smt Sudha Rai, the Congress party's candidate from the constituency. I believe the publication of ‘paid news' items resulted in between 50,000 and 60,000 voters shifting their allegiance in favour of the Congress candidate. No other newspaper asked me for money.”
The BJP candidate from Lalganj in Uttar Pradesh, Smt Neelam Sonkar said the following in an interview to Pratham Pravakta (July 16, 2009): “Representatives of Aaj, Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala came to me and offered me a ‘package' worth Rs 10 lakh for coverage in their newspapers. When I refused to pay for any ‘package', senior executives working in these newspapers contacted me and said that they would slash the rate of their ‘packages' for me.”
On April 16, the Patna edition of Hindustan published a banner headline stating that the “Congress is ready to create history in Bihar” but curiously, there was no news item related to this headline.
Shri Sanjeev Pandey, a freelance journalist based in Chandigarh, provided the Press Council of India, with over 70 clippings from different newspapers that were published from Haryana. All the clippings were from newspaper editions printed in the run-up to the assembly elections in Haryana and appeared to be “paid news” items.
The Rohtak edition of Haribhoomi published a news item on October 8, 2009 in favour of Congress candidate Shri Birendra Singh. Shri Singh was contesting assembly elections from Uchana constituency. However, this news item carried no byline. This news item claimed that Shri Singh had been getting support from all and sundry in society. Detailed descriptions of the plans of his election campaign were also mentioned. Using the same format, Haribhoomi published a news item in favour of BJP candidate Shri Meva Singh the following day, that is, on October 9, 2009. Giving an account of BJP National President Shri Rajnath Singh's rally, this news item claimed that “after this rally Meva has got support from each and every section of society”.
The Panipat edition of Dainik Jagran published a news item on page 9 of its edition dated October 8, 2009, that was in favour of the electoral prospects of the Congress. The news item did not carry any byline. The headline of the news item stated that the “good work” done by the Congress had marginalised the electoral prospects of the leader of the Opposition in the state. Each and every sentence of this news item is in favour of the Congress party. This news item criticises leaders of non-Congress parties and says that they would not be able to make a mark in the elections because the Congress had done very good work for every section of society. This news item added that candidates of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) led by Shri Bhajan Lal would not be able to harm the electoral prospects of candidates belonging to the Congress.
By way of contrast, the Ludhiana edition of the same newspaper published a news item in favour of the HJC on October 11, 2009, with a headline that stated that the HJC would play the role of king or king-maker after the elections. Each line of this news item sings paeans of praise in favour of the HJC and prophesised that the party would play a very important role in forming the government after the poll results are declared. Surprisingly, on the very next day, that is, on October 12, 2010, the Ludhiana edition of the same newspaper again published a news item that was apparently paid for in favour of Shri Om Prakash Chautala's Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana and is credited to “a reporter”. The headline of this news item states that INLD would obtain electoral benefits against the incumbent ruling party, that is, the Congress.
In stark contrast to the post-poll projections of the earlier news items, each line of the last-mentioned news item clearly favours the INLD. This news item reported that there was a “wave” in favour of the INLD in Haryana and went on to predict a clear victory for Shri Chautala and the INLD. The news story claimed that the INLD would be able to easily win the magical number of 46 constituencies that would be required to obtain a majority in the state assembly in order to form a government. This news item states that the Congress party was “struggling” because of internal feuds and that this would benefit the INLD. The story did not end there.
On the next day, that is, on October 13, 2009, the Ludhiana edition of the Dainik Jagran reverted to praising the Congress in another news item. There is no credit line given to this news story, the headline of which claimed that the Congress was ready to “repeat the history” that was made during the Lok Sabha elections when the Congress won handsomely in the state. Every single line of this particular news story praises the Congress party and the Chief Minister of Haryana Shri Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The news item claimed that non-Congress parties would perform poorly in the elections, that their candidates would forfeit their deposits and went on to make a prediction that the Congress would win 75 out of the 90 seats in the state assembly.
In a letter to the Press Council of India dated December 02, 2009, Shri Om Prakash Chautala, National President of the Indian National Lok Dal, expressed his “disgust” at the phenomenon of “paid news” and cited the example of the front page of the Haryana edition of the Dainik Bhaskar dated October 13, 2009, the day of polling for the state assembly elections, “which carried only the Congress party's advertisement”. He added that half of the second page of this edition of the newspaper again carried an advertisement “along with a few news items that were obviously paid” (for) with headlines claiming that the Congress was “about to create history” in the state. Shri Chautala was of the view that if the power of the media was misused in such a blatant manner and used to drown dissenting voices, people of the country would lose their faith in the Constitution of India which guarantees free and fair elections.
On December 23, 2009, the Uttar Pradesh Journalists' Association, Faizabad, sent a letter to the Press Council of India, condemning the practice of “paid news” adding that such malpractices would destroy the independence of journalism and thereby, democracy in the country.
A Lucknow-based non-government organization, the National Alliance of People's Movements, analysed issues of four Hindi language daily newspapers that were published between April 01, 2009 and April 30, 2009 from Lucknow and Gorakhpur. These newspapers were Dainik Jagran, Dainik Hindustan, Rashtriya Sahara and Voice of Lucknow and documented a number of instances of “paid news” articles. The organization was of the view that these articles violated the Conduct of Election Rules. It suggested that the Registrar of Newspapers of India should cancel the registration of the concerned publications.
It was pointed out by the NGO that many of the so-called “paid news” articles were in favour of Shri Akhilesh Das Gupta, the candidate of the Bahujan Samaj Party who contested from the Lucknow Lok Sabha constituency (and who, ironically, stood in third position after Shri Lalji Tandon of the BJP and Smt Rita Bahuguna Joshi of the Congress after the results of the election were declared). Shri Akhilesh Das Gupta was quoted in Outlook weekly (December 21, 2009) saying: “I don't blame my party if it pays for news in its favour; there is a general media bias against my party.”
Dainik Jagran: Allegations and Counter-Allegations
Senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Shri Lalji Tandon who contested and won the 2009 Lok Sabha elections from the Lucknow constituency in Uttar Pradesh has publicly gone on record as to how the “the largest circulated (Indian) language newspaper in the world”, refused to publish any news about him in the run-up to the 2009 elections because of his refusal to pay any money. “When I enquired, I was told that I should pay up if I wanted news in my favour,” Shri Tandon said, adding that his rival from the BSP got more publicity than any other candidate in his constituency. Though Shri Tandon said the issue was later sorted out with the newspaper, his allegations levelled in public highlighted how rampant the malpractice of “paid news” was in the particular newspaper which is not just the largest circulated language newspaper of India but also one of the most widely circulated newspapers of the world.
The largest circulated paper that Shri Tandon referred to was the Dainik Jagran, which he also named in public. On January 11, 2010, the Press Council of India asked a representative of the newspaper whether what Shri Tandon had claimed was true and whether the newspaper had in fact demanded any money from him to carry favourable news on his election campaign. This is what he said: “When a politician of the stature of Shri Lalji Tandon speaks, it is natural for the media to take note. We can only assert that we did not offer our editorial space for money.” When asked further as to whether Shri Tandon was lying when he said the newspaper's representative had asked him for money to publish news about his campaign, the Dainik Jagran representative repeated that no one from his newspaper had asked Shri Tandon for money.
When Anuradha Raman of Outlook magazine asked Shri Tandon if he had patched up with the owners of the newspaper, his reply made it evident that this was indeed what had happened. Shri Tandon asked a counter-question: “Kyon wahi baat doharana chahte hain? Rehne dijeeye. (Why do you want me to repeat it again? Let it be.)”
In a formal letter handed over to the Press Council of India on January 10, 2010, Shri Nishikant Thakur, Chief General Manager, Jagran Prakashan Ltd., claimed that the controversy relating to “paid news” was “nothing but rumours spread by lost candidates in frustration”. Describing the allegations as “frivolous” and “factually” incorrect, Shri Thakur claimed that he “could say with certainty that no editor of a reputed newspaper in the country is distorting news for money”. He added that amount spent on “publicity material” in newspapers is “marginal” in comparison to the total expenses incurred by candidates standing for elections.
Shri Thakur claimed that the ceilings of expenditure laid down by the Election Commission of India were “unrealistic” and “out of tune with reality”. Further, he claimed that attempts by candidates to influence individual reports “in the rush” of election coverage could go “undetected by the editorial board” of the concerned newspaper. He suggests that there should be “state funding” of elections, that the Election Commission of India should “implement appropriate measures” to verify expenses incurred by candidates and also that there should be “inner party democracy” in political parties.
Shri Thakur argues that the right of the citizen to get “un-polluted information” needs to be balanced by “the rights of the media to conduct its business in an economically viable manner which is also guaranteed by the Constitution of India subject to permissible legal restrictions”. He adds that the press has the right to “project (the) good achievements of (a) particular candidate” and concludes with the assertion that what is required are electoral reforms, systemic correction and not merely “limb operation”.