India's Media Money Cancer

In a culture so blatant that some media actually prepare rate cards to present to politicians in exchange for favorable news, India appears to be waking up to the menace to democracy from a bought mainstream media.

The practice of handing envelopes to reporters has been a fixture across Asian media and especially India and China for decades. Certainly, the temptations are manifold, and for good reason. With white-collar salaries in the wake of the outsourcing revolution skyrocketing to about US$15,000 annually, reporters for major newspapers in New Delhi are paid about US$6,000 although some top jobs go for considerably more.

But lately the practice appears to be becoming institutionalized, not by poverty-stricken reporters but by the publishers themselves. A number of influential media organizations in India have begun to show their concern, most recently at a meeting of the India chapter of South Asia Free Media Association in Mumbai during the first week of December, where the issue of paid news broke into the open.

At the meeting, journalists complained that many media houses, irrespective of their volume of business, have started selling news space for politicians and corporate people without disguising "news" items as advertisements. Then came the annual general meeting of the Editors' Guild of India during the fourth week of December, where most of the members expressed alarm at the growing tendency of a some media groups, both print and electronic, to take money for "non-advertorial" items.

The editors' guild has sent a letter to each of its member-editors throughout the country 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.

Millions of rupees have been reportedly been paid to media houses. Two of India's most prominent journalists, 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.

"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."

"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 institutionalizing it," according to a statement by the South Asian Free Media Association.

Meanwhile, the press council, a quasi judicial body, has decided to investigate, establishing a 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."

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from New Delhi, Guha Thakurta, an investigator for the press council, complained that the paid news culture violates the guidelines of the Election Commission (of India), which restrict the political expenditures 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," Thakurta said.

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 houses" to require that the money involved be incorporated in the political party and candidate expenditures.

Rajdeep Sardesai, the editor's guild president and also the chief editor of the CNN-IBN television news channel, speaking to Asia Sentinel, 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 it threatens the foundation of the media with gradual erosion of public trust ultimately," 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'.

Hiten Mahanta, a media observer Assam's largest city, said many regional newspapers in Northeast India in effect sell favorable 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 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$40 a month, enjoy regular payments like monthly lump sum compensation from politicians in power. Licenses for wine shops are offered to reporters with the inherent understanding that they only write positive stories and if possible, kill negative reports against their politician-financers.

Assam's newspapers 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 remains a bigger question.