Cobrapost 'Operation 136' sting: The story mainstream media ignored

Last Updated: Wed, May 30, 2018 17:57 hrs

After an expose on how prominent media companies were more than willing to enter into and accept deals with those who were offering to promote right wing Hindutva and polarizing rhetoric, some of the networks and publications are speaking out and are on the back foot as some hard questions are raised on the topic of ‘paid media’.

Two months ago, Cobrapost, in a sting operation exposed how prominent media companies were prepared to enter into a ‘cash for coverage’ deal with an undercover reporter who assumed the identity of someone wanting to promote right wing and Hindutva talking points. The companies in question are Times group, India Today, SAB Group, DNA, India TV to name a few.

In classic sting operation fashion, an undercover reporter posed as someone who was assumed to be close to the RSS; and would offer a deal to media companies. The deal would ensure that in the run up to the 2019 elections, media companies through their news channels and publications would promote and amplify a particular ideology. This would largely involve 3 stages - first would be religious messaging, second would be negative stories against opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati, third would be rhetoritic aimed at polarizing Hindus and Muslims.

Those who were caught in the sting went on the defensive and accused the video of being doctored, like the Times Group, who through a spokesperson accused Cobrapost of fabricating a scandal. They state that the facts have purposefully not been shown and this was an attempt to mislead the public. They state that the executives in question were aware that the person was undercover saying in part, “They were acting under the advice of the BCCL (Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd) legal team to trap the fraudster and to discover his true intent and details of the people, political formations or businesses backing him”. A reverse sting of sorts.

On May 27, the Times of India covered the sting in a story that began with “Cobrapost is at it again”. They refer to the expose as a ‘so called report’ and a ‘so called investigation’ in the story. The article vehemently defends the Times Group and goes after Cobrapost and the journalist who was behind it. The India Today group too denies any wrong doing and stated that the broadcast was manipulated and taken out of context saying in part, “…in the meeting with our senior management, your reporter was told in no uncertain terms that the Group will not do anything unethical, and that any advertising creative that divides the country on religious or caste lines will not be acceptable”.

On Wednesday, the India Today group sent a legal notice to Cobrapost ordering it to remove contents from their website. One of the country’s prominent journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, who works for India Today, responded to a question posed to him on the sting and denied any involvement as well as commenting on the sting as a whole –

Hindustan Times’ Chief Revenue Officer Anil Dua refuted any allegations of outside editorial control stating in part, “We have an editorial policy which unequivocally discourages any paid news, and which we are very proud of”. Other channels involved such as Zee accused the reporter of distributing money and that Cobrapost ran an edited clip of the meeting.

Cobrapost founder Aniruddha Bahal claims that the videos are authentic and the sting wasn’t sanctioned by them, but was done independently by the journalist in question Pushp Sharma. Cobrapost entered into an agreement to buy the video evidence. He also stated that no money changed hands with the subjects; the objective was to show intent.

The journalist in question, Pushp Sharma has come under the scanner for this sting operation, particularly questions around his credibility given his past. In the Times of India story covering the sting, they mention the fact that Sharma was arrested in 2016 by the Delhi police on charges of cheating and forgery for fabricating an RTI reply. This was done in the midst of him publishing a report that claimed the government was discriminating against Muslims in recruitment of yoga trainers by the AYUSH ministry.

He was also arrested in 2009, for carrying out a ‘fraudulent’ sting operation to allegedly extort money from a police officer. He has stated that the two cases against him are witch hunts and the work of powerful individuals out to get him, he details in a blog post. Aniruddha Bahal has defended Sharma echoing his defense of a witch hunt.

Taking a bird’s eye view of this, it’s noticeable that the story did not gain mainstream traction. A report on the sting operation by the BBC put it plainly with the headline “The story barely reported by Indian media”. Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, in a column writes on the effects of the sting and sounding the alarm over problems in the media today –

None of the media organizations whose executives and owners were ‘stung’ are prepared to accept there is anything wrong with the way they are running their businesses. While their reluctance is understandable, the silence of the rest of the Indian media is not”.

Meddling in the electoral process is not new; it’s done through various means. However, when the press and media are the ones accepting money for specific content, it’s dangerous for democracy. A free press is crucial for a functioning democracy. In his column he points out the 3 ‘sins’ that are play –

This first sin – cash is king – leads to the second. For a media organization, the temptation to offer the paying client something more than plain vanilla advertising becomes overwhelming. The third sin that the Cobrapost sting discloses about the media is their willingness to accept commercial payments in cash”.

As India ranks 136th in the World Press Freedom Index, the sting purposefully named Operation 136 could have an impact on the public trust in the media. Though that could not happen, as the coverage of the sting is near minimal on mainstream media. This could be for the reason that the journalist in question doesn’t have credibility and it’s always right to question the results in these circumstances or it could be a fear of looking in-house.

There are no doubt excellent journalists who at times put their lives on the line to report the truth, who take their profession seriously; but there are things that undercut the good work being done and sow doubt. As Siddharth Varadarajan concludes –

Whatever the media owners do or don’t do to fix or further damage our newspapers and television channels, Indian journalism will survive and thrive so long as there are a million mutinies every day in every newsroom”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar