In what should have been bigger news in India and around the world, top media executives in India were caught on camera during a sting operation allegedly accepting money in exchange to publish and air religiously-charged coverage ahead of the 2019 general elections.
Cobrapost, which has a history of long investigative journalism carried out the sting operation capturing senior executives of 27 media outlets (including some of the country’s best-known such as the Times Group and the Hindustan Times) using a hidden camera. Some of these outlets have taken legal recourse against Cobrapost, others have claimed that the videos are doctored and one even claimed that they were conducting a reverse sting operation on Cobrapost simultaneously.
Any consumer of news media in India would be familiar with the frequent use of sting operations which have under-covered nefarious activities like large-scale betting in cricket tournaments, and corruption in political circles. This piece will not discuss the ethics of using hidden cameras and sting operations in journalism. Instead, it will discuss broadly the state of the news media in India today.
If true, and these outlets were, in fact, willing to disguise paid content as news, it would show a tremendous compromise on journalistic standards. Further, since the content of these interactions would promote Hindutva content to impact the 2019 general elections in the country, it presents grave concerns about journalistic independence in the country.
In the 2018, World Freedom of the Press Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, India placed at 138, down two spots from last year and five spots from 2016. Freedom House classifies India’s press as being only “partly free”. Journalists around the country are frequently subject editorial control and legal action and have also exerienced threats of death and violence to their families. And in some cases, even high-profile journalists such as Gauri Lankesh have been murdered. The Committee to Protect Journalists noted that since 1992, 47 journalists in India have been murdered, most of them have occurred with complete impunity.
As reports of election tampering around the world and the spread of #fakenews and #alternativefacts dominate our news, we must recognize the essence of what a free can provide to any democratic society. In addition to keeping citizens informed and raising the level of debate, they also serve as an important check on governments, and businesses in the world. Press independence and freedom is essential to democracy. As the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls next year, the potential compromise of India’s press is worrying.