Days after Cobrapost, a website that is known for sting operations, ran a detailed series on how several media outlets in India were allegedly ready to strike deals with the right-wing to promote the Hindutva agenda ahead of the 2019 General Elections, the accused media houses responded to the allegations.
Two months ago, the first series of stings, known as Operation 136, were released. Part 2 of the series was recently published, which shows how the heads of these media houses alleged agreed to polarise voters before the 2019 General Election.
Cobrapost released 49 videos that were shot by its undercover reporter Pushp, who called himself 'Acharya Atal'.
For the sting, the reporter allegedly approached the media houses pretending to be a pracharak with links to the RSS and BJP seeking to spread the 'Hindutva agenda' and 'thrash their (BJPs) rivals' through sustained campaigns, where the organisations were offered anything between a few crores to Rs 500 crore as ad spend.
Some of the organisations that were part of the sting include The Times of India, India Today, Network 18, Hindustan Times, Star India, The New Indian Express, ABN Andhra Jyothy, Red FM, Zee News and Open Magazine.
The sting was named Operation 136 because India was placed at 136th position in 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Media outlets respond
The Times Group in its response, called the sting operation a “case of doctoring of content and falsification.”
A spokesperson for Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL) stated that Cobrapost had “maliciously not put forth the true facts regarding the episode”, to mislead the public and to ‘fabricate a scandal’.
“The fact is that BCCL senior functionaries were aware that the person (Pushp Sharma) claiming to be Acharya Atal was an imposter well before they started discussions with him. They were acting under the advice of the BCCL legal team to trap the fraudster and to discover his true intent and details of the people, political formations or businesses backing him. Essentially, BCCL was in the process of carrying out a reverse sting with a plan to make the so-called Acharya Atal commit a mistake or even sign legal contracts so as to expose the people and organisations behind him,” the statement said.
A statement was also put out by the India Today group.
“At the outset, we vehemently deny the portrayal of India Today Group as a media house that will compromise its editorial integrity. It has never happened in the past and there is no question of it ever happening. In fact, 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, and will not be aired on our channels. However, in your video posted online, this has not been adequately reflected and has distorted the truth,” the statement said.
“It is clear that the said broadcast is out of context and has been manipulated with clear intention to sully, tarnish, disparage, discredit and to running down an otherwise impeccable standing and reputation of the India Today Group. You are hereby called upon to immediately stop and suspend the broadcast regarding the India Today Group otherwise we will be left with no option to pursue strict civil and criminal remedies against you,” it added.
India TV also refuted the allegations and called the video ‘doctored’, adding that it would take legal action against the reporter and the media outlet.
Responding to the allegations against his outlet, chief revenue officer of HT Media, Anil Dua, told Express, “We have an editorial policy which unequivocally discourages any paid news, and which we are very proud of. My personal comments clearly convey that if the content is legal and appropriate, and meets our editorial guidelines, we will carry it post-internal approvals. However, my entire comment has not been reproduced and has been conveniently edited.”
According to the reaction put out by Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha, a man named Acharya Chatrapal had come to meet the editor-in-chief Ravi Hegde on October 11, 2017 at their office.
Chatrapal had initially said that he was part of the organising team of a Mahabharata-reading event and wanted both Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha to cover it. Ravi Hegde, at this point said, they already broadcasted such shows, pointing out to devotional shows aired in the mornings.
Later, Acharya Chatrapal offered money in order to run the program but Ravi Hegde only said that they will look into it. Acharya Chatrapal then changed the topic. He offered money to Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha to run communally insensitive messages and peddle the Hindutva agenda for money.
Ravi Hegde then got suspicious and called in a team of investigative journalists and began questioning Acharya Chatrapal. We tried to converse with him but he said he had a meeting with another channel and would come back.
“Meanwhile we had set up a hidden camera to bring out his hidden agenda. However, Acharya Chatrapal did not return despite members of our organisation making several calls. The next day on October 12, we filed a complaint with the High Grounds Police and Kannada Prabha also ran the story about what had happened. This is just Cobrapost’s way of defaming our organisation. The conversation he had recorded has been edited to serve a different agenda. We have already filed a defamation case against Cobrapost,” the statement in Kannada reads.