India has woken up to the menace of 'paid news' culture in the mainstream media. The practice that involves money in acquiring unethical media space by the beneficiaries remained an important issue in India for many years. But lately a number of influential media persons' organizations have shown their concern with the ill practice in the country.
It is alleged that many media houses in the country irrespective of their volume of business have started selling news space after some understandings with the politicians and corporate people without disguising those items as advertisements.
First it was a meet of South Asia Free Media Association (India chapter) in Mumbai during the first week of December, where the issue of paid news was officially discussed with concern. Then came the annual general meeting of the Editors' Guild of India during the fourth week of December, where most of the members expressed anguish at the growing tendency of a section of media groups (both print and visual) to receive money for some 'non-advertorial' items in their media space.
The guild has even sent a letter to each of its member-editor throughout the country to make a pledge 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 journalist fraternity would come together on this issue' and would stand up to defend their credibility, and make public declarations on the subject in order to restore the reading and viewing public's faith in the media by undoing the damage that has already been done.
Indian media has been recognized as sensitive, patriotic and very much influential tool in the socio-political sphere since the days of freedom movement. The father of Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi initiated his movement with the moral power of active journalism. Today, India with its billion population supports nearly 70,000 registered newspapers and over 450 television channels. The Indian media, as a whole, often plays the role of constructive opposition in the Parliament as well as in various Legislative Assemblies of the State. Journalists are, by and large, honoured and accepted as the moral guide in the Indian society. While the newspapers in Europe and America are loosing their readership annually, the Indian print media is still going strong with huge circulation figure. For the democratic India, the media continues to be acclaimed as the fourth important pillar after judiciary, parliament and bureaucracy. But unfortunately a cancer in the form of paid news has been diagnosed in the Indian media in the recent past. Millions of rupees have been reportedly transacted with a section of media houses by this misconduct for some immoral coverage for the beneficiaries. Some veteran editor-journalist Prabhash Joshi who recently died, with B G Verghese raised the issue strongly with the Press Council of India, where they warned that the cancer of paid news has already turned into a full blown case in India.
The Mumbai meeting witnessed serious discussion and concern on the recent trend of commercialisation of mainstream media, and degradation of media ethics & practices in the country. All the speakers in the meeting of SAFMA (which is recognized by the SAARC), were unanimous that media in the entire region must come forward in a transparent way with maintaining public trust. Addressing the audience, eminent journalist and the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, P. Sainath disclosed that that the corporatization of the media world had simply threatened the existence of free media. "Now the newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout. The proprietors now grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of their 'friendly politicians' in the newspapers. Furthermore, to entertain their growing demands, many media groups have even gone for arranging extra space in this advantageous period," Sainath claimed. An official statement of the SAFMA meet, which was attended by many distinguished editor- journalists of India including K K Katyal, Satich Jacob, Kumar Ketkar (editor of Loksatta), Om Thanvi (editor of Jansatta), Vinod Sharma (political editor of Hindustan Times), Sevanti Ninan (editor of www.thehoot.org) etc, expressed serious concern at the growing trend of selling news space.
"The recent assembly elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere had 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," the statement added. Meanwhile, the press council, a quasi judicial body, has decided to investigate the issue and it has already set up a committee to examine violation of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting with that of paid news.
The press council Chairman Justice (Rtd) GN Ray publicly admitted 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.
Even a documentary titled 'Advertorial: Selling News or Products?' was produced by an eminent media critic and academic Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for India's national broadcaster, Doordarshan. It was telecast in last November.
Guha Thakurta, a member of the press council team, said in an interview that the committee had received many complains from the journalists that a large number of newspapers and television channels (in various languages) had been receiving money to provide news space (and even editorials) for the benefit of politicians. Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, Guha Thakurta claims that the paid news culture has finally violated the guidelines of the Election Commission (of India), which makes restriction in the expenditure of a candidate (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," Guha Thakurta asserted.
The Indian Election Commission has taken the issue seriously. The commission recently asked the PCI 'to define what constitutes paid political news', such that it can adopt guidelines accordingly. In a meeting during last December, the commission also expected the PCI to take initiatives to 'formulate some guidelines to the media houses' in the country.
With the same notion, a Guwahati based media observer Hiten Mahanta claims that many regional newspapers in Northeast India have adopted this practice (where money power has been used for favourable reporting) for some 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 a political party) suddenly after getting money (in cash or kinds)," Mahanta revealed. However, the newspapers of Assam are still maintaining some ethical values in respect of sacred editorial space, as those are not being utilised visibly for earning extra cash till now.