In the wake of Operation 136: Part 2, the Cobrapost expose that revealed the names of prominent mainstream media houses which are ready to peddle Hindutva propaganda in exchange of money, The Logical Indian spoke with Aniruddha Bahal, the editor of Cobrapost.
1) What was the impact you were expecting from the Cobrapost Sting Operation? Was the impact as per your expectations?
We were not really expecting, I mean you don’t really do a story expecting an impact. You do the story, and people react to the story. They give their viewpoints. To me, it was perhaps on the expected lines. I knew that mainstream media wouldn’t be covering the story, especially television and they didn’t. The papers too won’t cover it expect a few. Social media covered it in a big way, and that is very encouraging. This shows that social media is the medium of the future.
2) How was Pushp Sharma’s experience with The Times of India and Vineet Jain?
Well, regarding Pushp Sharma’s experience, The Times of India videos are there for you to see and so are the videos of Vineet Jain and Sanjeev Shah. You can form your own opinion. But for the journalist, it was quite a nerve-wracking experience because going to such a big media house, there is always a particular danger, but in the end, you saw what you saw. You can understand how prevalent and widespread paid news is even in a group like The Times of India.
3) There are certain allegations against Pushp Sharma, are those true? If they are, then does that not make this sting operation less credible?
One should distinguish between the malicious prosecution and genuine prosecution. Of course, I examined the two cases against Pushp Sharma. I think they are malicious prosecutions and both of them are in court. In fact, in the RTI case, the forensic report has come out in his favour. Investigative reports do face a lot of flak from law enforcement agencies. Sometimes false cases are foisted on them as they were on me, actually.
4) Several minutes of the videos have not been published. Some people feel that maybe certain parts have been taken out of context. What do you have to say regarding this?
We don’t indulge in malicious editing or out of context editing. In fact, we try to keep it as close as possible with how things were. No particular video has been doctored here. Of course, videos will be edited for brevity. You can’t put hours and hours of footage on Youtube; nobody will be able to make sense out of them. All our videos are available to law enforcement officials. If anyone calls us up now, then we have to give it to them like we have been doing for the past 15-20 years. It is a no-brainer.
So, people who say there has been malicious editing, without giving examples, is not at all the question. In fact, there are many bites in favour of people going into editing. People have cited that. If we put those bytes in the editing, why should people feel that we have maliciously edited videos? Anyway, the story is about paid news, and actually, it goes beyond paid news because here the media houses don’t want to do paid news and they get into criminal territory. It includes things like polarising the electorate, defaming the political rivals of a client, taking monetary compensation in cash etc.
5) How do you justify sting operations? It violates a lot of journalistic codes.
We have been doing undercover investigations since 2000. It has been 18 years. We have developed a lot of case laws in India. During these investigations, court orders have supported us. It is a journalistic form that was popular in US earlier and UK and still is. In fact, the recent Cambridge Analytics story was based on a sting done by Channel Four. Al Jazeera recently did an investigation, using camera and cricket match-fixing. Of course, media houses do it. Cobrapost does it with a greater degree of verve and imagination. We always have the public’s interest at the heart of all these.
6) Other than The Times of India, none of the other named media houses reacted to Operation 136. What do you have to say to that?
That is not true actually. Nearly all houses responded to us, and we have put it up on our site. Some have gone on to send us legal notices. If they pursue defamation cases against us, we don’t fear any cases. We have dealt with such things in the past. I mean we don’t just go ahead and do stories, we have an application on mind about it. We are not at all fearful of notices or any cases that may come our way.
7) Even when the court issued a ban on the public showing of the sting, you uploaded it on all social media sites. Did any problem arise of that?
The Delhi High Court asked us not to publish the Dainik Bhaskar part, and we did not do that. In fact, another Bangalore Court asked us not to publish the Suwarna thing, and we removed it from the site as well as soon as we came to know about it and as soon as our lawyers advised us to do that. We exist in the Indian legal system, and we follow that.
8) Do you think this sting operation was successful in informing the public about the reality of mainstream media houses?
Whether we succeeded or not, it is for the larger public to judge. We pushed forward our investigation to the public domain. Now what happens to that is something we will come to know in the ensuing weeks and months. But this story needed to be done. We talked about paid news. Last time, Paranjoy and others submitted a report about paid news to the Press Council of India, and they didn’t do anything about it. I am glad that our investigation has brought the focus back on the paid news. It’s high time media industry sort of developed a sense that things are not right. That they should go about correcting things and the reform should come from within.
Operation 136: Part 2
While in part 1 of the operation, journalist Pushp Sharma had stung prominent media houses including Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, DNA, Punjab Kesari, ScoopWhoop, India TV, Rediff and UNI earlier, the latest sting features some of the biggest names of mainstream media.
This includes Times of India, India Today, Hindustan Times, Zee News, Network 18, Star India, ABP News, Dainik Jagaran, Radio One, Red FM, Lokmat, ABN Andhra Jyothy, TV5, Dinamalar, Big FM, K News, India Voice, The New Indian Express, MVTV and Open magazine.