India Today Group has threatened the portal with legal action, while Paytm has assured ‘user data is 100% secure’.
New Delhi: Four of the media houses named in an alleged sting operation by news portal Cobrapost have rejected allegations that they had agreed to run campaigns to promote Hindutva ahead of the 2019 general election, and favour a political party, for crores in payouts.
A digital payments company, accused of agreeing to share user information to reportedly facilitate the identification of stone-pelters, has denied the allegations as well.
The companies are the Times Group, The New Indian Express, India Today Group, and Zee News, as well as Paytm. ThePrint will name the other companies identified in the sting — ‘Operation 136’, named thus in a reference to India’s rank on the World Press Freedom index — when they respond to the allegations.
According to Cobrapost, journalist Pushp Sharma went undercover as a Hindutva activist, Acharya Atal, and met people serving in managerial positions at the media groups, allegedly asking them to run a campaign in favour of the BJP.
Based on the purported sting videos, released Friday, the portal has claimed that while some of the companies allegedly settled for a few crores, others sought as much as Rs 500 crore.
Cobrapost said the only exceptions that emerged from the two-part expose were Bartaman Patrika and Dainik Sambad, while all the others approached were allegedly willing to run planned multimedia campaigns to promote Hindutva through customised religious programmes for the first three months, and subsequently via speeches of Hindutva hardliners such as Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti and Mohan Bhagwat to polarise voters.
A part of the campaign was also supposed to target opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav.
A day before it released the sting videos online, the Delhi High Court had stopped the portal from releasing content pertaining to Dainik Bhaskar Corporation Limited after the media house moved court.
Sharma was earlier arrested and eventually released on bail after a news report published in Milli Gazette in March 2016 claimed that the AYUSH ministry was not employing Muslims. While Sharma had claimed that the documents supporting the report were accessed by him under the RTI Act, the government said that they were forged.
Response of the India Today Group
The videos purportedly showed interactions between Sharma and Kalli Purie, the vice-chairperson of the India Today Group, over using programming based on Krishna and the Bhagwad Gita to promote Hindutva.
While Purie apparently agreed to the idea, that included calling Right-wing leaders as guests on programmes aired by India Today TV channels, she also allegedly said they would be criticised for carrying out “infield activities” that the group didn’t agree with editorially.
Before Purie, the journalist also interacted with a man named Rahul Shaw, identified as a senior managerial executive at the group, who claimed to be very “pro-government”.
The India Today Group has denied the charges, warning Cobrapost to immediately stop and suspend the broadcast regarding the media house or face legal action.
In a statement, the media house said that, during the meeting between the Cobrapost reporter and India Today Group managers, it was communicated by the group that it would not do anything unethical, and that any advertising creative that divided the country on religious or caste lines would not be acceptable and aired on its channels.
“However, in your video posted online, this has not been adequately reflected and has distorted the truth,” it said, adding that the broadcast was out of context and had been “manipulated with the intention to tarnish the reputation of the India Today Group”.
Response of The New Indian Express
One of the videos purportedly showed a senior managerial executive at The New Indian Express (TNIE) agreeing to the idea of running certain campaigns proposed by the Cobrapost journalist in the form of advertorials.
Responding to questions from ThePrint, J. Vigneshkumar, senior vice-president (marketing) at the newspaper group, said Cobrapost could not talk about editorial compromises at TNIE since its interaction was limited to a couple of advertising executives and the discussion centred on advertising campaigns alone.
He added that nowhere in the video was the marketing official heard saying that the campaign proposed by the journalist would be run in the newspaper as news.
“It is a clear case of a proposed advertisement campaign and on multiple occasions during the conversation, references have been made only to carrying ‘advertisements’. To paint it otherwise is being dishonest,” he said.
He also said TNIE did not accept advertisements with a communal colour or those intended to create communal tension.
He said the marketing staffer’s argument that the use of suggested words (references to Lord Krishna, among others), even in the form of an advertisement, had to be legally vetted had been buried.
Times Group and Zee say they conducted stings too
One of the videos in the portal purportedly shows Times Group MD Vineet Jain telling Sharma that while they would be ready to work with him, they had to look neutral, “as neutral as possible”, as a corporate.
The group’s executive president (mergers and acquisitions corporate), Sanjeev Shah, also purportedly suggested that topics related to Hinduism, Hindutva, Lord Krishna, Bhagwad Gita could be brought into the final round of the Femina Miss India pageant, which is organised by the group.
Shah purportedly tells the journalist that Jain had said nothing less than Rs 500 crore should be charged for the campaign.
The duo is also seen discussing with the journalist viable options of making the transaction. While the journalist insists he wants to make part of the transaction in cash, Jain and Shah try convincing him to pay by cheque and also check the option of making payments through bigger corporate groups.
Times Group chief manager Bipin Kumar is quoted by the portal as saying that Modi and Amit Shah were not too happy with the group, and that something needed to be done to pacify them.
While an email sent to Jain didn’t yield a response, an article, titled ‘Cobrapost’s sting on media groups based on doctored content and falsification’, on The Times of India website, states, “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.”
It stated that the fact is that BCCL senior functionaries were aware that the person (Pushp Sharma) claiming to be Acharya Atal was an impostor 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,” it stated.
Stating that BCCL was seeking legal opinion to initiate appropriate action against Cobrapost and Sharma for their “illegal activities” and “defamation”, it added, “The fact is that no actual business deal was done and no money exchanged in any form whatsoever with BCCL. In fact, it was Sharma who was insisting on payment by cash, while BCCL representatives continued engaging with him on the subject in order to understand his real backers and agenda.”
While Zee News editor Sudhir Chaudhary didn’t respond to messages from ThePrint, a show broadcast on its regional channels claimed to have carried out a reverse sting on Sharma called ‘Operation Rashtravad’ to “unmask him and his intentions”.
The sting operation also shows Ajay Shekhar Sharma, senior VP and brother of Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, claiming that someone from the PMO had sought data of users to identify stone-pelters.
Paytm, however, denied this in a statement posted on Twitter.
“There is absolutely NO TRUTH in the sensational headlines of a video doing rounds on social media. Our users’ data is 100 per cent secure and has never been shared with anyone except law enforcement agencies on request. Thank you for your continued support,” Paytm tweeted.
Disclosure: Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma is an investor in ThePrint.
Videos are all authentic, says Cobrapost editor
Talking to ThePrint, Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal said the videos were all authentic as the reporter shot them and then handed them over to the portal.
“If outstation, it would be (handed over) when he came back. Sometimes for safety reasons, we even collected footage from outstation (sic) by sending office staff,” he said. “We took care of all the expenses subject to an upper limit. We have yet to pay the whole amount as we are capital-pressed right now because of the termination of our Times of India contract, but hope to give the remaining amount soon,” he added.
According to Bahal, the “contract” referred to here was an arrangement wherein Cobrapost would “provide stories to The Times of India“. He said the contract was terminated after the first part of the sting was released.
“The commitment of the reporter can be seen from the fact that he ended up spending more from his own pocket as well,” Bahal said.
“Any investigation needs time, money, talent, luck and perseverance. Also you can’t publish them if you listen too much to your lawyers or accountants,” he said.