When Journalism Becomes Propaganda War on Truth and Democracy: Cobrapost Stings Unmask India's Big Media Houses

The recent Cobrapost Sting operation codenamed 136 (this was India’s global rank in terms of press freedom index when perhaps the sting was shot, by the time the sting was made public India’s rank had however slipped to 138 according to the 2018 list) gives us a very clear insight into the functioning of the dominant Indian media under the Modi dispensation.

The sting follows a very simple script that mirrors the standard template of mainstream media discourse in Modi’s India. Journalist Pushp Sharma poses as Acharya Atal who claims to represent an association meant to propagate the teachings of Gita. Acharya Atal flaunts his association with the Nagpur establishment (the headquarters of the RSS) and proposes a lucrative three-stage advertorial campaign (mixing advertisement and editorial) that would begin with the teachings of Gita and similar soft Hindutva capsules and then go on to lampoon key opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav before resorting to straightforward communal polarization around the time of the big battle over the next Lok Sabha.

The proposed budget for this campaign ran into crores, even as high as 500 crores. Here too the sting gives us a crucial reality check. Acharya Atal proposes to pay the bulk of the money in cash and only a small amount in cheque. This does not however deter the media houses (with the sole exception of only two Bengali newspapers that managed to steer clear of the proposal), the big bosses of the Times of India group in fact get involved in discussing the nitty-gritty of facilitating the huge cash transaction. The media houses covered in this sting operation include several big names including the Times of India and India Today. There is also a sting involving top officials of Paytm who divulge the chilling fact how they got a call from the PMO to share user data apparently to tackle stone pelting in Kashmir. This is in clear violation of the terms on which users install the Paytm app.

The revelations should have caused a huge earthquake in the media. The judiciary, self-regulatory institutions keeping an eye on the media and investigative agencies dealing with mega transactions and revenue intelligence should have swung into action. But the Cobrapost revelations have met with a deafening silence from the mainstream media, from well known columnists and commentators and the entire institutional apparatus of democracy in India. The only response we have got so far are stories questioning the credentials of the journalist carrying out the sting operation, a statement from the India Today group clarifying that nobody from their editorial team met the Cobrapost journalist, and a funny explanation from the TOI group that it was actually a case of a reverse sting operation by the TOI top brass! This conspiracy of silence only confirms the rot that characterizes much of India’s current mainstream corporate media. The alacrity with which big media agencies are willing to function as the propaganda wing of the ruling party and the dominant rightwing ideological establishment stands exposed with stunning clarity.

While most media houses are competing among themselves to serve as organs of the fascist propaganda offensive, there are of course honourable exceptions, both media platforms and individual journalists, who continue to speak truth to power and challenge the reign of hate and lies by bringing to the fore real issues affecting the people. The fascist regime is desperately trying to silence these critical voices by all means. The social media troll army continues to hurl abuses at them, senior leaders of the ruling establishment spew venom at every opportunity and we now also have open death threats, issued not by anonymous twitter handles but by real people who have the audacity to upload videos threatening to kill the likes of Ravish Kumar and Rana Ayyub. Instead of expecting the media to stand up and fight for democracy, the time has come when the people must take it upon themselves to defend media freedom as vigorously as we fight for our own lives, livelihood and liberty.

Liberation Archive