136-Part-1 Operation 136: Part 1 Intro

Operation 136: Part 1 Intro

Cobrapost investigation exposes many Indian media houses willing to peddle Hindutva, which could lead to communal polarization for electoral gains, and to defame political rivals as part of a malicious media campaign, all for money


cobrapost - March 26, 2018


New Delhi: “Any covert or overt attempt to misuse Social Media including Facebook to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be tolerated, nor be permitted,” thus spoke Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Law and Justice and Information and Technology, in his tweet on March 21, 2018, at 1:34 India time when a huge breach of Facebook data was reported a day earlier.

Well, this is exactly what Operation 136 establishes, for the first time in the history of Independent India and the world at large: Yes, Indian media houses do have the propensity to “influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means.”

The proposition was diabolical: If I reward you handsomely, would you peddle Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism to polarize the electorate and allow the party in power to harvest electoral dividends in coming elections? Ideally, the proposition should have been rejected at the outset.

But as this undercover investigation by senior journalist Pushp Sharma reveals, the lure of lucre proved too irresistible for almost all media houses, be it print, electronic or digital, to say no. To our utter shock, most of them not only agreed to do what he asked for but also suggested myriad ways for undertaking a well-orchestrated, overtly communal media campaign on behalf of their prospective big-ticket client.

In the course of this investigation, Sharma met owners or personnel of more than two dozen media houses, many marquee names, who are in decision-making positions. In return, he offered to pay them anything between Rs. 6 crore and Rs. 50 crore if they agreed to provide a platform to his media campaign. He made the agenda of this campaign explicit to them:

  1. In the initial phase, the first three months, promote Hindutva through customized religious programmes to create a congenial atmosphere.
  2. Then, the campaign will be geared up to mobilize the electorate on communal lines by promoting speeches of Hindutva hardliners, the likes of Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti, Mohan Bhagwat and others.
  3. As elections approach, the campaign will target opposition leaders, namely, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, caricaturing them using less than dignified language like Pappu, Bua and Babua, respectively, for them, in order to show them in poor light before the electorate.
  4. They will have to run this campaign on all platforms – print, electronic or digital including, e-news portals, web sites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

First, such a proposition is violative of various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which hold publication of content of communal and defamatory nature a criminal act punishable by imprisonment. Then, all acts the media personnel agreed to undertake for money violate the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 1951, the Conduct of Election Rules 1961 framed by the Election Commission of India (ECI), Companies Act 1956, the Income Tax Act 1961, and Consumer Protection Act 1986 and Cable Television Network Rules 1994 which together forbid deceptive or misleading advertisements, among other laws. These acts also violate the guidelines, namely, Norms and Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India (http://presscouncil.nic.in/OldWebsite/NORMS-2010.pdf), a quasi-judicial statutory body that was set up in 1978 by an Act of Parliament to act as a watchdog of the press.

Although one may argue that such violations are hypothetical, yet given Indian media’s penchant for twisting facts or serving pure rumours as news especially during civil strife to foment communal sentiments – the Kasganj episode is a clear case in point (https://scroll.in/article/866877/the-daily-fix-sections-of-the-media-placed-rumours-over-facts-when-reporting-on-the-kasganj-riot; https://thewire.in/221733/kasganj-communal-riot-hindutva-bjp/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCpWm16OkfE) – pleasing political masters of the day and tweaking news in favour of corporate interests, one can imagine how dangerous it is for Indian democracy.

What our investigation shows is symptomatic of the malaise that has set deep in the labyrinths of the citadel called Fourth Estate. It also shows that Indian media is on sale, lock, stock and barrel!

Here is a gist of what came out of all interactions that Sharma had during the course of this investigation:

  • They agreed to promote Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism and religious discourse.
  • They agreed to publish content with potential to polarize the electorate along communal lines.
  • They concurred to besmirch or thrash political rivals of the party in power by posting or publishing defamatory content about them.
  • Many of them were ready to accept cash, which in other words is black money, for the job to be assigned to them.
  • Some of the owners or important functionaries, who the reporter interacted with, admitted that they were either associated with the RSS or they were pro-Hindutva and would thus be happy to work on the campaign, forgetting the cardinal principle of journalism: neutrality. A typical example of conflict of interest.
  • Some of them agreed to plant stories in favour of the party in power in their publications.
  • Many of them agreed to develop and carry advertorials especially for this purpose.
  • Almost all agreed to run this campaign on their platforms – print, electronic or digital in its various avatars such as e-news portal, e-paper or social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • Some of them offered to do a complete media management to plant stories favouring the party in power in other publications with help from journalists other than their own organizations.
  • Some of them even agreed to run down Union ministers Arun Jaitly, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and her son Varun Gandhi.
  • Some of them also agreed to run stories against leaders of BJP alliance partners, like Anupriya Patel, Om Prakash Rajbhar and Upendra Kushwaha.
  • Some of them also agreed to defame the most noted and celebrated among the legal tribe and civil society like Prashant Bhushan, Dushyant Dave, Kamini Jaiswal and Indira Jai Singh.
  • Some of them even agreed to paint agitating farmers as Maoists in their stories.
  • Many of them agreed to create and promote such content as would aim for the “character assassination” of leaders like Rahul Gandhi.

 

Using an alias, Acharya Atal, and donning an ochre scarf, with “Radhe Radhe” painted in red on it, over a white kurta and dhoti, like a Pracharak, Sharma adopted malleable identities which he used according to the situation at hand. He first used his association with an Ujjain-based ashram, claiming himself to have been schooled at Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, to have been to IIT Delhi and IIM Bangalore, settled in Australia and running his e-gaming company out of Scotland. Sometimes, he claimed to be head of Madhya Pradesh unit of Om Prakash Rajbhar’s outfit Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, charged with party affairs in Karnataka, Maharashtra and the Northeast. In fact, Rajbhar has appointed Acharya Atal, that is Sharma, in-charge of his party’s state unit for a consideration of Rs. 50,000 which he accepted on camera while making very damaging confessions of how various BJP ministers of the Yogi government coordinate their not-so-honest activities from his office. We are not reproducing that report here as it would deflect this story. At times, Sharma used all his assumed identities in a single meeting. As the investigation evolved to take a pan-India character, he assumed the identity of a representative of a fictitious religious organization Shrimad Bhagvad Gita Prachar Samiti, purportedly on a mission, a gupt vyavastha (secret arrangement), at the behest of the “Sangathan” to bolster the prospects of the party in power in coming elections. In fact, elections are due both in 2018 for state assemblies, when voters in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will deliver their mandate, and then in 2019 when Indians will choose the party to govern the country for the next five years.

Crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country, Sharma met owners and important functionaries of various media houses and asked if they would run his media campaign. An important ingredient of this campaign was planting news items or content duly paid for to denigrate and sully the opposition, mainly the Congress party, JD, SP and BSP. In the first three months, the paid content will peddle soft Hindutva; as the relationship with their organization builds into a certain amount of trust, the content will take a political overtone, with a clear-cut tilt in favour of the party in power to bolster its prospects in 2019 general elections. As samples of the media campaign that he wanted to launch using their platforms, Sharma sometimes played before them some evocative jingles, caricaturing Rahul Gandhi, to set the tone of his interviews. Shockingly, these jingles were conceptualized and developed by the creative teams of some FM radio stations. Two such jingles are transcribed and reproduced here as samplers:

Jingle One:

A man speaking to a farmer: “Ye aapke pair khet mein gande kyon ho jaate hain (Why do your feet get soiled in the fields).”

Farmer: “Sahib mitti hai na khet mein … isiliye (It is because there is soil all around in the fields, Sahib).

Man: “Chinta mat karo … humari sarakar aayi toh poore khet mein farsh banwa denge (Don’t worry, if our party is voted to power, we will get all your fields cemented).”

Another Voice: “Kya aap apna vote aise Pappu leaders par barbaad karenge (Will you waste your vote on such Pappu leaders).”  The same voice now exhorts: “… apne vote kee qadra kijiye … sahi party ke liye vote kijiye … Karnataka kee janata ke liye Shri Bhagvad Gita Samiti dwara janhit mein jaari (Your vote is valuable … vote for the right party … Issued in public interest by Shri Bhagvad Geeta Samiti for the people of Karnataka).”  

Jingle two:

A man speaking to a villager: Aapki kya kya pareshaniya hain (What your problems are)?

Villager: Beta gaon mein paani bijli toh hai lekin ek bhi shamshan ghat nahi hai (Son, our village has both power and water but there is no cremation ground).

Man: Toh main kya karoon (So what can I do for you)?

Villager: Gaon mein shamshan ghat bana dete toh theek rahta (It would be fine if you can make a cremation ground for us).

Man: Hmmm … is baar humko jitana sabke gharon mein ek-ek shamashan ghat zaroor banwa doonga (Hmmm … then if you vote us to power this time around, I will sure have one cremation ground for each household).

A voice: “Kya aap apna vote aise Pappu leaders par barbaad karenge (Will you waste your vote on such Pappu leader).”

The same voice now exhorts: “… apne vote kee qadra kijiye … sahi party ke liye vote kijiye … Karnataka kee janata ke liye Shri Bhagavad Geeta Samiti dwara janhit mein jaari (Your vote is valuable … vote for the right party … Issued in public interest by Shri Bhagvad Gita Samiti for the people of Karnataka).”

Although the jingles look harmless, yet they are plain defamatory, showing the political leader in question in poor light before the electorate many of whom would definitely take him as someone to be not fit to lead them.

Bluffing that his “Sangathan” has set aside a budget of Rs. 742 crore for Karnataka elections alone, he tells them that in the last general elections the Sangathan had spent about Rs. 8,000 crore and the budget for the coming general elections would be much more than the previous elections, to help the party return to power in 2019 again. It will certainly bring a windfall for them. When the journalist sugar-coated his dirty proposition with offers ranging anything between Rs. 6 crore and Rs. 50 crore, they saw in it that proverbial goose which was waiting to lay eggs set in 22 carat gold for them.

No surprises then if media organizations, big or small, old or new, lapped up the proposition and expressed their willingness to go out of way while working on Sharma’s nefarious agenda. They not only agreed on camera to run such a toxic media campaign but some also sent Sharma their proposals for this campaign along with quotations on his e-mail.

With ascension of the Saffron Brigade to power especially at the Centre and in 22 states across the country, most of the media houses, both print and electronic, in their bid to become their “Master’s Voice” have of late taken up the cause of “nationalism” in favour of the dominant ideology of the day, thus turning a Nelson’s eye to real issues that dog the nation. It is this nationalism that Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) has brought into question while placing India at 136 on its 2017 World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking#). To quote the RSF: “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ʻanti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly becoming targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment.” RSF is a Paris-based independent body which works with 18 journalists’ organizations from as many countries and promotes and defends the freedom of press and information. The three-decade-old body enjoys a consultant status with the UNO.

Operation 136 derives its name from 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

It is interesting to note here that a few days before this story was released Pushp Sharma called up some of the media houses to ask them some more favours which were as whacky as they were outrageous. Of course, as part of his media campaign, he asked them to publish or air stories not only against Union ministers Arun Jaitly, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and her son Varun Gandhi but also against BJP alliance partners, in order to run them down. He also asked them to plant such stories as would link agitating farmers across the country with Maoists. He then asked them to rake muck on legal luminaries who have always fought for civil liberties and rights, and thus have always been an eyesore for the establishment, such as the likes of Prashant Bhushan, Dushyant Dave, Kamini Jaiswal and Indira Jai Singh. Finally, he demanded to paint the judiciary in such colour as would make their judgments controversial or questionable in the eyes of the people.

Oh, they rejected all these demands! You may say you guessed it right!

No, you are wrong!

Well in this age of agenda-driven journalism anything and everything is possible. And it cuts both ways! You show them the colour of money, they will run down any political party or individual howsoever high he or she may be in authority.

In the course of the investigation, names of certain individauls and organizations cropped which was purely incidental and was essential to bring to the fore the truth and as a result the story in all its shady aspects.

In the first part of Operation 136, we reproduce the excerpts of interactions that Sharma had with India TV, Dainik Jagran, Hindi Khabar, SAB TV, DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Amar Ujala, UNI, 9X Tashan, Samachar Plus, HNN 24*7, Punjab Kesari, Swatantra Bharat, ScoopWhoop, Rediff.com, IndiaWatch, Aj and Sadhna Prime News.

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Operation 136: Part 1

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