Exclusive for Cobrapost:  Government Curtails Ads to Curtail Press Freedom

Exclusive for Cobrapost: Government Curtails Ads to Curtail Press Freedom

Prateek Sibal |
October 15, 2018

When all else fails, the government of the day resorts to stopping ads to make newspaper organizations fall in line

There are many ways to muzzle the press. The British shut down the Bengal Gazette, India’s first newspaper, only a year after James Hicky had started it in 1870. The government did not like the idea that the paper should criticize the East India Company and its officials. Such cases of seizing printing presses or banning newspapers or magazines abound throughout India’s struggle for freedom from the British yoke.

Post-Independence, while governments today may not resort to seizing printing presses, the abuse of legal and financial tools to censor the press continues unabated. Every few weeks there are stories of editors being fired or journalists being attacked for doing their jobs. Bobby Ghosh, the editor of Hindustan Times, was eased out of office after his sustained coverage of hate crimes in the country. Even newspapers owned by trusts are not immune to external pressure. Harish Khare, editor of The Tribune, resigned after a tumultuous relationship with the trust. Under Khare's leadership, the paper exposed major lapses in the government's citizen data protection system. Similarly, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the former editor of Economic and Political Weekly, a journal owned by Sameeksha Trust, had to demit office after differences with the board over an article that examined alleged impropriety by the Adani group. Ironically, academics like Andre Beteille, Dipankar Gupta and Romilla Thapar are among the trustees.

Beyond the limited coverage of these incidents, there is little systematic evidence on how corporate and political interests are working together to restrict press freedom in India. This article looks at the most obvious, yet least studied, aspect of the media business – government advertising. Advertising fetches the media about 66 percent of total revenue. In other words, it is media’s mainstay or lifeline. Governments more often than not cut short this lifeline by curtailing the flow of advertisements to force newspapers fall in line or perish.

Our analysis of government ad spend in the past one decade, since 2009 to be precise, has thrown up some interesting facts:

  • Newspapers earn 75 percent of their revenue from government ads.
  • Government ad spend has seen a spurt in recent years, resulting in newspapers earning more.
  • Political ownership matters. Newspapers which are owned by individuals or organizations close to governments of the day are the ones which benefit most from government advertising.
  • There is high fluctuation in government ad spend share, suggesting attempts to subvert press freedom by hurting newspaper revenues. 
  • RSS mouthpieces like Panchjanaya and Organizer have witnessed a phenomenal rise in their ad spend share.
  • More than 50 percent Urdu newspapers have seen their ad spend share reduce by almost 50 percent over the past 3 years, suggesting discrimination along communal lines.

Apart from providing newspapers a steady source of revenue, advertising is also one of the drivers for their expansion. Regional editions focusing on small towns and cities became financially viable only when these regions started showing advertising potential after economic liberalization in the 1990s. As per an estimate by Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, a newspaper that sells for Rs. 1–4 costs at least Rs. 15–20 a copy to produce. Therefore, it is advertising, and not subscription, which ensures the survival of newspapers. Subscription revenues often constitute a minuscule 5–15 percent of the total revenues for English papers, for instance. As Figure 1 shows, advertising is registering strong growth across all mediums and it is expected to continue to dominate the news media’s revenue model.

Figure 1: Advertising growth between 2009 and 2019 (Data source: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GOI).

The heavy reliance on advertising begs two important questions:

  • How independent is the Indian news media?
  • To what extent are government and corporate advertisers controlling news coverage and editorial policies?

Sometime back, Vineet Jain, Managing Director of The Times Group had said, “If 90 per cent of your revenues come from advertising, you’re in the advertising business.” This is not an off-the-cuff remark. It rather underlines the business philosophy of one of the largest media conglomerate in the country. It is imperative to study media advertising to understand how it impacts press freedom in India.

As we look into the advertising revenue patterns, we find one area of concern: the number of newspapers relying on government advertisement as their primary source of revenue has also increased significantly. Figures 2 and 3 make it amply clear that the number of newspapers depending on government advertisement for more than 75 percent and between 50–75 percent of their revenues is increasing.

Figure 2: Number of newspapers for which government advertising constitutes more than 75 percent of the total revenues (Data source: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GOI).

Figure 3: Number of newspapers for which government advertising constitutes between 50 and 75 percent of the total revenue (Data source: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GOI).

Government budgeting for advertising flagship schemes such as Swachh Bharat, Skill India, Make in India, Indradhanush, Mudra, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, among others, has registered an increase of 36 percent between 2014–15 and 2015–16, from Rs. 250 crore to Rs. 350 crore.

The study analyzed Central government ad spend for each newspaper between 2008 and 2017.  The data has thrown up three interesting observations:

  1. Newspapers with owners close to the ruling parties have higher shares in advertising spend.
  2. There is a high fluctuation in the advertising spend share from one year to another for many newspapers. This is an unhealthy trend that directly hits at media’s independence and its long-term stability.
  3. Urdu newspapers have seen a bigger cut in spend share on average compared to other language newspapers after the BJP government came to power.

These observations lead to three issues that need to be probed:

  • Is the Indian news media biased?
  • How does the government use newspaper advertising spend to capture the press?
  • If there is a communal bias in how advertising is allotted to newspapers?

Central Government’s Advertising Process

The Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) is the nodal multi-media advertising agency of the Government of India. Ministries, departments and some autonomous bodies publish their advertisements through DAVP.

The all India budget is divided among states on the basis of the total circulation of newspapers in each state and language. Since the compilation of circulation figures is a time-consuming process, the inter-state division of funds is done on the basis of state population as per the census reports. Therefore, the overall year-to-year spend between states remains stable.

Finally, all empanelled newspapers enter into a rate contract with DAVP for a period of 3 years. However, newspapers can declare a change in their circulation figures on an annual basis too. The advertising rate structure is based on the recommendations of the rate Structure Committee.

It is important to note that the change in advertising spend per newspaper from one year to another is not heavily determined by the change in circulation numbers for two reasons: (i) the rate contracts that newspapers enter into are valid for three years and (ii) the state’s quota of advertising spend is relatively fixed as it is based on overall circulation numbers that do not change drastically from one year to another.

Is the Indian Media Biased?

We define bias as deviation from reporting the truth. A newspaper is biased if it distorts news to accommodate political, ideological or economic leanings of any particular interest group. The bias indicator hinges on the assumption that the UPA government before 2014 and the NDA government in 2014 have significant ideological differences and they support different media organizations. To determine whether a newspaper is biased or not, the mean change in share of advertising spend for three years before and three years after 2013 is used. In 2013, the government spend on advertising went up as it was just one year before the general election. Therefore, this year is not used to calculate the bias, as elections led to an increase in spend across the board.

Since most media organizations pride themselves in keeping a façade of neutrality, it is difficult to determine media bias by qualitative studies of media content. Instead, following the advertising money flow from government enables us to attribute a bias to the media organization based on which party is in power and which newspaper are they giving more advertisement to. 

For instance, Panchjanya, the RSS mouthpiece in Hindi language witnessed an increase of 466 percent in the mean advertising spend share when the BJP government came to power. Similarly, Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece in English had an increase in spend share of 214 percent, while Janmabhumi, a Malayalam Daily close to the BJP, saw a 413 percent and 1194 percent increase in share of advertising spending for its Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram editions, respectively.

For the purpose of this study, we categorized a total of 6380 newspapers into four types based on the change in their advertisement spend share for three years before 2013 and three years after 2013. Table 1 summarizes the results. The present government increased the advertisement by more than 50 percent for 896 newspapers. At the same time, 2664 newspapers saw a cut by more than 50 percent in their advertisement spend share.

The data shows that newspapers are being rewarded or punished based on their ownership and ideological leanings. For instance, The Indian Express, a newspaper known for its independence faced a cut in its ad spend share across most of its editions. Similarly, Andhra Bhoomi, a newspaper close to a Congress MP, faced cuts across its editions in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.Table 1: Changes in ad spend share post-2014 elections. The change is calculated as the difference between the average spend share for each newspaper for three years before 2013 and three years after 2013.

How governments capture the press?

In any business a constant revenue stream is important to plan investments. In the case of media, the reliance on government advertisement as a major source of revenue means that they are at the mercy of the government’s spending decisions. Any fluctuation in this key revenue account hinders long-term stability of the newspaper and investment in high-quality journalism. 

Fluctuation in newspaper ad spend share

Between 2008 and 2017 (excluding the years 2013 and 2014), there are 15633 instances when the year-on-year fluctuation in advertising spend share of the newspapers is more than 40 percent. Out of these, there are 7235 instances where the ad spend share increased by more than 40 percent and 8398 instances when it decreased by 40 percent. These high-fluctuation instances account for over 45 percent of all instances of change in ad spend share from one year to another. Table 2 summarizes the results.

Table 2: Year-on-year fluctuation in spend share of newspapers.

The above data measures the reports the change in advertising spend share from one year to another. This in itself is a destabilizing factor when it comes to media finances. However, when the fluctuation data is viewed for two consecutive years, attempts at rewarding and punishing newspapers become clear. There is no plausible reason for the advertising spend share of newspaper to be cut (or increase) by more than 40 percent in one year and then increase (or cut) by 40 percent in the following year.

This peculiar pattern in the data can be construed as an attempt to punish and reward newspapers. Table 3 shows four categories where the government is either giving sustained reward for following government’s preference by increasing the spend share in the following year or punishing for not following government’s preference by decreasing the spend share in the following year.

Table 3: Attempts of media capture by the government.

Is There a Communal Bias in Government Advertising?

A language-wise analysis of the data can help reveal if the government discriminates against newspapers along communal lines. The current BJP-led NDA government espouses a right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology, while the previous Congress-led UPA government was often accused of minority appeasement. A study of government advertisement in the Urdu language press is a potential indicator of the government’s attitude towards Muslims in India.

It is important to add a note of caution here. The relation between language and religion is more nuanced than the simple assertion made above. However, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that such a relation does exist. Hindi and Urdu are characterized by extreme diagraphia. The two 

languages have different scripts. Urdu is written in Nastaliq, which is based on the Arabic Naskh, whereas Hindi is written in Devanagari. But both derive from Hindvi.

Tariq Rahman explains that in pre-partition India, “Urdu was part of the Islamic culture and Muslim identity in India because it was the language of the dominant elite. When this elite lost its political power in the wake of British colonialism, it consolidated its cultural power through the techniques and artifacts of European modernity during the nineteenth century. The most important changes were a formal chain of schools, the printing press, an orderly bureaucracy and the concept of the unity of India. The schools in North India used Urdu as a medium of instruction. The printing press created and disseminated books in Urdu in larger numbers than could have been possible earlier. Indeed, as Francis Robinson points out, ‘The ulema used the new technology of the printing press to compensate for the loss of political power.”

This socio-cultural context to language and religious identities in India makes the methodology adopted to understand discrimination along communal lines in the government’s treatment of the newspapers a reasonable point of departure.

Language-wise Bias and Fluctuation

Out of total 619 Urdu newspapers, 54 percent of the newspapers faced a cut in government ad spend share of more than 50 percent over three years after NDA government came to power. While across all languages, on average 42 percent of the newspapers faced more than 50 percent cut in ad spend share in the same period. At the same time, only 10 percent of the Urdu newspapers saw an increase in advertising spend share of more than 50 percent, while on average 14 percent of the newspapers saw an increase of more than 50 percent. Tables 4 and 5 summarize the results across all languages.

Table 4: Language-wise change in ad spend share post-2014 elections. The change is calculated as the difference between the average ad spend share for each newspaper for three years before 2013 and three years after 2013.

Table 5
: Language-wise year-on-year fluctuation in newspaper advertising spend share.


This fluctuation pattern is seen under both the UPA and the NDA governments. It creates a worrisome situation for the freedom of press in India. By cutting at the roots of the media business, governments are scuttling the press freedom.

This warrants action on two fronts. First, there is need to strengthen the financial base of news media to make it independent. This would require strengthening the subscription model and devising other innovative approaches like those adopted by News Laundry that directly seeks public funding for specific stories. Second, there is need to develop an advertising policy that removes discretion and makes longer-term commitments to newspapers. This will free the press of political interference and enable media organizations to allocate resources for high-quality journalism that often requires long periods of investigation and large teams working together.

Note: No media bias indicator in academic literature is perfect and the same is true for this one. However, this could be a good starting point to initiate evidence-based discussion around media advertising policy of the government. 

(Prateek Sibal is Charpak Scholar at Sciences Po, Paris and was LAMP Fellow 2015–16. The author would like to thank Prof. Julia Cagé and Prof. Christophe Jaffrelot for helpful comments.)

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