In the last four years, the Madhya Pradesh government has spent ₹14 crore on advertisements in 234 "news" websites, many of which carry outdated information and are run by journalists or their relatives, an Indian Express investigation has found.
These websites have received advertisement amounts ranging from ₹10,000 to ₹21.7 lakh, according to a response that is being prepared by the government to a question in the state assembly by Congress MLA Bala Bachchan, reported Express.
Even though several of these websites are not frequently updated, spokespersons from the state government told Express that these advertisements were sent out to capture the "new medium" of websites, since they are "the new news media".
"Money was given to popularise this new medium, no matter who runs those sites," Anupam Rajan, commissioner for public relations, Madhya Pradesh, told Express. “We have now revised the policy of giving advertisements to web sites. Before giving any money, we check whether they are actually working or not."
He added that the government now had more checks in place that documented the popularity of a website before handing out advertisements.
Shockingly, the Express investigation found that some of these websites carried the same articles, and many owners were the wives of well-established journalists in Madhya Pradesh. While one editor of an English media organisation — Nitendra Sharma, editor of the English daily Free Press — did not think it was a "big issue" that his wife was running a Hindi news website that received several lakhs in the form of government advertisements, Anurag Upadhyay, another former television journalist whose wife runs a website, has no dateline for its reports and yet received ₹19.7 lakh for advertisements. A few have broken hyperlinks, missing images, or rely on Twitter and Facebook feeds of government social media pages.
One senior editor of a national English daily, Gireesh Sharma, who is the resident editor of The Pioneer in Bhopal admitted that even though it was "unethical" for his wife to run a news website and receive lakhs in government money for advertisement, it "wasn't illegal".