Last week, Cobrapost, a Noida-based investigative news portal, reported that managers and owners of some media houses in India were willing to advance the Hindutva agenda and polarise voters on religious lines in exchange for lucrative business deals.
The investigation has also alleged that following the protests in Kashmir, last year, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) asked Paytm, a mobile wallet company, to provide personal data of its users to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government. Media houses and Paytm have disputed Cobrapost's allegations.
Operation 136 (a reference to India's ranking in the World Press Freedom Index), caused an uproar over the state of the media, and reinforced concerns about the safety of user data in the hands of private service providers. CobraPost has also come under fire for obtaining the information through a sting operation. Media organizations the world over have long debated the ethics of reporting under false pretences using hidden cameras.
In a written interview, HuffPost India asked Aniruddha Bahal, founder and editor-in-chief of Cobrapost about Operation 136, its fallout, and the continued use of sting operations.
What is the key takeaway from Operation 136?
That we are a banana republic and no action will be taken against media houses who are not only willing to do paid news but go beyond into criminal territory: aid in polarization of communities, defame political rivals of clients, take compensation in cash.
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What motivated you to carry out this investigation?
It just happened organically. No mainstream media organisation would have done it nor anybody else. It takes a bus load of commitment and more.
How did you go about it?
We didn't want to approach journalists as they don't matter in the current scheme of things. We approached sales people, senior management and owners where possible. It took many months of efforts.
Pushp Sharma, the journalist who carried out the sting operation, is accused of extortion and fabricating an RTI response. Why should we trust his reporting?
Because, in my judgement, both those are examples of malicious prosecutions. The camera is a mechanical witness. And we oversaw the investigation.
Do you believe your piece has had the kind of impact you were hoping for?
Depends on how it pans out. The aftermath made the mainstream media look even worse. The attempts to shoot the messenger by certain platforms. But it was huge on social and thats the future. The mainstream wouldn't go against their own.
In his opinion piece, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued that sting operations rarely produce accountability, only deepen cynicism in our society. What do you think Operation 136 has achieved?
That's his opinion. I don't agree with it. Just to give you two examples. The 11 MPs that we showed taking money for asking questions in the Indian parliament were all dismissed. In 2013, our exposé on more than 28 private and public banks led to the KYC (Know Your Customer) reforms you saw eventually and unprecedented fines imposed by the RBI.
There is a large section of the media at home and abroad that believes sting operations violate the rules of journalism. The reporter is speaking untruths to get at the truth, which compromises the interaction and the outcome. How do you justify using sting operations?
The reporter in this case is forwarding a proposition which they believe to be a genuine proposition and they react to that proposition in ways that shows that they are willing to do paid news. And even go beyond that. Societies and justice systems have to take into account the public good that these revelations bring about vs the other stuff. For me, personally, it's a no brainer but then everybody is entitled to a view.
What do you make of the criticism that there is no way of knowing that these alleged conversations with managers and owners of media owners would have resulted in definite action?
That's a bogus line of argument. Many houses sent contracts. They were all waiting for the advance to come in. Some even ran bogus stuff just to come in our good books. They all would have run it if we showed them the color of money. Pay and play.
Major media houses have either ignored the sting operation or refuted your findings. What role has social media played in communicating your findings to the public?
It's easy to ignore. Tougher to confront and analyze, more so, when you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar. But we caught their reality. And nobody wants to be seen naked. Social media has been positive by and large.
Has it been enough? Were you hoping for wider engagement?
I am content with the traction it got.
Are you facing any legal action because of Operation 136?
Why would I face? Those who agreed to do criminal things should be the ones worried.
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