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Paid news syndrome is a full blown cancer in Indian Media
The bygone year have witnessed a series of discussions on the paid news culture in the mainstream Indian media among civil society groups, parliamentarians, the media watchdog and also the election commission of the country.
THE INDIAN media in particular and Indian people in general have started talking about the 'paid news syndrome' officially. The bygone year had witnessed a series of discussions on the paid news culture in the mainstream Indian media among civil society groups, parliamentarians, the media watchdog and also the election commission of the country.

The practice that involves money in acquiring media space by the beneficiaries unethically remained an important issue in India for many years now. But finally a large number of influential media persons' and media organisations have shown their concern with the ill practice of journalism in the country. Then the ‘tendency of a section of media groups (both print and visual) to receive money for some non-advertorial items in their media space’ was picked up by the Press Council of India, the Election Commission of India and the Upper House of Indian parliament.

The practice of offering envelopes to reporters remained visible across Asian media and especially India and China for decades. But lately the practice appears to be becoming institutionalised, not by poverty-stricken reporters but by the publishers themselves. It is alleged that many media houses in India irrespective of their volume of business have started selling news space after some understandings with the politicians and corporate people without clearly mentioning that these items are advertisements.

The recent comment of concern by the Press Council chairman Justice (retired) GN Roy admitting that the media in India has ‘terribly deviated from its aims and objectives’ attracted the attention of conscious citizens. Addressing a distinguished gathering at Agartala on December 26, 2010, the former Supreme Court judge described that some media groups had already emerged as the brand ambassadors of corporate houses (or certain political parties), which is not at all ethical in a democratic society.

Delivering his lecture in the meeting, organised by Tripura Journalists Union at Agartala Press Club (which was also addressed by Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, PCI member SN Singh with others) Roy agreed on principle that in India, anybody or everybody can go for a media house with the required capital, but the practice, he asserted, must not be considered as only a profit earning avenues.
Talking about a sub-committee, constituted by PCI last year, the chairman reveals that it unearthed many shocking facts about some big media houses’ involvement in the paid news scandal. From the South Asia Free Media Association (India chapter) meeting in Mumbai two years back to an important meeting of Editors' Guild of India last year, the issue of paid news was debated and discussed widely. The Indian editors' forum also sent a letter to all of them asking for pledges that his/her 'publication/TV channel will not carry any paid news' as the practice 'violates and undermines the principles of free and fair journalism'.

Indian media otherwise is recognised as more sensitive, patriotic and very much influential tool in the socio-political sphere since the days of freedom movement. The father of Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi initiated his movement with the moral power of active journalism.

Today, India with its billion population supports nearly 70,000 registered newspapers and over 450 Television channels (including some 24x7 news channels). The Indian media, as a whole, often plays the role of constructive opposition in the Parliament as well as in various Legislative Assemblies of the state. Journalists are, by and large, honoured and accepted as the moral guide in the Indian society. While the newspapers in Europe and America are losing their readership annually, the Indian print media is still going stronger with huge circulation figure and market avenues. For democratic India, the media continues to be acclaimed as the fourth important pillar after judiciary, parliament and bureaucratic set-up.

Unfortunately the paid news syndrome has surfaced as a full blown cancer in the mainstream Indian media. Millions of rupees have been transacted under this practice to the media houses, which was initially diagnosed by veteran editor-journalists like Prabhash Joshi, BG Verghese and few others. Then come P Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, who warned that the corporatisation of the media world had simply threatened the existence of free media. Sainath continued his endeavour to highlight the ill affect of paid news through his regular columns in the prestigious newspaper.

"The proprietors now grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of their 'friendly politicians' in the newspapers," Sainath warned. "Furthermore, to entertain their growing demands, many media groups have even gone for arranging extra space (during election periods). Let's finish the culture of paid news, otherwise it will finish us in the coming days."
The PCI, a quasi-judicial body, earlier established a special committee to examine violations of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting. The press council acknowledged that a section of Indian media had 'indulged in monetary deals with some politicians and candidates by publishing their views as news items and bringing out negative news items against rival candidates' during the last elections.'

A member of the PCI investigative committee, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta said in an interview that the committee received many complains from the journalists that a large number of newspapers and television channels (in various languages) had been receiving money to provide news space (and even editorials) for the benefit of politicians.

Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, the eminent media critic Guha Thakurta claimed that the paid news culture clearly violates the guidelines of the Election Commission (of India), which makes restriction in the expenditure of a candidate (for any Legislative Assembly or Parliamentary elections). "Amazingly, we have found that some newspapers even prepared rate cards for the candidates in the last few elections. There are different rates for positive news coverage, interviews, editorials and also putting out damaging reports against the opponents," Guha Thakurta asserted.

The Indian Election Commission also asked the Press Council of India 'to define what constitutes paid political news', so it can adopt appropriate guidelines. It also directed the press council to 'formulate guidelines to the media house' to require that the money involved be incorporated in the political party and candidate expenditures.

Rajdeep Sardesai, the chief editor of the CNN-IBN television news channel and also former president of Editors’ Guild said he was 'deeply shocked and seriously concerned at the  increasing number ofreports detailing the pernicious practice of publishing paid news by some newspapers and television channels, especially during the recent elections'.

"We strongly believe that the practice of putting out advertising as news is a grave journalistic malpractice. Moreover the trend threatens the foundation of journalism by eroding public faith in the credibility and impartiality of news reporting. It also vitiated the poll process and prevented a fair election, since richer candidates who could pay for their publicity had a clear advantage," Sardesai added.

While admitting the right of news media to go for advertisements in various occasions, Sardesai insisted that the 'media houses should distinguish the advertisements with full and proper disclosure norms, so that no reader and viewer is tricked by any subterfuge of advertisements published and broadcast in the same format, language and style of news'.

The Indian Women's Press Corps, the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists and the Network of Women in Media, India had also expressed concern over the issue. Condemning the practice, NWMI, the forum of women media professionals, stated in a release, "We strongly believe that the present crisis in the media, of which paid news is a grim symptom, requires urgent, serious intervention by media professionals working together to safeguard the principles and values of journalism and the credibility of the news media, which are both critical factors for the effective functioning of our democracy."

The Union Information and Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni also admitted that the practice of paid news is ´a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press´. "The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people. However, when paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion. Thus, there is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect the public's right to correct and unbiased information,"  Soni added.
Speaking to this writer, Hiten Mahanta, a Guwahati-based media observer claims that many regional newspapers in Northeast India in effect sell favourable reporting for extra income.

"You can find a number of examples in Guwahati, where the proprietors of the media houses had misused the media space for their individual benefits. It is amazing how some newspapers (and also news channels) change their point of views towards a politician or party suddenly after getting money (in cash or kind)," Mahanta said.

There are specific allegations that many journalists in Guwahati, who are among the lowest paid in India with starting salaries as little as US50 dollara month, enjoy regular payments like monthly lump sum compensation from politicians in power. Licenses for wine shops are offered to reporters (and accepted happily by many) with the inherent understanding that they only write positive stories and if possible, kill negative reports against their politician-financers.

However, the newspapers of Assam still maintain ethical values in respect of editorial space, as those are not being utilised visibly for earning extra hard cash till now, observers say. But how long it will continue that remains a bigger question!
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