Cobrapost named its undercover investigation Operation 136 in reference to India’s ranking in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index. And what it found could explain why this country, the cradle of an exceptionally dynamic press, has fallen so low.
Cobrapost posted an initial series of videos in March and a second series, “Part II,” on 25 May. They show Cobrapost reporter Pushp Sharma posing as a right-wing Hindu nationalist activist meeting the owners of 27 leading media groups while carrying a hidden camera.
He offered each of them significant sums of money – to be paid in cash if necessary – in return for favourable coverage of the activities of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the 2019 general election. Almost all of these media bosses accepted the offer and most of them promised to set up special teams for this purpose.
After the latest series of Operation 136 videos were released, three of the targeted media groups sent legal notices to Cobrapost and to other independent media outlets, such as The Wire and The Quint, that published stories about the Cobrapost sting on their own websites.
On the eve of Part II’s release, the Dainik Bhaskar group managed to get an injunction blocking the publication of any material referring to its directors. The Suvarna News group obtained a similar court order after the release.
“These are temporary injunctions, not takedown orders,” Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal told RSF. “We don’t get intimidated. It is they who have to worry. Not us.” The legal battle is continuing.
“The press groups that have brought legal proceedings against Cobrapost must abandon them at once,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Trying to kill the messenger instead of addressing the problems he reported is a terrible admission of weakness, if not guilt. The editorial independence of journalistic staff is one of the pillars of respect for press freedom.”
Bastard added: “Cobrapost’s revelations say a lot about the practices of those who run most of India’s leading media groups, and about the pressure they put on their journalists. With a year to go to the next general election, it is high time to allow India’s journalists to again enjoy the freedom they used to have, so that they can provide the public with more impartial news coverage.”
In the Operation 136 videos, Sharma is seen offering media bosses tens of million rupees in exchange for three things: praise of Hindutva, the fundamentalist Hindu ideology that spawned the BJP; coverage discrediting opposition leaders who could pose a threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and promotion of views liable to polarize voters, for example, by exploiting hatred of Muslims.
Only two media groups clearly rejected the offer on ethical grounds. They were Bartaman Patrika and Dainik Sambad, which are both based in West Bengal. All the others agreed readily.
“This is dismal,” said Bahal, who launched Cobrapost in 2003. “There is a lot of carrot and stick from the government and a lot of self-censorship as a result. For those who want to expose and investigate, there are just a handful of organizations that would support their endeavour. That is sad.”
Open Magazine is the only targeted media that has so far taken measures against those who agreed to the offer of Cobrapost’s undercover reporter. Two Open Magazine executives have been sanctioned by its management.
Between the release of the first batch of Operation 136 videos in March and the release of the second batch a few days ago, India fell another two places in the RSF World Press Freedom Index, and is now ranked 138th out of 180 countries.