December 4, 2012

Extortion Arrests Fuel Credibility Crisis for India Media

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India’s best journalists are producing impressive investigative reporting these days. But the unprecedented arrests last week of two journalists for extortion highlights a troubling problem for the country’s free-wheeling media: widespread payoffs and a worrisome lack of credibility. Veteran Delhi-based journalist Shantanu Guha Ray reports on what one prominent editor calls “our News of the World moment.”

New Delhi-based journalist Shantanu Guha Raya warns of “a dark and ugly side of the Indian media.”

(New Delhi) On a balmy Tuesday, November 27, 2012, the Delhi Police arrested two senior television journalists on extortion charges leveled by a steel baron.

The arrests – following a daylong probe over tea, biscuits and a frugal meal at a non-descript interrogation center in the heart of the city – was the first of its kind in India.

So were the charges.

Last month, steel baron Navin Jindal, also a member of Parliament of the Congress Party-led ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and a top polo player, had distributed at a press conference compact discs of a coffee shop recording showing the journalists, Sudhir Chaudhary and Samir Alhuwalia of TV channels Zee News and Zee Business respectively, demanding cash for not airing their investigation into what they claimed were corrupt practices by Jindal’s company, Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL).

Zee News is India’s third largest Hindi-language channel. Zee Business is one of two Hindi business news channels in the country.

The two journalists denied the charge against them and said they were – actually – offered bribes by JSPL, a $3.5 billion turnover company that had already drawn flak for being allegedly favored by the UPA government while sanctioning coal mines under a first-come-first-get basis.

The trigger for the scam was a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the country’s auditor, which highlighted a whopping Rs 1,000,000 crore (US$180 billion) loss to the national exchequer because of what it called a flawed disbursal process.

The coal scam story was broken by India Today, a top weekly, in October 2011. Subsequently, several Indian publications and news channels carried details of companies benefitting from the scam. It was alleged that JSPL had reportedly pocketed nearly one-fourth of the mines offered by the Coal Ministry, then headed by the country’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Zee Telefilms, the parent company of the two channels (and several others) denied the JSPL charge and claimed their editors had gone to meet the JSPL officials to discuss an advertising contract stretching over four years.

But investigators of the Crime Branch of Delhi Police didn’t buy the Zee theory, nor did officials of the Indian Broadcasting Association (IBA) who previewed the CD and squarely blamed the two editors for trying to negotiate a deal with JSPL. Chaudhary, who was an IBA treasurer, was instantly removed from the post.

For almost three weeks since the Jindal press conference took place, the Crime Branch investigators continued their probe and sent the CDs offered by JSPL for forensic tests. Unconfirmed reports said the cops even had access to telephone conversations between the editors and their owners that conclusively proved their complicity in the extortion case. Initially, the editors avoided the summons for almost a month and lobbied hard with rival political parties to make it a big, prestige issue of what Zee claimed was the government’s pressure tactics to “muzzle the media.” No support was forthcoming.

It was a clear signal for the cops in India’s politically sensitive capital. The editors were told if they avoid the summons again, they will be raided and arrested. The two instantly fell in line.

During the interrogation, the two editors repeatedly blamed Jindal and the ruling UPA government for their arrest and said the act was comparable to the days of the Emergency (1975-77) when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government had gagged the media. But – for some strange reasons – the two remained silent when confronted with proof of their negotiations with JSPL officials.

“They were sweating profusely when confronted with the evidence,” said a senior police officer privy to the probe. “They first asked for a Rs 20 crore rupee (US$3.6 million) deal for four years and then hiked it to Rs 100 crore (US$18 million) for the same period. They first said they wanted to do a sting operation on JSPL officials. Then they claimed they went to discuss advertisement possibilities. The editors were trying their best to cover up.” A few family members of the editors, present in the police station, started weeping when the two were being taken to the court.

At the same time, another drama was unfolding in the capital. Zee News officials had called a press conference to claim their editors were being punished for exposing corruption. “This is the darkest day for the Indian media,” claimed Alok Aggarwal, CEO, Zee Telefilms. “We did nothing wrong. Our editors were being told to drop news reports of the coal scam involving JSPL by Jindal and other Congress Party leaders.” During the pressure, Aggarwal reminded journalists of the Rs 150 crore rupee (US$27 million) defamation charge the channel had leveled against JSPL.

“The arrests have been made to sensationalize the issue and to lend a cover to the coal scam and in particular to favor Naveen Jindal, Congress MP, and his company JSPL,” Aggarwal read from a statement at the press conference.

Aggarwal also claimed that Zee promoter Subhas Chandra never asked the editors to raise cash for the channel. This was contrary to the report submitted by the investigators that said while striking the deal, the two accused had contacted Chandra which reflects his alleged involvement in the case.

The media baron, who models himself as India’s answer to Rupert Murdoch, was issued summons by the Delhi Police but he managed to duck the dart. His office told the Crime Branch that Chandra, whose other non-media business interests include exports, packaging and entertainment parks, was out of India and would be back only next month.

Zee News staffers, however, received an e-mail from Goyal – wherein it was written that the channel was paying a “heavy price” for taking on the ruling Congress Party.

But the e-mail and the Zee News press conference found little support and sympathy from political parties and thinkers across the country. Worse, former judge Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, a state-owned media watchdog, demanded that the government cancel the broadcasting license of Zee News while investigations are on. “Prima facie evidence shows Zee is guilty. They should not be running the news channel till the probe is on,” Katju told reporters.

Emboldened, JSPL – which had also slapped a counter Rs 200 crore (US$36 million) extortion case against the channel – held its ground. “The case is sub-judice. I will not offer any comments but we will fight to the end,” Jindal told reporters in the afternoon of Wednesday, November 28.

A few hours later, a local court sat till late evening to hear arguments from both sides and remanded the two editors for an additional two days of police remand in a lock up close to the city’s diplomatic zone.

In the night, India’s primetime television anchors, who often pride themselves for setting the national agenda, were seriously debating credibility jitters among the country’s news companies and its news gatherers.

“Indian media is suffering from a serious credibility issue,” remarked Vinod Mehta, a veteran journalist and former editor of India’s widely circulated Outlook newsweekly.

Dilip Bobb, a veteran editor who was part of the team that started India Today, India’s largest newsmagazine, said the Zee News incident reflected a dark and ugly side of the Indian media. “What was horrifying was to watch two young editors sipping tea and nibbling on biscuits and cookies and reassuring Jindal’s men that the demand for cash is routine in Indian media and not an one-off case. If editors cut deals, then God save us.”

Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of India’s iconic Tehelka magazine, called it the biggest media scandal the nation has ever seen. “It’s our News of the World moment,” Chaudhury wrote in her column on the magazine’s website.

Many were also upset because some months ago, the Mumbai-based Daily News and Analysis (DNA), a newspaper owned by the Zee group, had advertised a front-page slogan: “Money cannot buy our integrity”, an apparent jibe at a rival daily known for giving favorable coverage to companies driving the revenue in the subcontinent’s $6 billion strong advertising market.

“The very objectivity of the Indian news media is now in question,” Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express daily that is known for its investigative journalism, told a television debate.

To many, the Zee episode was worse than the scandal that erupted in 2010 after two weekly news magazines published audio recordings of PR agent Niira Radia revealing a cozy relationship between the journalists and subjects they are supposed to cover objectively.

“The tapes revealed that the Indian media looked fiercely independent but was ready to be influenced,” says Mehta.

Manish Tiwari, the country’s suave information and broadcasting minister, says it is Indian media’s biggest wakeup call.  “Paid news or plugs for cash has replaced serious newsgathering in the Indian media,” he told journalists in Delhi.

He should know. Lost in the biggest media scandal is the story whether JSPL actually violated norms to earn the coal blocks.

Sadly, no one is chasing JSPL. Reporters are stationed outside the prison where two journalists are holed up with other criminals. That’s saleable, breaking news for them.

A senior journalist, Shantanu Guha Ray broke the US$180 billion coal scam story in 2011 while working for India Today, the country’s largest weekly. He is currently associated with the Vienna-based Central European News as its India representative.



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