Cobrapost exposé: The lowdown on what the tapes say

Media houses respond saying ‘the deal’ was about ad content.

ByAmit Bhardwaj
Cobrapost exposé: The lowdown on what the tapes say
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Soon after the Delhi journalists’ protest against the Delhi Police ended at Press Club of India, news portal Cobrapost released a sting operation named Operation 136.

The sting raises serious questions on a section of news organisations against whom the investigation was carried out.

Part one of Operation 136 purportedly shows sales representatives of these organisations agreeing to run pro-Hindutva stories. It also shows them willing to target opponents of the Hindu right-wing for a fee.

Those shown in the video as representatives of these organisations were ready to run sustained campaigns on belittling and ridiculing opposition leaders in a phase-wise manner.

A few even purportedly agreed to “cut to size” leaders such as Maneka Gandhi, Varun Gandhi and OP Rajbhar by running stories against them.

Senior reporter Pushp Sharma, who carried the investigation for Cobrapost, posed as Acharya Chhatrapal Atal from Shri Bhagwat Geeta Prachar Samiti. Sharma claims to have met senior sales and advertisement representatives, owners and, in two instances, even bureau chief and editor-in-chief of Hindi news channels. According to the portion of the conversation released by the portal, the said representatives were ready to manipulate public perception through a sustained campaign.

Hindi Khabar editor-in-chief Atul Agrawal, in a telephonic conversation, agreed to run stories against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and its allies who are “arm-twisting” the leadership.

Agrawal can be heard saying:“In logon ko aaj se girana shuru kar dunga [Will start running stories against them from today and will send you the link].”

According to Cobrapost, Agrawal sent the message with the link to a story—‘The Seven Enemies of Yogi (Adityanath) Who Don’t Want Him to Continue as Chief Minister—which was supposedly “against” several BJP leaders and the government’s allies.

The story shows “seven enemies” of Yogi—five of whom are leaders discussed between Agrawal and “Acharyaji”.

The Hindi Khabar story termed Maneka and Varun Gandhi, Manoj Sinha, OP Rajbhar and Anupriya Patel as enemies of Yogi in light of the BJP’s defeat in the Phulpur and Gorakhpur bypolls.

Representatives of some of these news organisations were also seemingly ready to accept cash payments for running such campaigns.

The “representatives” of Hindi Khabar, Sadhna Prime News, Dainik Jagran (based in Ranchi) and HNN Live 24*7 (Dehradun-based local channel) made the most outrageous claims.

One Sanjay Pratap Singh, a marketing area manager with Dainik Jagran (Ranchi), was caught on camera saying purportedly that Jagran is perceived as “Hindutva-branded”. When asked, he agrees to run stories against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress. Singh, while discussing ways in which he can “help” Acharya (Sharma) target the Banerjee government, is also heard making a shocking claim. “Personally I have several people—including gents and ladies from different firms who are ready to do all kinds of work,” he says. The emphasis he lays on “all kinds of work” is hard to miss. “Agar kisi ke saath so kar bhi data lena ho, to kar denge [Even if someone needs to sleep with someone to acquire ‘data’, it can be done],” he explains.

As part of the operation, Sharma told these representatives that he wants to run a campaign in three phases—soft-Hindutva stories, first; ridiculing opposition leaders, second; and supporting a certain political party, third.

Cobrapost‘s sting includes statements from NK Srivastava, Lucknow bureau chief of news agency UNI-Univarta.

The sting claimed that while Srivastava agreed to run a campaign as demanded, he emphasised that payments to the company be made from agency’s Lucknow office so as to improve his position in the company.

Alok Kumar Bhatt, shown in the sting as director of Sadhna Prime News, was caught on camera, saying, “Our business is Hindutva.”

When the Samajwadi Party was in office in Uttar Pradesh, Bhatt goes on to say, the channel had to pay a cost for being pro-BJP. “We were given [advertisements amounting to] Rs 1.8 crore only [by the SP government] because we are pro-BJP,” he says. Now that their preferred “system” is in power, “they should be given priority”, he adds.

Operation 136’s first part consisted of videos on representatives of 16 news organisation — India TV, Dainik Jagran, Hindi Khabar, SAB TV, DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Amar Ujala, UNI, 9X Tashan (entertainment channel), Samachar Plus, HNN 24*7 (a Dehradun-based local channel), Punjab Kesari, Swatantra Bharat, ScoopWhoop (portal), Rediff.com, IndiaWatch, Aj (Hindi Daily) and Sadhna Prime News.

The veracity of these videos is yet to be established. But the founder of Cobrapost, Aniruddha Bahal, told Newslaundry: “Nobody shares footage with the common masses, but if a law enforcement authority investigates, we will be happy to share it.”

When questioned that the allegation against Cobrapost by those shown in the video could be that they were quoted out of context or misquoted, Bahal said, “Nothing is out of context. In fact what you have seen is the condensed version of what they have said.”

India TV’s senior representatives appear to have agreed to run commercials or advertisements by broadcasting it with a note that says the video was released by Shri Geeta Prachar Samiti. However, news channels running such short or long commercials is not new or particularly alarming. In fact, there are separate agencies that look into the content of commercials.

In the case of ScoopWhoop, the company’s representatives in the first meeting said that they, “as an organisation, won’t be able to take a political stand” when the Cobrapost reporter asks for “surrogate advertisements” against opposition leaders.

But co-founder Sattvik Mishra agrees to carry mythological content. While talking of carrying content against political opponents, Mishra can be heard saying: “Like I said, there is a line. As long as we don’t cross it and we do it in a smart way, I think it’s very much doable.”

Sharma, who had carried out the sting, was arrested in May 2016 for allegedly fabricating an RTI reply to publish a news report. In the said report, he had claimed that the Central government’s AYUSH Ministry was discriminating against members of the minority community by denying them jobs of Yoga trainers.

Responding to the question on Sharma’s credentials as a reporter, in light of the allegations, Bahal said, “I have examined the RTI story, and found no merit in the way they have gone against him. In fact, the forensic report has cleared [absolved] him [from charges]. He has won rewards and has worked with organisations such as Tehelka earlier.”

Bahal maintained that Cobrapost stands by its sting operation. Watch the Facebook live of the release of Operation 136 here:

Even though several news organisations—including Times Now, India Today—were covering the press conference, they didn’t give it airtime.

Newslaundry reached out to some of the organisations that were stung. Here are the responses:

Samachar Plus CEO Umesh Kumar said: “They had not agreed to run any agenda but the proposed deal was about ad content. Talking of black and white [accepting money in cash] Amit [Tyagi] said  ‘I need to ask Sashankji and Umeshji’ – did we agree? No. Did we run any story?” When asked about manager (sales) Mukesh Bagiyal’s agreement to broadcast the rallies and events, suggested by Sharma, live – Kumar said, “Those conducting the sting were duffer to make sales team people say these things. We are not responsible for what the sales guys say, had any of my reporter or editor made such commitment – I would have taken the responsibility. The sales team doesn’t decide the content, the editorial does,” Kumar added.

Univarta‘s Srivastava, who was stung, told Newslaundry that he did meet Sharma two-three months back. “It is wrong to term that conversation as a ‘deal’. I did meet him but it was regarding advertisement and not stories.” When asked that UNI is a news agency and where would it put out advertisements, “that was for the website”.

ScoopWhoop‘s co-founder Mishra didn’t respond to phone calls but texted us to refer to the statement released on Twitter. Mishra in his statement said that he meets “several people a day” and these meetings “range across a wide set of agendas” and that he doesn’t give a prior thought to such meetings and its ‘agenda’. He further said, “The video has been doctored and edited to suit a certain narrative, and our responses have been taken out of context.”

Newslaundry also reached out to Dainik Jagran‘s Chief Editor and CEO of Jagran Prakashan Limited, Sanjay Gupta – whose Ranchi marketing manager Sanjay Pratap Singh had made bizarre claims. Our calls and texts weren’t responded to. This copy will be updated as and when he responds.

However, The Indian Express has quoted Gupta saying that Singh, area manager of Dainik Jagran for Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, “had no authority to make the claims he is seen making in the video”. Gupta said: “Firstly, I don’t believe in the credibility of the video. He added that Singh was “way beyond his boundaries” and had no authority to “commit such thing”. After verifying the authenticity of the video, if the allegations are proven to be true, “action will be taken against” Singh, Express quoted Gupta as saying.

Sudipto Chowdhery, President – Sales, India TV, in a statement, sent through an e-mail, said, that people from  his team were seen in the Cobrapost sting, “I categorically state that none of the proposals discussed or put forward by this Mr Acharya Chhatrapal Atal were accepted by the Company and were in fact entirely turned down by the editorial and legal teams of India TV.”

“No employee of India TV accepted any consideration from Mr Acharya Chhatrapal Atal and none of the material shared by him was ever aired on India TV. The allegations made in the offending footage are emphatically denied,” he said.

Chowdhery claimed: “Cobrapost has, to their advantage, concealed important aspects of the discussion only to sensationalise the story and for their self-serving interests. Even the contents of the offending story released by Cobrapost do not prove any wrongdoing whatsoever by any employee of India TV and it is the voiceover in the offending story that is drawing unfounded and self-serving conclusions. India TV will be taking strictest legal action to seek redressal for the same.”

9x Media‘s CEO Pradeep Guha’s office told Newslaundry that he was out of the country. Hindi Khabar‘s Agrawal in a telephonic conversation said he will respond to the questions as soon as possible but did not do so at the time of this report being published. Sadhna Prime News declined to comment. The copy will be updated as and when they respond.

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