Extortion and blackmail are common practices by Karnataka’s print and electronic media to make a quick buck. The issue has escalated to such an extent that Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy was compelled to shift the media centre from Vidhana Soudha to Vartha Soudha (the Department of Information and Public Relations) on Infantry Road in Bengaluru. The official reason for the shift was media personnel interfering in administrative matters. The CM also ordered the Information and Public Relations Department not to issue entry passes to media persons into the Vidhana Soudha or Vikasa Soudha.
On March 27, six journalists from Vijayapura, North Karnataka, were arrested for the extortion of a doctor. The journalists include Prasanna Deshpande, who works as a district correspondent for Suvarna News, Sangamesh Kambar, a cameraman for Suvarna News, and Ravi Bisanalara, who works for Sangrama, a weekly Kannada newspaper. The others are currently on the run. The journalists accused the doctor, a sonologist, of carrying out sex-determination tests and threatened to release a manufactured video if he refused to pay them ₹50 lakh. After some negotiation, the amount was brought down to ₹10 lakh.
According to the FIR registered at APMC Police Station in Vijayapura, the accused stuffed ₹1 lakh into the doctor’s pocket and ordered his partner to start shooting a manufactured scene of the victim bribing the accused.
In a similar incident, on March 19, Hemanth Kashyap, a journalist with Public TV, was arrested for blackmail and extortion. Kashyap allegedly blackmailed Dr Ramana Rao, a well-known Bengaluru-based doctor, with a video that he threatened to release unless he was paid ₹50 lakh. Police claim the CCTV footage from Dr Rao’s clinic in Sadashivnagar—a suburban area in the city—that shows Kashyap collecting money across several days.
Manjunath, another journalist with Samaya TV, also demanded payment from Dr Rao in exchange of not making the video public. D Devaraj, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Central Division, Bengaluru, says Manjunath is still at large. “We are pursuing the case,” he added.
Kashyap, who is now in judicial custody, was dismissed from his job at Public TV after his arrest. Kashyap was also previously involved in a failed sting operation while working for News 9 TV channel.
These media personnel extend their area of operation beyond the Vidhan Soudha to private nursing homes, clinics, chit fund companies, film actors, businessmen and corporators who are known for milking civic bodies. They generally prepare a list of potential targets that have deep pockets. Some also work as informers for corrupt politicians. Through these rackets, they earn more than the standard income from media houses. The controversy runs deeper, with allegations coming forward of these reporters sharing the ransom amount with their bosses, or TV channels fixing targets for their correspondents, particularly those who cover crime and politics.
It is known within inner circles that some media representatives lead a luxurious life, despite earning standard industry wages. These individuals own real estate in cities like Bengaluru and several vehicles, including four-wheel drives. A few travel with appointed drivers and pay salaries higher than the amount they receive from their employers.
For example, some employees at Udaya TV—a regional Kannada news channel—receive monthly salaries of about ₹10,000 or ₹15,000. Curiously, they pay more than ₹15,000 to their own drivers. Though Udaya TV shut down its news channel a few months ago, some of its former reporters continue to lead luxurious lives due to their earnings while in service.
A history of extortion in the state
In July 2015, two journalists and RTI activists, along with Ashwin Rao, son of the then Karnataka Lokayukta Justice Bhaskar Rao, were held on charges of extortion. Rao and others threatened Krishnamurthy, an engineer in the Bengaluru city corporation, with Lokayukta raids and demanded ₹1 crore in exchange.
In April 2017, Lakshmiprasad Vajpaye, CEO of Janasri, a Kannada TV news channel, was arrested by the police for blackmailing and demanding ₹10 crore from a businessman. The TV channel was owned by mining baron and former minister, Gali Janardhan Reddy.
On April 14, 2018, three journalists were held by cops from Kundapura police station in Udupi on charges of extortion. The police identified the accused as Dharmendra (37), Lokesh (35) and Manjunath (42) of Udaya Karnataka, a Kannada tabloid. The police said the accused threatened Koteshwara, a businessman, telling him they would publish his “misdeeds” if he refused to pay them ₹1 lakh.
“Corruption has become the order of the day among electronic media persons. Their quest in having high-end cars and bungalows is the main reason for corruption. The police have arrested only a few corrupt journalists, there are many yet to be nabbed. Nowadays, it has become a tough task to find sincere and honest journalists,’’ says H Venkatesh, a social activist.
There are several other examples. About 15 years ago, some Bengaluru-based crime reporters persuaded private land developers in the city to allocate residential sites to them near Rajankunte on Doddaballapur Road near Bengaluru at throwaway prices. The move is always seen as a kickback to them for not exposing some murky land deals.
The practice doesn’t stop at land developers and businessmen—politicians and police officers are also not spared from the blackmail. Some journalists on crime and political beats make good use of their information gathering skills and use it to make monetary gains. Moving transfer and promotion requests of officers is common for these journalists, sources say.
It doesn’t end there. Some smaller media outlets make quick bucks by issuing press cards and vehicle passes to non-journalists for easy access to Vidhana Soudha and other government offices for their “personal” work.
When asked about the increasing incidents of journalists blackmailing people and misusing their power, former Karnataka Lokayukta Justice N Santosh Hegde said, “Which section of the society is free from corruption? All sections of society have become corrupt because society gives prominence and respect people with a lot of money and leading a luxurious life. People respected media and consider it equal to the legislature, executive and judiciary. Those were the days when people used to believe the veracity of news published in print media. Now, readers have their own doubts about the news appearing in the media.”
(The author is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)