Blackmailer and extortionist: The sordid side of being a stringer in India
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Blackmailer and extortionist: The sordid side of being a stringer in India

Often poorly paid or forced to get ad revenue for their media houses, some stringers resort to unethical, even criminal, ways to make money.

By Manish Chandra Mishra

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The Indian media, national and regional, are always on their toes to break the news before their competitors. Given it’s expensive to have correspondents or bureaux in every corner of the country, most media houses have hundreds of stringers on their payrolls. These are journalists employed on a semi-regular basis to report from particular regions.

However, only a few channels offer these stringers proper remuneration, often barely Rs 250-500 per story. In some cases, stringers are even required to provide channels with “security deposits” in exchange for press identity cards and other infrastructure.

In the absence of adequate compensation and a regular means of livelihood, some stringers leverage their profession to make money in ways that are not quite ethical, and sometimes are downright criminal such as extortion. Nor rarely, though, they do so at the behest of their employers.

In December 2019, a stringer for a national news channel and two newspapers was arrested by the police in Faridkot, Punjab. The stringer had allegedly asked a doctor for Rs 1 crore in return for not circulating an “incriminating” video featuring him.

In November 2018, a stringer from Ghanauli village in Punjab’s Rupnagar had been arrested on charges of blackmailing.

Several stringers Newslaundry spoke with said the media houses they work with often push them to “generate revenue”. For example, a stringer from Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh, said a regional news channel plainly told him to “blackmail people”. Additionally, since the channel didn’t have a marketing team working in Chhatarpur, the channel’s human resources department allegedly “forced” him to try and secure advertisements from the area.

It’s a sordid story often repeated. Neeraj Soni was formerly the bureau chief of a daily based in Madhya Pradesh. He claimed the newspaper’s management would routinely set his editorial team targets to bring in advertising revenue. In turn, Soni said, he would ask his stringers to get “incriminating stories” about local businessmen or government servants, then “blackmail” them into buying ads in the newspaper in return for not running the stories. If the money exceeded the target, it would be distributed among the stringers since the company had no budget to pay them.

To be affiliated with a TV news channel, a small town stringer has to obtain the channel’s “mic ID” — which identifies a microphone as belonging to a particular media house. Stringers are expected to pay deposits for the mic ID, and this amount varies between cities and channels. A reputed TV channel can charge up to Rs 1 lakh in big cities, and marginally less in smaller towns. A block-level stringer has to pay around Rs 10,000 for a mic ID, the amount goes up to Rs 25,000 for a district-level stringer.

While TV channels mark this deposit as “security money”, it is non-refundable. Only a handful of regional channels and a few national channels don’t charge their stringers for the mic ID.

Several stringers told Newslaundry that TV channels never return the security money. Subhash Deshraj, a stringer from Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, said he applied for a position at a regional channel in 2015. To receive the appointment letter, mic ID and identity card, he was asked to pay Rs 25,000. It was supposed to be refundable. The management changed three months later, however, and Deshraj’s appointment was discontinued. He never got his deposit back.

In these circumstances, it isn’t difficult to see why stringers turn to unethical means to make money.

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Blackmail is embedded in the way the industry operates on the ground. Several stringers use the Right To Information Act to dig out compromising information. While journalists often file RTI applications to obtain information for potential stories, some stringers use these documents to blackmail officials.

A stringer from Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh said experienced stringers in the region have a “hold” over village administrations. If there’s an instance of the misuse of funds by a panchayat, he added, the stringers would approach the sarpanch and local officials “to strike a deal”. “A symbiotic relationship exists between a stringer and a corrupt official,” he remarked.

I’ve witnessed this firsthand. When I visited Panna, Madhya Pradesh, for a story last year, the driver of the taxi I had hired was a stringer. This wasn’t a coincidence: when he heard that I, a journalist from Bhopal, had contacted the travel agency he worked for to hire a vehicle, he asked to be the one to drive me around.

Because he had a proposal. He gave me “exclusive information” about corruption in local government departments. He claimed to have obtained the information under the RTI Act. Obliquely, he asked me to use the information to extort money from the officials concerned. I politely declined.

It wasn’t the first time I had received such a proposal from a stringer, it wouldn’t be the last.

If anything, it’s surprisingly commonplace. A junior of mine from journalism school who now works as a stringer once approached me with a “business proposal”. He had information on the involvement of government servants in a faulty construction project, and asked me to use my Bhopal contacts to gain access to the officials and extort money.

Again, I declined. Instead, I asked one of the government officials if a journalist had tried to blackmail him. He refused to comment and asked me to withhold his name from publication.

In 2015, an audio recording of a conversation between a regular stringer with a newspaper and a school principal in Madhya Pradesh went viral. In the clip, the stringer was heard telling the principal he had received information on “financial irregularities” in the school. For three days, the stringer said, he had been convincing his editor not to run the story. To prevent the story from being published, the stringer continued, the principal would have to buy the editor an LED TV.

Newslaundry has a copy of this recording.

This recording should be listened to alongside another audio clip that was circulated the same year in Madhya Pradesh. This was a recording of a conversation between a stringer seeking work and the head of a regional news channel. The stringer was told to pay the channel a huge deposit and that he would not be compensated for working for the channel. The conversation throws light on the unequal power equations between media houses and stringers.

Soni said it is almost impossible for stringers to survive in the current environment. And the malaise doesn’t stop at blackmail. Soni claimed that this “business model” sometimes leads to “fake news” too. “The newsroom wants a good story and the management wants big business from a stringer,” he explained. “In that case, the quality of the story is compromised and the reporter cooks up stories.”

(Manish Chandra Mishra is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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