Newspaper sets. Photo: iStock

A sting operation by a news website allegedly found that several Indian media houses agreed to polarize the electorate ahead of the 2019 general elections by running pro-Hindutva campaigns.

Indian news website Cobrapost, which has carried out several undercover operations in the past, released an investigative report on Monday claiming that a few Indian media houses “agreed to publish content with a potential to polarize the electorate along communal lines.”

The investigation was called Operation 136 by Cobrapost, in reference to India being ranked 136th on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2017.

The website’s reporter, Pushp Sharma, posing as the head of a fictitious religious organization, approached close to “two dozen media houses” and offered anywhere between 60 million and 500 million rupees (US$924,000 to $7.7 million) to carry out this work. He met with owners, business heads and revenue officers of various media organizations including Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, DNA, Punjab Kesari, ScoopWhoop, India TV, Rediff and UNI.

The report states, “The lure of lucre proved too irresistible for almost all media houses, be it print, electronic or digital, to say no. To our utter shock, most of them not only agreed to do what he asked for but also suggested myriad ways for undertaking a well-orchestrated, overtly communal media campaign on behalf of their prospective big-ticket client.”

Some of them were even willing to run content against Opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arun Jaitley, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi. “Many of them agreed to create and promote such content as would aim for the ‘character assassination’ of leaders like Rahul Gandhi,” the report states.

The allegations were supported by a video showing the conversations between Cobrapost’s correspondents and the honchos of media companies.

In response to the allegations, Sudipto Chowdhery, president for sales of India TV, told The Indian Express that none of the proposals discussed or put forward by Sharma were accepted by the company and “were in fact entirely turned down by the editorial and legal teams of India TV.” He further alleged that the video by Cobrapost was “doctored for their self-serving interests.”

Sanjay Gupta, chief editor of Dainik Jagran and chief executive of Jagran Prakashan Ltd, also denied the allegations and said he did not believe the credibility of the video. However, he went on to say, “After verifying authenticity of the video, if the allegations are proven to be true, action will be taken.”

This was the first report of a two-part series. The second part of the investigation will be released soon.