SUVOJIT BAGCHI. The Hindu, Dec 7, Raipur

Absolutely nothing wrong in funding the channels in a transparent way, says official

Raman Singh’s BJP government “has paid for favourable news stories” and “regular live coverage” to a host of national and local television channels, an English language newspaper reported.

Furthermore, the senior editors of the channels concerned allegedly wrote to the public relations (PR) department of the Chhattisgarh government “negotiating” rates to produce “news stories” and to ensure “positive coverage.”

The news story ‘Chhattisgarh government pays for all TV news that is fit to buy,’ published by theIndian Express on Friday, claimed the paper had in its possession nearly 200 documents exchanged between the PR department and the editors. While not challenging the veracity of the story, the Chhattisgarh government has brought counter allegations against the Indian Express, claiming that the newspaper has “taken more than 50 lakh” in the last two years as advertisements.

The channels named by the newspaper are Z24, a franchisee of Zee News, Sahara Samay, ETV Chhattisgarh, Sadhna News and other “smaller, local networks.”

The newspaper has published details of money allegedly received for government-friendly coverage ranging from welfare programmes, planting of trees in Naya Raipur, distribution of rice at subsidised rates to the poor, the Queen’s Baton relay in Commonwealth Games, the budget presentation, Independence Day speech by the leaders and even the generation of public reaction to welfare schemes — “five persons in each district with 30 seconds for every reaction,” the report says.

BJP leader Sushma Swaraj’s visit and anti-Naxal reports are also funded by the PR department, claimed the report.

The report listed what it called the rate for each of the paid news items. In May 2010, Hindi television channel Sahara Samay had presented a five-point proposal to the PR department. It included special television packages on Sahara Samay, 15 times a day, featuring “CM’s speeches, government policies and various departmental news” and the rate was reportedly fixed at Rs. 3.28 crore per year at Rs. 3,000 per minute. It also had proposals like covering the Chief Minister’s programmes using outdoor broadcast vans “live for 10 minutes” at Rs. 48 lakh per year. There were other offers like running side strips on screen, tickers, and side panels for which the PR department had to pay substantially.

The story provided ‘evidence’ of how other channels — Z24, ETV Chhattsigarh and Sadhna News — collected money for broadcasting the government’s welfare schemes.

“In May 2011, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, visited Bastar to inaugurate achana distribution programme. Z24, Sahara Samay, ETV Chhattisgarh, and Sadhna News telecast the programme live and produced ‘special stories’… Cost of the same was Rs. 14.26 lakh,” the report said.

On Friday, the State government’s PR department challenged the allegations but did not deny funding the television channels. Principal Secretary, PR, N. Baijendra Kumar told The Hindu that there was “absolutely nothing wrong in funding the channels in a transparent way.”

“We purchase airtime to showcase success stories, informative and promotional programmes through advertisements, advertorials, features and sponsored programmes in public interest,” said Mr. Kumar.

He refused to accept the clear difference between advertorials and news and repeatedly said that the PR department had not funded any “news.”

“Nobody highlighted the government’s welfare schemes, including The Hindu, but still we give advertisements. What is wrong if we do that for the television?” asked Mr. Kumar. Representatives of other media houses, sitting in the room, explained to the correspondent that the government “funds talk shows, which even feature the opposition party.”

“Mr. Varavara Rao, the Naxal sympathiser, appeared in my talk show,” said Mr. Kumar.

A handwritten note issued by the PR department claimed that in the last two years, an amount exceeding Rs. 54,43,000 had been released to the Indian Express for advertisements. However, theIndian Express letters to the PR department did not establish that the paper was selling news space to the government. Rather, it was evident that the marketing department, and not the editors, were selling the ad-space.

‘Out of frustration’

Later at night, the PR department issued a press note claiming that the Indian Express “has published said article out of frustration” as the government had “rejected” the paper’s proposal seeking more advertisements.

Mr. Kumar said the government had no plans to “review existing media funding policy.”

A reality: activists

Local activists said paid news was a reality in Chhattisgarh and the media refused to carry important stories for fear of government action.

“During the President’s visit, 45 activists from Bastar were detained in Raipur and nothing came out. I presume it is all because of paid news,” said B.K. Manish, a tribal activist from Raipur.