Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The scourge of "paid news"

“Paid news” has drawn its first blood. A sitting legislator, Umlesh Yadav, of Uttar Pradesh assembly has been disqualified by the Election Commission of India (EC) from contesting any election for three years as she did not include in her election expenses the amounts spent by her on advertisements which were published as news items in two Hindi papers.

The EC received a reference from the Press Council of India (PCI) which had held the two newspapers guilty of ethical violation. The PCI, apparently, had appointed an inquiry committee to investigate the complaint against the two dailies for having published “paid news” in favour of Ms. Yadav a day before the polling in her constituency in the 2007 Assembly elections. Eventually, the PCI forwarded the case papers of the adjudication to the EC for such action as it deemed proper. The order disqualifying the legislator was issued as a consequence.

In another case, the Election Commission is hearing allegations against Madhu Koda, the former chief minister of Bihar, who is alleged to have failed to file proper returns of his election expenses. The Income Tax department in a report is supposed to have stated that he paid Rs. 1.25 crore (Rs. 1.25 billion) to a TV channel for telecasting news favourable to him during the 2009 general elections. The “paid news” allegation cropped up against Koda when the Enforcement Directorate of Ministry of Finance and Income Tax (IT) authorities raided his residence and came across diary entries regarding payments made to media houses for reporting/telecasting reports in his favour. According to the IT department, against the permissible expenditure of Rs.25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million) Koda allegedly spent Rs.9.00 crore (Rs.9 billion).

Another politician of note, Ashok Chavan, the former chief minister of Maharashtra, has just lost his case against the EC in Delhi High Court. He had challenged the EC’s powers to investigate expenses incurred by him during the 2009 assembly elections. As the prestigious newspaper Hindu reported, his was a case that “embarrassed major newspapers that had run scores of hagiographic full pages of ‘news’ on Mr. Chavan during the poll campaign...pages without a single advertisement on them...and so much as a mention of his rivals in his Bhokar constituency...” While dismissing the petition as “devoid of merit” the court directed the PCI to put on the internet its own report on “paid news” which it had had to suppress under pressure from the media houses that were seen to have indulged in unethical practices. Chavan has since gone in appeal to the apex court.

The PCI has since received a fresh case of “paid news”, this time from Goa. A sting operation conducted by one Mayabhushan Nagvenkar has put Goa’s OHeraldO in the dock. Armed with transcripts of his audios and telephonic talks with the marketing manager of the newspaper Nagvenkar has approached the PCI.

The PCI defines paid news as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”. According to senior journalist, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who headed its sub-committee to investigate the evil phenomenon of paid news, substantial sections of the media have become participants and players in practices that contribute to this growing use of money-power in politics. “The entire clandestine operation has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and TV channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country. Worse, these illegal operations have become organised involving ad agencies and PR firms besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies. (The) So called ‘rate cards’ or ‘packages’ are distributed that often include rates for publication of ‘news items’ that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents.”

He says, numerous favourable or complimentary paid ‘news’ reports on certain candidates appeared in newspapers (and were broadcast on TV channels) across the country in the run-up to the last general as well as state assembly elections without disclosing the fact that these were transactional news items. The deception by the media houses, according to Guha Thakurta, assumed three facets. The reader was led into believing that it was independent news content and not an advertisement, the candidates concerned did not include the expenditure on the “ad” in their election expenses and the media houses, having received the moneys in cash, did not include them in their balance sheets.

Samir Lal, a former senior journalist who left the profession having got fed up with commercialisation of the newspaper industry, is more scathing about the goings-on in it. He says, “Indian media industry has unapologetic clarity about the nature of its business: it sells media platform to commercial clients, not news to readers.” With proprietors not interested in selling what good journalists produce, the crisis in India is not one of the media industry but of the profession of journalism. “News today is sleight of hand: paid news by politicians, private treaties with advertisers, celebrity coverage for a fee, PR feed masquerading as reportage, the business story slanted to serve the stock market, the deserving story not done”. With the marketing departments of media houses setting the agenda for the editors, India’s media barons are not really in news business. And yet, Lal says, news is unavoidable – to fill the gaps between the ads.

“News holes”, that’s what Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher and activist, calls them which are filled up by news after the advertising layout is decided. This happens even in as prestigious a newspaper as the New York Times which has been accused of “distorting, censoring and suppressing truth” – influenced as it is by the American establishment and the great US corporations. Stephen Lendman, a renowned American researcher and author, says that the US media delivers “a daily diet of ‘managed news’, infotainment and ‘junk food news’...” keeping people uninformed about what matters most.

The description above snugly fits the Indian media too. News today serves various commercial interests or those of the establishment in accordance with predilections of the owners, who hardly bother about the interests of the readers. Chomsky found Indian media, barring the singular exception of The Hindu, “pretty restricted, very narrow and provincial and not very informative, leaving out lots of things.” While most of the national dailies have their respective patrons and/or benefactors whose agenda they necessarily have to push, the regional and sub-regional press are generally out for sale. Though it is the second biggest market for newspapers with around 40-odd thousand newspapers published in the country and the reading public consuming 99 million copies (in 2007), its independence is something which one cannot vouch for. No wonder, the country was placed in 2010 at 122nd out of 178 on assessment of press freedom made by the Reporters Without Borders – For Press Freedom, a non-profit that works for freedom of information. The claims that are frequently made of the Indian media being independent, unbiased and pillars of our vibrant democracy have, therefore, to be taken with fistfuls of salt.

It is a pity that the report of the Paranjoy Guha Thakurta sub-committee was somehow buried by none other than the PCI which is statutorily charged with the responsibility of governing the conduct of the Indian print (and broadcast) media. Flexing their muscles the large media houses, who would have otherwise been in the dock, successfully foiled the attempt to bring out the truth. The new PCI chief, Justice Markandey Katju, has already condemned his own institution as “ineffective” but has also asked for more teeth and enlargement of its scope to include even the electronic media. It would perhaps be more desirable for him, for the present, to have the Council reconstituted, if necessary by amendment of the Press Council Act 1978, and reduce the overwhelming representation of the media organisations (almost 66%) in it to enable it to be more objective in dealing with the aberrations like those of “paid news”.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Once again - the Kerwa tiger


Very encouraging reports have been appearing in the newspapers about the forests around the Kerwa and Kaliasot dams close to Bhopal, a town of more than 1.8 million people. The camera traps installed to monitor the movement of the tiger that has repeatedly been seen in these forests have recorded a thriving wildlife population. Apart from the tiger, among the animals trapped in the camera are leopards, bears, wild boars, foxes and a species of cat that has so far defied identification and has not been seen for quite some time. It is through the instrumentality of the tiger that the forest department has acquired the knowledge about the presence of several species of wildlife in these forests. That they have survived for so long in the vicinity of such a large town despite the depredations of unthinking men is quite a wonder. None, however, knows how diverse the flora in these jungles is.

I recall having read in the net some of the impressions of these jungles recorded by a few former students of the National Law Institute University, an institution of national repute, built close to Kerwa. They used to go on treks in the jungles surrounding the Institute and had recorded glowing reports about them. They did not see tigers but they used to frequently see the other big cat, the leopard, apart from various other herbivores. These boys would venture into the forests for the sake of pleasure meaning no harm to their denizens. However, with the news of the wildlife population appearing in the press now, shikaris have started frequenting the forests. Fortunately the forest department has got wise about the goings on, thanks to the frequent sightings of the tiger.

The tiger seems to have settled down in this environment. Barring a few cattle-kills it has not harmed humans so far. In fact, according to reports that appeared in the vernacular press, a herder even chased it away with the help of his cane. Apparently, it finds the habitat conducive (recently reported to be excellent) and has, therefore, not moved back to where it came from, presumably the Ratapani sanctuary. As indicated earlier, either the prey-base has shrunk or the tiger numbers have gone up far too much for it to find itself comfortable in the sanctuary. The sanctuary should have become a tiger reserve but for the intervention of the Chief Minister who appears to be somewhat anti-tiger conservation. The Ministry of Environment & Forest of the government of India has already approved its conversion into a tiger reserve.

The forest department has, however, been mulling various options to deal with the tiger which, it seems, is kind of a problem for them. There was a proposal to fence off the Kerwa and Kaliasot dam areas. The latest, however, is to relocate it to Madhav National Park Shivpuri, which from available reports has inadequate prey-base to support tigers. There were reports of a tiger residing in it but it seems to have moved away to adjoining Kuno-Palpur forests. One wonders as to why the department is keen to take this trouble. If a tiger that is the denizen of the forest is confining itself within its boundaries there seems to be no reason to physically move it to as far away as Shivpuri. Quite rightly, an experienced forest officer, the former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, JJ Dutta, has reminded the department of the case of the tiger that was relocated to Panna from the Pench Tiger Reserve. Guided by its strong homing instinct, it had started marching towards Pench. Luckily it was not poached before it was apprehended scores of miles away from Panna Tiger Reserve. Another forest old-timer, PM Lad, in whose time Van Vihar was created, has said that it is the humans who have encroached into the tiger territory and not vice versa. He felt that any harm coming to the tiger in relocating it would make a dent in the process of conservation of the species.

Obviously, everyone, including wildlife experts, wants the tiger to be allowed to rest in peace in the surroundings it finds congenial. One wonders whether the forest department, led by the Forest Minister, is being forced into action by colonisers and/or construction lobbies who are very close to the current government. One recalls that the tiger is moving in areas that include Chandanpura where the Sanskaar Valley School of the Dainik Bhaskar Group is located and where land-use change was proposed in the now-cancelled Bhopal Development Plan 2021. Curiously, all the forest areas around the town are being eyed by these lobbies and, perhaps, that is the reason for widening of the road to Kerwa that has been undertaken at the cost of about 10000 trees which are going to be felled.

Instead of translocating the tiger the forest department would do well to listen to voices of reason and take steps to ensure that it is comfortable in the forests of Kerwa and Kaliasot and that it in no way harms the humans in and around them. Such an action would retain the biodiversity of these jungles in their natural state for the benefit of everyone, including the people of Bhopal who, in fact, will benefit the most for reasons that hardly need reiteration. If for this reason the forests would need to be fenced, so be it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bhopal roads inflict ordeal on citizens

What was once only feared has now come true. The dug up roads are causing not only inconvenience, they have also been instrumental in increasing sickness among the citizens. The Hindustan Times recently came out with an “unsettling” report based on the opinion of medical experts which suggested a rise in respiratory problems due to dust floating around in the city. Citing as evidence the contentions of some medical professionals, it was reported that nasal and respiratory allergies among the people are on the rise. Citizens of various localities have reported that constant inhalation of dust has led to sore throat and frequent sneezing. Among the factors that have contributed to rise are mainly the dust kicked up by the vehicles from the roads that have been dug up and ceaseless construction in the town.

The newspaper has also reported that the problem has been compounded by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) which chopped down thousands of trees, many of them massive and decades old, in the on-going process of creating a BRTS corridor. Trees not only bind the loose earth, they also absorb a lot of dust, noise and atmospheric pollution. Among other benefits “Streetswiki” says “Street trees are a key feature of a liveable neighbourhood. Urban trees have significant and multiple benefits, from energy and water conservation to reduced road maintenance costs. A major transportation benefit is the favourable impact of mature trees on the pedestrian environment, particularly in urban areas. New evidence suggests roadside trees also increase traffic safety. While selecting, planting, and maintaining street trees present challenges, the benefits of trees far outweigh their costs. Cities can maximize these benefits through aggressive tree planting and maintenance programs.”

The Corporation has not made any efforts to substitute the felled trees by new plantations along the new corridor. A few months back when the Commissioner BMC accompanied the Principal Secretary Urban Administration & Development to a meeting of the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum he was asked about his plans of compensatory plantation along the upcoming corridor. He replied that a few thousand trees had been planted on a hill beyond Shahpura miles away from the town. There was no plan to plant trees along the roads. Obviously, like many other officials, he is not aware of the benefits of roadside trees. This is what has been the bane of India. A glaring example of the differences in our attitudes and those of the British is Delhi. While Lutyen’s Delhi has surfeit of roadside trees of native varieties, at places in double rows, the later additions to the expanding city like the settlements along the Ring Road are bereft of trees. The Ring Road and the Outer Ring Road have hardly any roadside trees.

The dug-up roads are another kind of scourge on those who ply the streets. The other day an auto-driver told me how not only his auto-rickshaw has repeated breakdowns because of the uneven, potholes and ditches-infested roads, his consumption of fuel has also gone up because he can never maintain an even pace. On top of that there have been repeated fuel price hikes. All these, plus the expensive medical attention needed because of exposure to acute pollution, have been cutting into his income. This applies to all those who have to commute in the city. BMC has been instrumental in whittling down the disposable incomes of the locals because of its lethargy and incompetence.

None knows when the ordeal of the people will come to end. Jaipur also created a corridor but it completed it within two and a half years flat. The Rajasthan government had established a special purpose vehicle to carry out the work. The Bhopal Citizens’ Forum had requested the chief secretary to create an empowered task force comprising technical and financial experts for enabling quick decisions in carrying out the works of JNNURM to prevent cost and time overruns but he, apparently, did not think it fit to pay heed to the Forum’s counsel. As on date, not one stretch of BRTS corridor is fully done and the commuters necessarily have to negotiate several lengths which are bouncy and dusty and at places barricaded. Looks like, the corridor will be commissioned when there will be no need for it as, given the frequent hikes in petrol prices, number of vehicles plying on the roads may drastically get reduced. Already, the recent hike seems to have had a tell tale effect

The main arteries perhaps will be taken care of even if it takes months and years to do so. What perhaps will take decades are the roads that have been dug up inside various localities for one reason or the other. Once dug, they stay dug and are never mended although the contracts provide putting them back in original condition. The contractors, engineering and other officials almost always swallow the money. The citizens of Bhopal have a long wait in front of them for a cleaner air and roads that are devoid of dust, scattered pieces of stones, potholes, ditches and overflowing sewers.

A pretty sorry plight!