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Caught on Camera: India’s Broken Media

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Media companies here sometimes use hidden cameras to expose dirty deals at the highest levels of power. Last week, it emerged, the lens had also been focused within, revealing ugly warts across the entire body of the Indian news industry. In a series of video recordings released by Cobrapost, an Indian nonprofit news website, top executives of leading Indian media companies are allegedly seen negotiating contracts worth millions of dollars in exchange for spreading Hindu nationalist propaganda — ostensibly to benefit the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the lead-up to national elections next year.
Cobrapost had deployed a reporter posing as a representative of a bogus Hindu nationalist group. Among the media giants that supposedly fell for the sting operation was Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. (BCCL), the media conglomerate that owns the Times of India and several other publications and TV stations. The Times of India is the country’s biggest English daily by circulation. Other influential media targets included the India Today Group, which publishes a top weekly magazine and also owns a popular set of TV news channels; and HT Media, which publishes the Hindustan Times, a major English daily. In all, 26 media groups were exposed through scores of videos. (Cobrapost released a first batch of video recordings, involving 17 media organizations, in March.)
The video recordings each show senior corporate leaders from media groups interacting with a reporter who is not visible in the frame. The reporter — in disguise, we assume — is heard proposing a three-pronged media strategy that aims to exploit religious fault lines by propagating Hindutva, the right-wing Hindu belief system that guides the politics of the BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. About 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu, and nearly 172 million Muslims living here constitute its largest minority. The national election, which is slated for next year, will decide if Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lead India for another five years.
For the proposed first phase of the propaganda, the news companies would use their media and sponsored events to spread teachings from the Hindu religious text the Bhagavad-Gita. The second phase, according to the videos, would involve endorsing staunch Hindu leaders while lampooning Modi’s political rivals such as Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, India’s oldest political party; Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, who is hailed as a champion of the Dalits, the lowest rung in the Hindu caste hierarchy and often the subject of fierce discrimination; and Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party, an important group in the opposition with a predominant voter base in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state with about 200 million residents. The reporter from Cobrapost is heard repeating in various videos that the third and final leg of the media strategy would hinge on aggressive Hindutva campaigns to incite and polarize the electorate. Incredibly, the representatives from the media companies are seen continuing these conversations and discussing how much money they could get in return.
But, unsurprisingly, the exposé has failed to garner mass public attention in India, with the media reluctant to publicize its own failings. While some companies have dismissed the videos as doctored or fabricated, a few have sought legal recourse to have the videos and related stories taken down. The India Today Group said in a legal notice to Cobrapost: “The videos appear to be manipulated and edited in a manner so as to create a false impression in the eyes of the viewer.” BCCL went a step further in claiming that Cobrapost was actually the victim of what it called a “reverse sting” — and that it knew the reporter was a “fraudster” all along. HT Media’s CEO told an Indian newspaper his comments in the Cobrapost video were “conveniently edited.” Questions are also being raised about the past of the reporter who went undercover.
Swapan Dasgupta, a conservative member of parliament, dismissed the Cobrapost sting as a “honey trap” but remarked that it was not a surprise that some media outlets take sides or agree to run coverage favourable to a particular political party.
“There are people who are pro-Modi and people who are anti-Modi,” he said. “There would have been a problem if only one point of view was allowed in the press.”
Dasgupta is also a journalist and a member of the Press Council of India, a media regulatory body.
Despite sting journalism’s controversial reputation, the exposé, if accurate, reveals the ease with which the Indian press seems willing to peddle a political agenda. And, if true, the videos are all the more troubling given that India’s history has repeatedly shown mixing religion and politics can lead to violent sectarian clashes.
Aniruddha Bahal, the editor of Cobrapost, said he wanted to “expose the endemic nature of paid news in India.” Bahal founded the website in 2003 and it is known mostly for sporadic sting operations; previous targets have included corrupt politicians and banks accused of money laundering. He added, “When publications agree to polarize society and defame your political opponents, then it gets to criminal territory.”
Bahal’s Cobrapost codenamed the sting “Operation 136” — a reference to India’s dismal ranking in the World Press Freedom Index in 2017. Out of 180 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders, India was ranked 136th. Its position has since fallen two spots to 138th in the 2018 rankings, well below countries such as Afghanistan, which is ranked 118th. The rankings are based on parameters including pluralism, media independence, self-censorship, transparency, and abuses.
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan, an Indian magazine featuring long-form narratives on politics and culture, said, “The current condition of the Indian media is such that, even without the lure of money, journalists across the board are willing to kowtow to the government.” Bal said he had formed this opinion based on his regular interactions with journalists from various media organizations.
“It is not as if the Congress Party was not using the media to its advantage. But resistance to this government is more difficult,” said Bal. “We have an autocrat in power. [Modi] is opposed to any media criticism. There is a clear message to the press to leave Modi, Jaitley, and Amit Shah alone.”. Arun Jaitley is India’s finance minister; Shah is the BJP’s president.
Raju Narisetti, who founded Mint, India’s second-largest business newspaper by circulation, said there is anecdotal evidence that the current Indian government is one of the “most covertly vindictive and coercive administrations in India’s 71-year history when it comes to press freedom.” Journalists risk their careers if they report news critical of the government or expose wrongdoing of big business groups that enjoy government support.
“While there is still the veneer of an open debate in the [Indian] media, there is massive self-censorship, or a very narrow range of topics and stories that can actually run in terms of true enterprise journalism or pointing out issues,” said Narisetti, who has also previously been a managing editor of the Washington Post and deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.
Although no money changed hands in the Cobrapost sting, according to Bahal, the videos seem to show how easy it would be to try to buy influence at India’s top media companies. With less than a year to go before national elections in 2019, the stakes could not be higher. This sting is yet another example of how media could be misused to influence democratic elections, a much-debated issue especially after the alleged data breach in the U.S. elections in 2016 — after which Russian meddling is being investigated — where leaked emails were disseminated in the media.
“The question for India is whether winning the next election would make the ruling party even more brazen in its continued suppression of independent journalism and whether Modi sees good role models in Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban for his second term,” Narisetti said.
“There is clearly a growing movement — often sparked by governments themselves — to sow seeds of doubt about what one reads and sees and hears in mainstream media about politics, political parties, and elections.”
(http://foreignpolicy.com)


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Opinion

Brazen statements on job shortage

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Mihir Swarup Sharma

Back when Narendra Modi was just a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, he seemed to understand what India’s biggest problem was: jobs. He promised tens of millions of jobs would be created if he were voted to power – India’s unemployed young people would be transformed, he promised, into an army for development.

Four years later, this promise has turned into a weapon for the opposition. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, pointed out last year that young Indians were “desperately waiting for the jobs that they were promised.”

 

The Modi government’s response has been typical: not harder work, not economic reform, but bluster. Two recent statements from senior ministers who should know better stand out. Piyush Goyal said that the large number of people who are lining up for jobs in the Railways that he oversees – over 15 million applied recently for a minuscule number of vacancies – did not in any way mean that there is a shortage of jobs in India. And Human Resources Minister Prakash Javadekar, whose job is indeed to prepare the Indian workforce for employment, has insisted that each and every sector in India has witnessed job opportunities. “We have to find out why people with post-graduate degrees apply for sweeper jobs in the government,” he said.

Well, minister, the answer is staring us all in the face: that there simply aren’t enough high-quality jobs available. Yes, even low-skilled government jobs provide security; but in a growing economy, the private sector should also be creating enough and better-paid jobs in such a way that security would be rendered irrelevant.

The fact is that when millions of Indians turn up for jobs that they are manifestly overqualified for, it cannot be seen as anything other than a failure of economic management on a massive scale.

There was not even the slightest remorse expressed by the ministers for whatever combination of circumstances may have arisen in the economy to cause this sort of desperation on the part of job-seekers. Nor was there an iota of compassion for these young job-seekers or a comprehension of the lack of choices they face.

Mr Javadekar even said that “people who do not work out of choice cannot be called unemployed”. Is it possible that Modi Sarkar imagines that everyone without employment prefers to watch things on their Jio phone rather than earn a living? It is impossible to overstate how out of touch that sentiment is. Even in the best case scenario, which is that the minister was referring only to the worrying decrease in the labour participation rate of women – fewer women in India are working, while in the test of the world more women worked as development progressed – it still reveals an inability to understand the real problems faced by job-seekers. If women are not going out to work, it is not out of “choice”. It is because neither law and order nor their social relations in their community have allowed them to do so. Is this not something a government should be concerned about – if, that is, it values half of India? Or should it just dismiss the crushing of womens’ aspirations as “their choice”?

The ministers complained that there was not enough data to prove that jobs were not being created. This seems to undercut various other claims made by government apologists that jobs are indeed being created – on the basis of the pension records kept by the provident funds, for example. Many economists have poked clear holes in this theory. At best, that reveals that under pressure from demonetization and the GST, some jobs are coming into the formal sector – but it does not reveal whether or not jobs are being created overall. While it is amusing to discover that not even the Modi government ministers believe its own propagandists, the politicians’ statements are still important. Their complaint about the lack of official data is shared by many.

Yet data is scarce, of course, for a very specific reason: the survey of unemployment in the country, conducted by the Labour Bureau every year from 2010 to 2016, was discontinued by the Union Labour Ministry – in a strange coincidence, the Survey showed sharp job losses after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. So when the ministers – and earlier the Prime Minister himself – complain that there is no data on employment, what they should instead explain is why the government chose to stop collecting data on employment.

The reason, of course, is that this government does not want the release of any data that would reveal the true state of the economy. The manipulation of the backseries of GDP data revealed exactly how desperate it is to whitewash its unusually poor record.

The Modi government seems to believe that voters are comically stupid. That they will not only believe that jobs are being created, but also that mobs of people applying for a few government jobs is a sign of how many other jobs there are. That they will also believe that a lack of data that the government has itself organised can be replaced by earnest assurances from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet that large numbers of jobs have indeed been created.

The most reliable independent source for jobs data are the reports from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, or CMIE. Their latest report, issued earlier this month, indicated that 11 million jobs had been lost in 2018. Think about that – 11 million jobs were lost, not created. This comes at a time when most economists believe that we need to create between 6 and 12 million jobs a year just to keep pace with the number of people entering the job market. Nor were previous years better – demonetization in particular wreaked havoc, costing millions of jobs.

There is little doubt, therefore, that Modi has failed to keep the promises that he made before being elected. The question is whether he will be held accountable for those promises. Perhaps if the Prime Minister or his colleagues had been open about their failures and accepted that they understood where they had gone wrong and how more jobs could be created going forward, they might have been able to retain some credibility. Instead, they have chosen to deny that a problem even exists and to pretend instead that the promises have been fulfilled. This is brazen even by the standards of Indian politics.

There are good reasons for greater urgency. India’s window to create high-quality manufacturing jobs – the sort that helped countries like China move up the income ladder – is closing. More and more processes are being automated, and the scope for mass manufacturing that takes in lower-skilled workers and gives them solid secure employment is narrowing. But the World Bank has insisted in a recent report that there is still enough time. Given its vast numbers of young people, it is India that should be benefiting from these last decades in which manufacturing will matter. But instead the government has failed to undertake genuine economic reform, relying instead on adulatory press handouts and ministerial statements – managing the headlines and not the economy, as Arun Shourie put it. India’s young people, lining up in their lakhs in the hope even of a job as a government sweeper, deserve better than this callous indifference to their fate.

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Opinion

Is Rahul Gandhi emerging as a reliable brand?

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Shuchi Bansal

The Congress’s recent victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have put the spotlight on its president Rahul Gandhi.

While an earlier column spoke of brand Modi and whether he has lost some of its sheen, little has been said on Rahul Gandhi and if he, as a brand, has come of age. Or whether, despite his party’s recent wins, it is too early to think of him as a dependable brand.

 

Interestingly, the resurgence of the Congress and that of Rahul Gandhi in particular seems to represent an almost textbook example of a challenger brand.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unexpected poor performance is also perhaps a classic case of what a market leader should avoid—complacence, overconfidence and petty-mindedness being on top of the list.

“While it’s true that Rahul Gandhi has a long way to go before he can match the perceived stature and the personal popularity of Narendra Modi, he has certainly been able to narrow the gap between them. I would say this is an outcome of some of his bold initiatives helped to a great extent by the missteps of the latter,” says Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.

Dheeraj Sinha, managing director (India) and chief strategy officer (Asia) at Leo Burnett, agreed that Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a viable challenger with the recent wins in the Assembly elections.

However, he argues that challengers don’t win the game in India, leaders do. “Will Rahul be able to position himself as a viable leader of the country is the question. Just being a challenger won’t make it happen for the Congress,” he says.

Advertising veteran Sandeep Goyal who has done his doctorate in human brands, says that a challenger brand is defined by a mindset. It has ambitions larger than its conventional pool of resources and is prepared to do something bold. The most common narrative associated with the challenger brand is that of the underdog.

However, challenger brands are today more often focused on “what” they are challenging rather than “who” they are challenging.

“Rahul Gandhi is, therefore, by definition, truly a challenger brand. The important thing that everyone seems to be missing out on is that he is cleverly not really challenging Mr Modi but challenging incumbency, unfulfilled promises, growth agenda, and the performance of the current government, ‘mistakes’ like demonetization and GST (goods and service tax). In politics, these are really the ‘category drivers’. Rahul is also focusing on disenchantment/ unhappiness with jobs/economy, which is really challenging the ‘user experience’ with the current government,” says Goyal.

Sinha feels that Rahul’s underdog image helps him. He began his political career as a fumbling novice, which earned him the Pappu sobriquet.

“It’s because not much was expected of him is why his stock goes up every time he exceeds expectations, even for accomplishments that are less than extraordinary. On the other hand, his rival suffers a huge disadvantage for having set unrealistically high expectations, and whatever be his achievements, they are bound to fall short of the promise. This has no doubt negatively impacted both his credibility as well as popularity, which has helped Rahul Gandhi seize the narrative. When one starts at the bottom, the only way is up. The converse is equally true,” points out Sinha.

Brand Rahul seems to be gaining some traction. “His speeches have improved both in form and content. He is more consistent, more combative.

The hesitant, reluctant brand Rahul of yore is slowly but surely transforming into an astute leader who has pedigree and lineage,” feels Goyal.

Of course, none of this guarantees a defeat for the BJP, or a victory for the Congress, in this year’s general elections. Goyal says that as of now, brand Modi is stronger and better resourced, but beginning to fray at the edges.

Also, a bit hurt, if not bruised. In 2014, brand Modi epitomized “hope” and “progress.”

“In 2019, he cannot stand for Hindutva or Ram Temple or The Cow. That would be a big mistake. In 2014, brand Rahul was untested and nascent. In 2019, he is portraying himself as progressive, secular, empathetic and pedigreed… Both brands have their own appeal,” he says.

As Leo Burnett’s Sinha says, leadership brands need to appeal to the whole market.

Will brand Rahul be able to cover this distance from being a challenger brand to the leader brand in the next few months remains to be seen.

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Opinion

Your waste: someone’s taste

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Zeeshan Rasool Khan,

While we every other day listen to boastful claims that the country India is developing fast. It has become very difficult for most of us to accept the brute reality that here the people die because of hunger. Yes, death due to starvation is the unthinkable, reality of India. According to sources, about 14.9% of the Indian population is undernourished. Half of the world’s hungry live in India. Thousands are those who do not know if the next meal would be availed or not. Reports say, everyday 20 crore people have to hit the sack with an empty tummy. In the year 2018, many cases of hunger-death were reported in India. This bitter truth is being cloaked with bragging. Global Hunger Index 2018, which has placed India at a 103rd place out of 119 qualifying countries, is a testimony to this fact that India is not what media shows i.e., all is not well within the nation with respect to common masses. Howbeit, it is not any matter of berating the nation. There is no question of cutting anyone to size in connection with this issue. Instead, it demands serious contemplation from everyone irrespective of our positions in society.

One of the root causes of hunger is poverty that has been challenging to every developing country and India is no exception. Despite the reports of GHI, which says, the poverty level has reduced by 0.9 % since 2011 we must accept that our efforts have been too meagre to achieve any feat in this direction. Let us accept we have failed in defeating poverty. But, that does not mean we will rest on our laurels and let poverty-stricken die. If we cannot eradicate the gigantic issue of poverty but we have immense potential to secure poor. If we cannot build palaces for indigents, however, we can provide them shelter to hide at least. If we cannot raise their standard of living but there is no doubt that, we can mitigate their problems. Likewise, if we cannot provide them with sumptuous food, at least we can make sure that they will not sleep hungry, die due to hunger and starvation.

 

There is no dearth of food. Credible reports suggest that India produces sufficient food to feed its population. However, access to the available food is lacking. And this inaccessibility is partly due to low income of people and mostly due to our behaviour of wasting food. It has been estimated that nearly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is wasted every year. This wastage starts from processing continues up to packing, supply management, and consumption.Due to imperfect packaging methods and inefficient supplying system, a considerable amount of food is lost. According to one estimate, about 40 percent of fruits and vegetables and 30 percent of cereals are wasted and do not reach the consumers because of improper packaging and supplying techniques. Prevalent ways of processing and subsequent supplying of paddy and other grains result into wastage of a part of it. Common Fruit growers know it better, while packaging, what quantity of fruits is wasted. Fully ripened fruit is often discarded as ‘rotten’ because of apprehensions about its transportation. Same is the case with vegetables and other foodstuffs.

These squandered grains, discarded fruit and vegetables make a large part of wasted food. Imagine if these grains, ripe fruit, and vegetable reach any poor, how great it would be. At the consumption stage, significant levels of food wastage occur. The gluttony, most people are indulged in is itself a form of wastage. Some people eat like a horse without thinking about health risks that overeating leads to. They keep on inviting ailments rather than getting any benefit but never cogitate, how by exercising moderation in eating we can help others. The excessive food that we take can easily become a morsel for a destitute.

Our weddings, events, restaurants, hostels, and houses are a major source of food wastage. At weddings, a huge amount of food is wasted. A large amount of food including multiple dishes are served, which results in leftovers that finally finds a place in trash bins. It would have been far better to have control mechanism at our weddings for prevention of food-wastage. However, even in absence of a mechanism, we can play a significant role in reducing wastage of food by best use of leftovers. Leftovers from weddings and even from our homes, restaurants, hostels, and hotels are often thrown away. But there is an option for us to make better use of it. We can recycle leftovers. We can make many other dishes from it, which can be used for the next meal. Massimo Botturra of Italy – the world’s best chef has come up with this innovative idea. He has founded the association namely ‘Food for Soul’ with the motive to fight food waste. He uses surplus food /leftovers productively to tackle food wastage and nourish poorest people of the city. Most of Hoteliers and restaurateur, across the world particularly India, have followed suit that is a good sign. Others, who are not aware of this idea, should imitate the same .So that more and more necessitous are benefited. In fact, using leftovers to feed the poor living in our vicinity would be one of the finest uses of leftovers. By this way the uneaten edibles from our homes, restaurants, etc. can fill the bellies of many and eliminate their hunger.

Efforts are on throughout India and fortunately, in our state too, to reach out the hunger struck population. No doubt, some NGO’s are working to utilize extra cooked food and give it to needier. But, the challenge is big and efforts are small. Broad-gauge efforts are required that must be started from the individual level. While processing, packaging, supplying, and consuming, utmost care needs to be taken to check the frittering. Through this mindfulness, we can preserve lot of food and can make it available to the poor. In addition, if everyone would refrain from wasting food and take care of penurious people of respective communities, we can ensure food availability for a maximum number of deprived people.

It is worth to mention, feeding hungry cannot obliterate hunger as it is related to several problems. However, we cannot deny the fact that hunger itself is the root of various other troubles. Hunger deprives a person from growth. It increases the vulnerability of a person to a myriad of complications, which can have an adverse impact on social, behavioural, emotional, and physical health of a person. Satisfying one’s hunger can make him eligible to earn livelihood otherwise his destiny is elimination. So, we must think logically to gain the best of both worlds.

(The writer can be reached at: [email protected])

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