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WASHINGTON: A recently undercover bribery scandal indicating that some of India’s largest media groups are ready to accept bribes in order to favour the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming 2019 election campaign has brought down India’s press freedom index rankings, international media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders reported on Wednesday.

Cobrapost’s videos showed its reporter Pushp Sharma posing as a right-wing Hindu nationalist activist meeting the owners of 27 leading media groups while carrying a hidden camera. He offered each of them significant sums of money — to be paid in cash if necessary — in return for favourable coverage of BJP’s activities in the run-up to the 2019 general election.

Cobrapost, an investigative news website, named its undercover investigation Operation 136 in reference to India’s ranking in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. “And what it found could explain why this country, the cradle of an exceptionally dynamic press, has fallen so low,” Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, added.

Between the release of the first batch of Operation 136 videos in March and the release of the second batch on May 25, India fell another two places in the RSF World Press Freedom Index, and is now ranked 138th out of 180 countries.

Cobrapost’s undercover reporting shows that “most of India’s leading media groups would take money from the ruling party in return for favourable coverage,” RSF noted.

RSF urged the media groups involved in the scandal to withdraw their legal actions against Cobrapost. “Cobrapost’s revelations say a lot about the practices of those who run most of India’s leading media groups, and about the pressure they put on their journalists,” RSF said.

RSF also asked media bosses to “respect their staff’s editorial independence”. “With a year to go to the next general election, it is high time to allow India’s journalists to again enjoy the freedom they used to have, so that they can provide the public with more impartial news coverage.”

Sharma is seen offering media bosses tens of million rupees in exchange for three things: praising Hindutva, discrediting opposition leaders who could pose a threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and promoting views liable to pola­rise voters, “for example, by exploiting hatred of Muslims”.

Almost all of these media bosses accepted the offer and most of them promised to set up special teams for this purpose.

After the video release, three of the targeted media groups sent legal notices to Cobrapost and to other independent me­­dia outlets such as The Wire and The Quint which published stories about the Cobrapost sting on their own websites. Only two West-Bengal based media groups Bartaman Patri­ka and Dainik Sambad rejected the offer on ethical grounds.

Open Magazine is the only targeted media that has so far taken measures against those who agreed to the offer of Cobrapost’s undercover reporter. Two of its executives have been sanctioned by its management.

On the eve of Cobrapost sting Part II’s release, India’s largest media group, the Dainik Bhaskar, managed to get an injunction blocking the publication of any material referring to its directors. The Suvarna News group also obtained a similar court order.

“These are temporary injunctions, not take-down orders,” Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal told RSF. “We don’t get intimidated. It is they who have to worry. Not us.”

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2018