Two TV journalists have been arrested in India after allegedly demanding money from an industrialist in return for favorable coverage. The controversy has renewed debate about the media transparency in India.
Usually, it is the journalists who expose corrupt businessmen and politicians. But in India, the tables have turned. An industrialist has claimed that he has video evidence which proves that the Indian private TV channel, Zee, demanded one billion rupees (1.4 million euros) in bribes from him for "favorable coverage."
Naveen Jindal, Chairman of Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) and ruling Indian Congress Party's member of parliament, alleged that two senior editors of the TV channel had asked for money as bribe to drop an investigation into how his company had received coal allocations from the Indian government.
Responding to the JSPL allegation, the Indian police arrested two senior editors of Zee TV - Sudhir Chaudhary and Samir Ahluwalia - last week, and on Friday a court ordered their custody until December 14.
The 'Coalgate' scam
In August, a report by India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) alleged that the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition had awarded coal mining permits to companies without competitive bidding, at a cost of 26 billion euros to the Indian exchequer. It soon blew up into a big political scandal, popularly known as the "Coalgate." The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party accused the Indian government as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of involvement in the scandal.
The JSPL was also implicated in Coalgate. Subsequently, Zee TV began a series of investigative reports on Jindal's involvement in the scam. But in October, in an unexpected move, Jindal released a 15-minute video purportedly showing the two Zee editors trying to strike a deal with his company. A forensic report of the video certified that the footage was authentic.
Tit for tat
Zee hit back by claiming that it was Jindal who had offered bribe money to influence the channel for not investigating his company's involvement in the scam.
"The fact of the matter is that Jindal is the one who offered money, bribing the editors and the network," Zee channel's news TV's chief executive Alok Agarwal told the media. The channel's managerial staff said the arrest of its editors was "malicious and illegal," and called it a "black day" for media freedom in India.
"JSPL is using the state machinery, which is controlled by the Congress Party, to muzzle voices of dissent and to divert attention from its own corruption which the Zee channel editors had sought to highlight in public interest," Zee channel wrote in a statement.
The channel filed a 1.5-billion-rupee defamation suit against Jindal. Jindal also reacted and brought a 2-billion-rupee defamation suit against the channel.
"Zee channel's allegations are ridiculous," JSPL's human resource director Rajeev Bhadauria told DW, calling the channel a "black sheep" among the Indian media. "The channel has launched a vilification campaign against us. When our representatives went to talk to them we found that their motives were absolutely ulterior. They wanted to extract money from us. They were also trying to criminally intimidate us," Bhadauria said.
While the legal wrangle between the JSPL and Zee is set to roll on for some years to come, the case has yet again highlighted the "cash for coverage" controversy in India, exposing uneasy relations between the media and the country's rich, influential elite.
In recent past, media exposés have revealed that TV channels and newspapers sold space to election candidates, disguising advertisements as news. Many senior journalists privately reveal that they face intense pressure from powerful people and groups to suppress negative news.
In the meantime, the Press Council of India has set up a committee of judicial and media experts to investigate alleged breaches of the journalistic code and media ethics by different media organizations.