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Exclusive: Senior journalist Padampati Sharma reveals truth behind stings, paid media

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By Nishtha and Ishan Kukreti

Senior sports journalist Padampati Sharma started his career in the 1970s. Having worked with media organizations such as Hindi Daily Aaj, Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, Hindustan, News Nation among others, Sharma, is a known face in the world of Hindi journalism. In an exclusive interview with NewsGram, Sharma talks about his career, sting operations, rotten journalism and how the profession has deteriorated in the last three decades. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about your journey in the field of Sports Journalism, and what impelled you to join it.

Padampati Sharma: When I came into this profession, the situation of sports journalism in India was in a bad state. We didn’t have even one permanent sub-editor, let alone country heads. I had studied English and that had ignited a passion in me. I was well aware of people like K.N Prabhu and M.S Ramaswamy and understood what they wrote. I wanted to be like them, but lack of means served as an impediment.  But I did not let that deter me.

I used to listen to Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s commentary at 4 in the morning, and by the lunchtime, I would be ready with a story based on a detailed critical analysis of the radio commentary. Gradually, it began receiving heavy readership and by 1978 I had become the first Hindi Sports Journalist to have covered Cricket spontaneously.

How did you manage to introduce spontaneous coverage of matches?

PS: Earlier, match updates were sent through Telegram, which was a delayed means of communication. People were unaware about Telex (a telecommunications programme) through which immediate coverage was possible. When I was sent to Pakistan, I was told to relax and write the story late at night, after which they’d edit and modify it the next day. But I had a plan in mind. I used Telex to send my story in Roman and it came out at 4:30 PM on the same day.

How did the Editors react to this essential development that you brought about in terms of coverage?

PS: The General Manager saw the story and ran to show it to our boss. Impressed, our boss gave the peon Rs 100 to offer ‘bhog’ at the nearby Bada Ganesha temple. Later, sweets were distributed in the entire office. Next morning, the front page of the newspaper (Hindi Daily Aaj) was seen carrying a byline in the name of special correspondent Padampati Sharma from Faisalabad, and the next line read in brackets, “Today’s special Telex service.”

There was no turning back after that. Day in and day out, detailed coverage and analyses of matches were sent. Taxis would be called at 5:30 in the morning to send newspapers. But no one complained. People were receiving updates of matches that would get over at 4:30 AM (India time), the same day around 7:30 AM. They were happy.

You have levied strong allegations against your former employer, News Nation and another company called, Oxxy International. Can you explain the matter?

PS: Sting operations were conducted on diagnostic centres and labs in July by News Nation. While footage of about 12 to 14 centres was shot, only seven centres were shown on air. On December 18, a girl named Sheetal Kapoor, representative of Oxxy International approached the director of a diagnostic centre and claimed that there is a second part of the sting. She further added that she can get rid of the footage, if the director pays her Rs 36 lakhs. Through this money, the diagnostic centre will receive positive marketing and publicity. But this money will be valid only for six months and this same agreement will be renewed after that. She stressed on the fact that after taking their commission, the company will send the rest of the money to the top management of the news channel.

The police with the help of the doctor laid down a trap for her. On December 23, Sheetal Kapoor visited the diagnostic centre and the doctor gave her a cheque for Rs 6 lakhs. While she was filling the details of the company on the cheque, the police conducted a raid and detained her.

After an FIR was lodged against her, she named three people who were conducting the sting – one person was from a different news channel and the other two were from News Nation.

After her bail plea was rejected by the court, in the second week of January, Hindustan Times and Navbharat Times had published the news about the money extortion and the police’s role.

The case has now been transferred to the crime branch. But neither Sheetal of Oxxy International nor the news channel have been implicated till now.

You have been a journalist for more than three decades now, how do you think journalism as a profession has evolved since the time of independence?

PS: The truth is that currently journalism is at its lowest surface. When I had joined the profession in the late 1970s, it was different. The editors were respected and respectful. The editors used to be like teachers and used to groom the journalists.

To be honest,  paid media started developing around the time of India’s independence. Despite being a democratic country, we were following economic policies based on the Soviet pattern. The media was also included in this category. Newspapers who had helped in the freedom struggle were given land by the government to set up their business for nominal rates. The media houses located on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg (New Delhi) have got their lands in the similar manner.

The government has never spoken against the newspaper lobby. Instead, they have given them advertisements, supplements, land for use and newspaper import license among others.

The government has turned a blind eye towards these issues as long as the media does not question their moves. I had joined News Nation on the insistence of Shailesh Kumar (former editor-in-chief and CEO of News Nation) but I was not aware that even he will be asked to leave. My contract was not renewed and several others were asked to leave. But that day, I realized that the news channels are working for money and the TRPs. The ethics of this profession are lost.

Are you aware if any other news channels are indulging in stings and extortion? What can be done to prevent such unethical practices in journalism?

PS: Government intervention is needed at the earliest. I have been informed that these sort of incidents have been taking place in several other news channels. I have heard about money laundering, but this systematic way of obtaining money is shocking.

Journalism is dying. Earlier, we had editors but now we have managers who work on the orders of the owner. There are editors who speak against corruption on news channels while they have themselves indulged in corrupt practices.

Earlier, when stings were conducted to inform people about the corrupt practices in the country. But do you think these stings are motivated for high viewership and the channel’s own vested interests?

PS: I agree that stings should be done in the interest of the country and its people. But the stings today are being conducted for the interest of the news channels. I ask, why stings are being conducted on furniture market or on Snapdeal?

There are such cases where promos are being shown for two days and then those shows are never telecasted. This has been happening repeatedly.

‘Kala Akshaar’, a sting on fake university degrees was never broadcasted. Around 13 universities were involved in the sting. There is an industry for fake degrees where you can purchase a BTech degree for Rs 1.80 lakhs and an MBBS degree for Rs 15-18 lakhs. Eventually, the sting was axed. I am not alleging that money was involved, but I want to know why the sting never made it to television?

Journalism is supposed to be the fourth estate but in India, journalism is turning out to be the weakest profession. I am still hopeful that things will change. I want to see the corruption being wiped out from the media. Either the government steps up or a crusader in the form of an NGO or a journalist tries to make a difference.

Next Story

Media Coverage During Bangladesh’s Election Disappoints People

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that "few" journalists might have "faced restrictions" in Bangladesh.

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Bangladesh, Media
Activists of the leftist alliance cover their mouths with black cloths as they join in a rally to demand a new election under caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 3, 2019. VOA

In the wake of Bangladesh’s recent general election, opposition coalition and pro-democracy activists expressed disappointment with alleged episodes of vote manipulation going largely unreported in the local media. But several journalists argue that fear of government reprisals led many media outlets to avoid publishing stories about the alleged wrongdoing.

“The level of vote robbery in the December 30 general election was unprecedented in world history. Ahead of conducting the massively rigged election, the government introduced some black laws, like the Digital Security Act, to shackle the media,” BNP senior joint secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi Ahmed told VOA.

“In different ways the government issued threats to the domestic media outlets to keep them away from reporting freely and not to let the outside world know of the massive vote manipulation,” he said.

 

Bangladesh, media
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interacts with journalists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 31, 2018. VOA

 

A Dhaka-based national TV channel news producer said many media outlets could not exercise their freedom during the election.

“Ahead of the general election, the Election Commission issued new guidelines strictly limiting the coverage-related activities of the journalists during the polling. In a first ever such move, it banned photography, videography or live telecast of the polling-related activities inside voting centers,” said a Dhaka-based national TV channel news producer who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by the government.

‘Chilling message’

“Journalists got a chilling message that if they flouted the guidelines they would face serious retribution from the government. In such a terrifying situation, the rigging-related activities went largely unreported.”

Other journalists who told VOA similar stories did not want to be quoted, saying they feared reprisals from the government.

“They are facing severe pressure on many fronts, including arbitrary arrests and beating by police, forced disappearances and tough criminal defamation and online security laws that have put many in jail,” said Steven Butler, Asia Program coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“They also endure repeated intimidating advisory phone calls from police, army intelligence and the government. The net result is a siege mentality. So, it’s not surprising they are afraid to report on election irregularities they have witnessed,” Butler added.

Bangladesh, Media
Activists of the leftist alliance join in a rally to demand a new election under caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 3, 2019. VOA

Vote fraud allegations

After the schedule of the general election was announced by Bangladesh’s election commission in early December, the government reiterated that the election would be free, fair and all-inclusive.

But hours before the polling began on Dec. 30, the opposition alliance alleged that activists of the ruling Awami League (AL) were illegally stuffing ballot boxes at many voting centers across the country in the presence of election and security officials.

On the day of the polling, the alliance also alleged that tens of thousands of its polling agents, intimidated by AL supporters, had been driven away from the voting centers across the country.

After the election commission announced that the Awami League and its allies had overwhelmingly won 288 of the 300 parliamentary seats in the election, the Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF), the main political opposition coalition, rejected the results, saying it was a “massively rigged, farcical” election.

Bangladesh, Media
Bangladeshi President M. Abdul Hamid administers the oath of office to Prime Minister-elect Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 7, 2019. The new government is Hasina’s third in a row and fourth overall. VOA

AL leaders, however, said the charge of rigging was baseless.

“Can they show any evidence of any booth being captured by force or some people casting votes fraudulently? They cannot present any evidence in support of their charge. Yet, they are claiming that votes have been rigged,” senior AL leader Mahbubul Alam Hanif told VOA.

JOF leader Iqbal Hasan Mahmud Tuku said there was far less evidence of vote manipulation in this election largely because many journalists were not allowed to work freely during the polling.

“While rigging was going on at almost all voting centers in the presence of the election and security around, we asked some reporters to go and cover the incidents. But they all said they were too scared to report on those wrongdoings and stayed away from the voting centers,” Tuku told VOA.

Social media activity

Although the mainstream media largely refrained from reporting on the allegations of fraud, social media remained very active. Many users wrote on Facebook about their experiences at the voting centers.

Bangladesh, Media
Activists of the leftist alliance cover their mouths with black cloths as they join in a rally to demand a new election under caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 3, 2019. VOA

Hundreds of video clips, in which people claimed that they had been stopped by AL activists from casting their votes, circulated across social media. Video clips that claimed to show AL activists casting illegal votes also surfaced on Facebook and Twitter.

Pro-democracy activist Pinaki Bhattacharya said the threat of the Digital Security Act also kept many journalists away from the election.

“Journalists in Bangladesh fear of being framed in multiple cases under the Digital Security Act. So, they are refraining from reporting the truth in many cases as it happened during the December 30 election. This act has robbed the spirit and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh,” Bhattacharya, who is also known as a popular online activist, told VOA.

The Dhaka-based activist, who has been in hiding since August after a military intelligence agency reportedly began hounding him, used his Facebook and Twitter pages to report on alleged malpractice during the election.

The election was not sufficiently documented, with most mainstream media outlets largely staying away from reporting the alleged rigging, Bhattacharya said.

“No independent international election observer group operated during this election. In such a situation, reports in the mainstream media in Bangladesh would have played a key role to document the election. In 95 percent or more voting centers, votes were rigged. But such malpractices have now remained largely undocumented in the absence of proper journalistic reporting,” Bhattacharya said.

Bagladesh, election, media
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gestures after casting her vote in the morning during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

‘Immeasurable’ suppression

Hong Kong-based rights activist Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of the Asian Legal Resource Centre, said the media “blackout” during the election was “immeasurable and irreparable.”

He said the charge of election fraud “should have been independently investigated by the mainstream media outlets that have extensive networks across the country. It would have helped the world to know how a government is being installed in Bangladesh via a massively rigged election.”

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that “few” journalists might have “faced restrictions” in Bangladesh.

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that “few” journalists might have “faced restrictions” in Bangladesh.

“But, if you generalize the comment like this, that the journalists in Bangladesh are working under some sort of threats or restrictions, that will not be fair because it may have happened to just one, two, three or four journalists,” Chowdhury told VOA.

Also Read: Bangladesh PM Gets Global Support, Will Withstand Calls To Investigate Allegations

If any journalist received a threat from police or a military intelligence agency he should have filed an official complaint within the country, he said.

“[In Bangladesh] there are professional bodies like the Editors’ Council, Press Institute and Press Council. If it is so that they have been restricted, they have been threatened by the intelligence agencies or police, I don’t know whether they have complained to these bodies. I don’t think that there is any complaint received by these bodies. Also, here they can file any case against these [security] agencies in the court,” he said.

He added, “I would not comment on what these reporters and journalists said to people or bodies outside the country [to VOA or CPJ]. At least if we do not receive any complaint from any reporter, we cannot comment on this.” (VOA)