Times Group responds to Cobrapost sting, calls it doctored content
The recent Cobrapost sting on media groups in India agreeing to propagate Hindutva ideology and political agenda in exchange for money has come under severe criticism by media houses who have been named in the sting.
BCCL, the publisher of The Times of India, which was featured in the recent Cobrapost sting has termed the report as “doctored content”. In a statement published in Times of India, it said, “The so-called report claims to be based entirely on so-called ‘sting operations,’ but it is actually a case of doctoring of content and falsification, as no media organisations named in it agreed to any illegal or immoral activity and no contracts were signed.”
BCCL has also said that it is seeking legal opinion in order to initiate appropriate action against Cobrapost.
Here is the full version of the BCCL statement:
Cobrapost is at it again. The website recently released ‘Operation 136,’ which it claimed is an investigative report meant to show how several media groups in India agreed to propagate Hindutva ideology and political agenda in exchange for money. The so-called report claims to be based entirely on so-called ‘sting operations,’ but it is actually a case of doctoring of content and falsification, as no media organisations named in it agreed to any illegal or immoral activity and no contracts were signed.
This so-called investigation, which targeted over a dozen media organizations, was conducted by ‘journalist’ Pushp Sharma, who posed as one Acharya Chhatrapal Atal and claimed he was linked to various saffron groups.
This is the same Pushp Sharma who was arrested by Delhi police in May 2016 for fabricating an RTI reply to publish a report claiming the government was discriminating against Muslims in recruitment of yoga trainers by the AYUSH ministry. He was at that time booked for cheating, forgery and promoting enmity between different groups. He had also been arrested earlier in 2009 for extorting money from government officials by threatening to conduct sting ops against them.
Cobrapost and Pushp Sharma met representatives of many prominent media houses such as Hindustan Times, Zee, Dainik Bhaskar, India TV, Jagran, Star and also Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL). All of them conducted business negotiations, but nothing was concluded because of the inappropriate, unethical, and illegal demands of Sharma.
This so-called sting operation has already led to a judicial rebuke for Cobrapost with the Delhi High Court on Thursday (May 24) restraining the website from releasing a part of the report at a press conference planned at the Press Club of India, New Delhi, on Friday (May 25) after an injunction was sought by the Dainik Bhaskar group. The restraint would stay ‘till further orders,’ the HC said, accepting the Dainik Bhaskar group’s argument that the object of the report was ‘sensationalism’ and ‘sensational journalism.’ The group had told the court that Cobrapost wanted to sully its reputation and ‘arm-twist’ it ‘for illegal benefit’ and that ‘irreparable loss and injury’ would be caused to its reputation if ex-parte orders were not issued.
Cobrapost has also uploaded some content against BCCL, the publisher of The Times of India, in its report on Friday (May 25). A spokesperson of BCCL stated they had sent a detailed communication to Cobrapost in this regard, and Cobrapost has maliciously not put forth the true facts regarding the episode before the public. This has been done to mislead the public and to fabricate a scandal. The fact is that BCCL senior functionaries were aware that the person (Pushp Sharma) claiming to be Acharya Atal was an imposter well before they started discussions with him. They were acting under the advice of the BCCL legal team to trap the fraudster and to discover his true intent and details of the people, political formations or businesses backing him. Essentially, BCCL was in the process of carrying out a reverse sting with a plan to make the so-called Acharya Atal commit a mistake or even sign legal contracts so as to expose the people and organisations behind him.
The spokesperson also confirmed that there are various pieces of evidence in this regard available with BCCL on how it sought to trap the fraudster journalist Pushp Sharma. BCCL is now seeking legal opinion in order to initiate appropriate action against Cobrapost and Pushp Sharma for their illegal activities and for defamation.
The fact is that no actual business deal was done and no money exchanged in any form whatsoever with BCCL. In fact, it was Sharma who was insisting on payment by cash, while BCCL representatives continued engaging with him on the subject in order to understand his real backers and agenda.
At no point did BCCL countenance any suggestion that would have even remotely compromised the editorial sanctity of its media platforms. The ideas that were discussed by BCCL representatives revolved entirely around the production of web series and ways to market them through the group’s entertainment and outdoor platforms. To suggest otherwise is a misrepresentation of facts.
Another alarming aspect is the one-sided narrative Cobrapost wishes to peddle against reputed media organisations by way of portraying the entire episode as one with a communal dimension. Innocuous marketing discussions about TV serials and sponsorship of programmes like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been shown by Cobrapost to be propagation or denouncement of a specific religion. This is nothing but a malicious allegation made about purely legitimate entertainment activities.
As a matter of fact, making a TV serial, comic strip or web series on the Mahabharata or on Rama, Hanuman, Krishna, Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad, Mahavir, Buddha or Ganesha cannot be considered as promotion of any religious ideology. Such activities are wholly constitutional and not illegal or unethical in any manner. Many entertainment channels, including state-owned Doordarshan, have carried such content in the past, and no such activity has been challenged by any party as being tantamount to propagating a religious ideology.
Misuse of religious principles by Cobrapost and Sharma’s acts of fraud against media companies to show one religion or its related political ideology in a negative light by putting out selective content and doctored conversations is clearly unethical and must be rejected.
India TV, one of the channels named in a part of ‘Operation 136’ also recently refuted Cobrapost’s allegations and called the Cobrapost video ‘doctored.’ Not a single proposal put forward by Sharma was accepted by the editorial or other teams of India TV, no consideration accepted, and no material shared by him was aired, the channel stated, adding that India TV would be taking the ‘strictest legal action’ in the matter.
Another channel, Zee News, released a video in April showing how Sharma himself had got stung by its representatives when he tried to lure them into a ‘deal’ as part of ‘Operation 136.’ The video showed that when Sharma posed as Acharya Chhatrapal Atal, met Zee representatives in Bhubaneshwar and offered to pay the channel for pro-Hindutva content, the channel’s personnel made it clear that they would stick to journalistic ethics and standards.
Interestingly, it appears that not a single one of the more than a dozen media groups targeted by Sharma accepted any money or put out any content that was pushed by him. Also, as the activities of Cobrapost are through enticement and inducement - activities specifically denounced and prohibited by the Delhi High Court in 2007 – they cannot be considered as sting ops in any case and are illegal activities in breach of journalistic standards.
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