Express Exclusive: Chhattisgarh govt pays for all TV news that is fit to buy

In May 2010, Hindi TV channel Sahara Samay presented a five-point proposal to the public relations department of the Chhattisgarh government about covering government activities during 2010-11:

1. Two-minute special package: Sahara Samay will show the package 15 times a day during news bulletins. It will contain "CM's speeches, government policies, and special news related to various departments." Cost: Rs 3.28 crore per year at Rs 3,000 per minute.

2. Live telecast of CM's public meetings: "Whenever the chief minister makes a visit or addresses any meeting anywhere in the state, Sahara Samay will deploy its OB (Outdoor Broadcast) van and telecast the programme live for 10 minutes." Cost: Rs 48 lakh per year for four broadcasts every month costing Rs 1 lakh each.

3. Ticker: People will be made aware of various government schemes for 10 hours a day, five of those hours during prime time. Cost: Rs 60 lakh per year.

4. Special package: "The channel will do a half-hour story on government schemes that have made a mark nationally, and how well Central schemes are being implemented in Chhattisgarh, and telecast it on its national, NCR and MP-Chhattisgarh channels. Schemes of the honourable CM will be presented in a better manner on the channel." Cost: Rs 50 lakh per year for two programmes a month.

5. Side panel: "It's a strip that will be displayed on 30 per cent of the screen and will carry a beautiful picture of CM Raman Singh with children and nice slogans." Cost: Rs 14.6 lakh per year.

The proposals did not raise any eyebrows at the PR department, even though a leading news channel was quoting a price for covering the government and not to produce sponsored programmes or advertorials. After all, such arrangements had been in vogue for at least three years and this was not the first time a TV channel had sought to enter into a coverage deal with the government. Sahara Samay and the department haggled over the rates before the proposals were approved.

The Indian Express is in the possession of nearly 200 such documents of Chhattisgarh's PR department and letters from senior editors of TV channels that chronicle a flagrantly unethical relationship between the state and its leading private TV channels. The documents cover a span of about five years starting 2007 and contain proposals from channels to produce "news stories" and "provide positive coverage of government programmes", price negotiations and approvals, among others.

Those involved in such deals include Z24, Sahara Samay, ETV Chhattisgarh and Sadhna News, Chhattisgarh's main TV channels, besides some smaller, local networks. Z24 is a franchisee of Zee News. While its reporters are recruited locally, its editor Abhay Kishore is deputed by Zee News. The cost of such programmes can range from Rs 4 lakh to Rs 1.1 crore.

The documents show that Raman Singh's BJP government, which has ruled the state since 2003, has paid for favourable news stories and live coverage regularly. This includes government welfare programmes, planting of trees in Naya Raipur, distribution of subsidised rice to the poor, the Commonwealth Games Queen's Baton Relay, disputes pending in courts and even to generate public reaction to welfare programmes "five persons in each district with 30 seconds for every reaction", as one deal said.

No event is apparently sacrosanct for such transactions, be it the Republic Day or Independence Day speeches of government leaders, the state budget presentation or even food distribution in the tribal district of Bastar by visiting BJP Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj. And most of these programmes do not say they are sponsored or paid for by the government and pass off as regular programming by the independent, private TV channels.

However, N Baijendra Kumar, an IAS officer who is the commissioner of the PR department, said it is an insult to claim that journalists can be bought. "We undertake sponsored programmes to showcase our success stories. We get our stories done, be it spots, features or documentaries as advertisements. There is nothing paid news about it, nothing hidden about it. Everything is in white, duly recorded and accounted," he said.

Referring to TV channels being funded for some of their Naxal reports, Kumar said this was required to counter Naxal propaganda. "The urban network of Naxals is able to use the media to support them and their ideologies. Human stories of Naxal violence and efforts of government officers often go unreported, so we get these done," he said.

Z24 editor Abhay Kishore said it was wrong to call this arrangement paid news. "It is mere selling of slots. We do not give wrong information to readers. It does not matter who is funding the story as long as it is genuine," he said. "The term paid news is coined by the national media without understanding the concerns of regional media. We have to evolve new forms of revenue as it is a challenge to sustain TV journalism. This market is highly localised and therefore has less advertising. There is no corporate advertising. Hence we have to approach the government. We do not surrender but let them use our platform for development stories. We are number one here for the last three years and it would not have been so if it were for paid news. We have run several stories against the government."

ETV's Chhattisgarh bureau chief Manoj Singh Baghel said it is "absolutely incorrect" to say that his channel produces news stories about the success of the Chhattisgarh government and broadcasts them as reports. "In fact, success stories of Chhattisgarh government, released by the public relations department are shown on the channel, but only as advertisement or sponsored items. There is always a clear understanding between the public relations department and all the channels, including ETV, that success stories are being released as advertisements," Baghel claimed.

Sanjay Shekhar, Chhattisgarh bureau chief of Sadhna News, said "government advertisements" came in two forms. "They give us produced items or ask our marketing teams to produce them for which we charge an amount. Of late, the latter category has increased," he said.

Sahara Samay refused to comment.

Political and media observers in the state trace the phenomenon to the assembly elections of 2003 when media houses and politicians, led by the then Congress government, entered into "sponsored news" deals. The relationship was apparently low-key until Raman Singh's government began investing heavily in marketing itself and media companies began diversifying into power, steel and real estate, leading to both sides finding a mutual need.

The state government's financial records show that until 2007, small, local firms were hired to produce documentaries and promotional features and these were given to news channels to broadcast. Subsequently, the government directly asked the channels to produce "news stories". The consenting relationship between the establishment and the media had its teething troubles and ugly spats would sometimes spill out into the open. For instance, the government had last year publicly accused ETV of resorting to paid news and blackmailing.

Over the years, however, the government and the channels seem to have ironed out the glitches in their relationship and even come up with explanations and justifications for crossing the line, the observers said.


Some examples of the Chhattisgarh government's PR

department paying TV channels for favourable coverage, and proposals from channels for paid coverage:

In March 2010, Z24 produced a report titled 'Jenelia Ki Lal Kahani' or 'Jenelia's Red story' after Bastar police arrested a woman named Jenelia on suspicion that she was a Maoist. The report was produced even before the woman's interrogation could be completed and the police could establish she was indeed a Maoist extremist. Z24 submitted a CD containing the report and a copy of the script, along with the CD of another story, to the PR department and demanded Rs 10 lakh plus service tax. Officials paid them Rs 4 lakh saying "the channel did not repeat the programme on prime time. Also, most of it was file footage".

In February 2011, Sahara Samay proposed producing a "special programme focusing on how various government departments facing Naxal challenge are running development activities". Cost: Rs 25 lakh plus service tax for programme "to be aired on national channel, NCR channel, MP-Chhattisgarh, Bihar-Jharkhand and Uttarakhand channels on 12 occasions." A March 3 order gave permission to "produce and telecast special programmes on Naxalism".

In May 2011, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, visited Bastar to inaugurate a chana distribution programme. Z24, Sahara Samay, ETV Chhattisgarh and Sadhna News telecast the programme live and produced "special stories". Cost: Rs 14.26 lakh.

In 2011, payment of Rs 25 lakh to four major TV channels approved for "live coverage of state budget and special stories".

In 2009, payment of Rs 10 lakh to Z24 approved to "promote government schemes on the occasion of the channel's first anniversary". However, "since it could not be broadcast due to the model code of conduct of civic and panchayat elections," the channel was instead asked to "produce 20-25 success stories".

In 2008, Sadhna News covered Chief Minister Raman Singh's visit to Rajnandgaon live for an hour and broadcast a two-minute report 20 times. Cost: Rs 10 lakh.

On July 28, 2009 bills worth Rs 7.76 lakh cleared for "soft stories on Naveen Mukhyamantri Khadyaan Sahayata Yojana produced by ETV, Sahara Samay and Sadhna News".

On April 1, 2010, ETV proposed to produce phone-in programmes 'Hello CM' and 'Hello Minister' in which the chief minister and other ministers reply to questions from the public. Cost: Rs 1.1 crore plus service tax.

In August 2009, ETV proposes to "produce stories on welfare schemes and run them five times a day for a month". Cost: Rs 30 lakh plus service tax.

Sahara Samay proposes a 3-minute live telecast of CM's Independence Day speech for Rs 5 lakh plus service tax. The channel also proposed to "produce 2-minute stories on CM's speech for two days on 16 occasions, eight each on prime and non-prime time".

In April 2010, Z24, Sahara Samay, ETV and Sadhna News proposed doing "special stories" about 'Kamal Vihar', a controversial housing project of the Raipur Development Authority which has now landed in the high court. Cost: Rs 4 lakh to Rs 20 lakh.

In February 2010, Sahara Samay proposed producing reports on government schemes for SCs/STs with reactions from "five persons in each district with thirty seconds for every reaction". In another proposal, the channel offers to get "reactions of public and experts on the government's performance in two years".

In February 2010, ETV proposes to earmark "a special slot for Republic Day jhanki (tableaux) eight times in two days".

In March 2010, Sadhna News proposes to produce a "special bulletin of 30 minutes to broadcast positive aspects of government welfare schemes".

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