Chhattisgarh Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel has written to the Press Council of India alleging that five Hindi newspapers in the state refused to publish the party’s advertisements in their editions for June 8, the day Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah arrived in state capital Raipur. Baghel has alleged that this was the result of pressure exerted by the BJP-led government in Chhattisgarh on these newspapers.

However, Baghel refused to identify the newspapers in question. “They are prestigious organisations and I do not want to name them,” he said.

The Congress had prepared two full-page advertisements that it wanted to have published in various newspapers. Baghel said that on June 5 he had approached several newspapers to buy advertising space in their June 8 editions. That evening, five of the newspapers he had approached called to inform him that they could not accept the advertisements. “The newspapers did not cite any reason but it is obvious that they were under pressure from the government,” said Baghel.

Ultimately, two other newspapers published the advertisements.

Though Baghel did not disclose the names of the newspapers that refused to publish the advertisements even in his letter to the Press Council of India – a statutory body set up to preserve the freedom of the press – their identity is common knowledge among journalists in Raipur.

Legal concerns

Senior editorial employees with three of the newspapers that declined to publish the advertisements told this reporter that they were rejected primarily for their content – they allegedly presented legal and ethical concerns. The employees said that they did not wish to be identified.

However, two of them admitted to having received phone calls from government officials enquiring whether the advertisements were going to be published. Despite this, they denied that the government had pressured the newspapers to reject the advertisements.

The first Congress advertisement picked up a line from news reports (Hindi link) about a meeting in April at which Chief Minister Raman Singh of the BJP was reported to have told party legislators and government officials not to accept “commissions for a year for the BJP government to sustain in the state for another 30 years”. The Congress organised a protest against the reported remark on Thursday. Journalists in Raipur said that only a handful of Hindi dailies had carried reports about that meeting, and the reports had attributed the information to unidentified persons.

The second Congress advertisement specifically levelled allegations against Raman Singh, his wife and ministers for their alleged involvement in the Rs 36,000-crore Public Distribution System scam in Chhattisgarh.

“When we got the draft, we sought legal help and our lawyer asked us not to publish the advertisement,” said a senior editor with one of the three newspapers that declined to publish the advertisements. “Though some government officials did call up newspapers to enquire about the concerned advertisements, there was no pressure as such. We had to refuse the advertisement because we felt the content could land us in trouble.”

The bureau chief of the second newspaper said that the publication rejected the Congress advertisement because it did not have any space left in its June 8 edition as most of the commercial space had been alloted to government advertisements. Newspapers across Raipur carried full-page advertisements on June 8 welcoming Amit Shah to the state.

“Even if there was space, we still would have landed in a fix,” said the bureau chief. “The advertisement we were shown contained personal allegations against the chief minister and his wife. It was very specific and could have landed the newspaper in trouble. Also, we are not sure if it is ethical…to publish such advertisements.”

The bureau chief of the third newspaper said that he too had received phone calls from a government official inquiring about the advertisements. “It was just an enquiry,” he said. “But the main problem was with the content of the advertisement. It could land the newspaper in trouble and does not seem ethical too.”

Asked if he thought that it was possible that the advertisements had been declined because of their content, Congress leader Baghel said: “If the papers do not have problem with publishing details on whatever the chief minister says, whether true or untrue, why should they have a problem when we try to counter the government through our advertisements?”

Rajesh Sukumar Toppo, director, public relations, in the Chhattisgarh government, said that the allegation that the state government had put pressure on newspapers to drop the Congress advertisements was baseless. “How, in a democratic set up, can a government intervene in any transaction between media organisation and its clients?” he asked.

He added: “We later saw the advertisements and I strongly feel media organisations must have dropped it because of the defamatory content.”

No reason to decline

However, Rajeev Ranjan Srivastava, group editor of Deshbandhu, one of the two newspapers to publish the Congress advertisement, said that his publication did not see any reason to decline it. “As far as our newspaper is concerned, as an editor, I take the responsibility and I do not think we have done anything that violates law or ethics of journalism,” he said.

He did not believe that the advertisement presented any ethical concerns. “First, we must know it is a political advertisement,” said Srivastava. “Second, the allegations made in the advertisement are not new: they have often been published on newspapers as news items. As far as the ethical question is concerned, news items demand more scrutiny than advertisements, which everyone knows are paid in nature.”

Srivastava said that he too had received phone calls from government officials inquiring about the advertisement. “They even pointed out towards the content and the language of the advertisement, but we cannot really say that we were put under any sort of pressure,” he said.

Advertisements and defamation

In the national capital, newspapers have published advertisements with Aaam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal making direct allegations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Sevanti Ninan, editor of The Hoot, a media watchdog foundation, said that newspapers were well within their rights to reject advertisements with content that could be considered defamatory.

“Publications can be held responsible for all content that they publish, including advertisements,” said Ninan. “At the end of the day newspapers charge their clients money for the advertisements. They can also be made party in a case of defamation if the content of an advertisement causes defamation to someone.”

Commenting specifically on the Congress advertisements, Ninan said: “These advertisements are defamatory. People are named here with specific allegations. Not just the publisher, the editor is also responsible for content of [such] advertisements.”