The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Jharkhand appears to have taken note of the difficulties Indian news organisations are facing generating revenue as the economy is in the throes of a slowdown. This week, it emerged that the state government has devised a novel way to channel money to journalists: pay them to say nice things about government schemes, just months before the state is about to go to the polls.
To be fair, being paid to say nice things about the government may not be new for all journalists. But the manner in which it is being done in Jharkhand appears most brazen. The state officially advertised this new scheme, devised as a way of getting good publicity about its other schemes.
A selection committee will pick 30 journalists, who will have a month to report on selected government programmes, and put out their work either in a newspaper or on television. Once they have done so, the government will pay each of them Rs 15,000. Of these, 25 articles will also be selected to go into a booklet about the government’s achievements, and the authors of these will get an additional Rs 5,000.
In other words, the Jharkhand government is essentially bribing the media to get positive coverage in an election year, that too with the articles or TV coverage likely to appear when the model code of conduct is in force.
Of course, on paper, the scheme does not mandate the journalists to say good things about the government. But one official told the Indian Express, “sarkar ki positive news chhapwaane ke baare mein hai [it is to publish positive news about the government].” Indeed, can you imagine the government handing out Rs 15,000 to a journalist who has taken a critical look at its efforts?
BJP governments, in general, tend to view any criticism of their actions as being the equivalent of sedition and that those who question it are “anti-nationals”. It would take a real suspension of disbelief to imagine a BJP government willing to hand over cash to journalists who are anything less than sycophantic.
The Jharkhand government’s scheme for journalists is the perfect encapsulation of how the BJP views the media’s role: be a cheerleader for the government and its efforts, and nothing else.
This is evident of the converse too: one journalist in Kashmir was arrested by the government with authorities arguing that he did not carry out his “moral duty” of covering developmental activities in his area. The BJP has been willing to take advertisements away from news organisations that are critical of it, while party leaders demonise those who do not toe the line.
Fortunately, the Opposition in the state has come out against the move. But it is not enough for politicians alone to take issue with this. Such schemes are a cause for alarm for the wider public. Fake news and paid news are already problems the news mediia has to contend with. What if readers now will not be able to tell if they are getting coverage of the government has been paid for by the government itself?
The BJP government claimed it was doing this based on demands from journalists. If, indeed, the welfare of the news media is the chief concern for the party, it might do well to focus on a different approach: fix the economy and all businesses, not just news organisations, will automatically start doing better. If we had only a cheerleader press, however, would the public even get to know the extent of the economic slowdown?
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