Not counted among the better off states of India, the mineral rich state of Jharkhand, once part of ‘Bimaru’ Bihar, has unexpectedly beaconed journalists with humble means. They can become richer by at least Rs 15,000 each by simply using their writing abilities to eulogise ‘development’ in the state. If their treatise is considered worth inclusion in a book to be brought out by the BJP-run state government that is going to the polls in a few weeks then they can expect an additional remuneration of Rs 5000.
If this is not legitimising ‘paid news’ what else is it? In reality, paid news has been an accepted fact of Indian journalism for some years now. Its denunciation is both a sham and perfunctory. Enterprising print media houses now openly declare that some of the items in their news pages have been paid for. The incidents of paid news in the media have been going up, not down.
Jharkhand has been in the news for many wrong reasons. A case of mob lynching shows 24-year old Tabreez Ansari, tied to a tree and being mercilessly beaten with iron rods by a religiously-inspired mob that asked him to shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’, continues to shock the nation. The state has been no stranger to lynching. People have been killed on suspicion of killing cows and lifting children. The mob lynching incidents had managed to reach the ears of Narendra Modi who expressed his ‘pain’ in parliament and decried alleged attempts to ‘defame’ the entire state of Jharkhand.
Raghubar Das, the chief minister, has now taken upon himself to restore the fair name of Jharkhand with the help of journalists. It suggests that his own actions and policies have not been sufficient to keep up a good image of the state. It is important to note that an advertisement that promised healthy remunerations to journalists for writing laudatory articles on various welfare schemes in the state makes no mention of the subject of communal harmony.
When paid news raised its ugly head some years ago it came to light that its basic objective was to present a favourable and often misleading picture of the paying client, especially during an election. It put the rival at a disadvantage. But an important point was that the introduction of paid news tarnished the image of journalism itself and deprived the readers of their right to facts on the basis of which they form informed opinion on key matters.
Advocates of ‘new’ journalism would say that ethics and balanced and fair comments have become anachronistic today. They may not be entirely wrong when social media and fake news are so rampant and relied upon as ‘source’ of news. The ordinary reader/viewer has no way of confirming which news is true and which one is false.
But through all this, people’s faith in the printed word has survived. Had it not been the case, we would not have seen almost the year round flood of full-page advertisements in newspapers, complete with large pictures of leaders to glorify their rule in the states as well as the centre.
When the Jharkhand government invites journalists to write articles in praise of the state administration it is actually confirming a belief now questioned by many that the printed words in the news columns still command respect and are still considered credible. This is an unintended positive side of the invitation with questionable motive that the Jharkhand chief minister has sent to journalists.
But it does not settle the issue in favour of paid news which must not be allowed to grow and prosper in tandem with fake news. A nation where opinions are formed on the basis of misleading and tendentious news weakens its democratic credentials.
A question that is rather intriguing is how do we accept that leaders and governments with disappointing performance profit from advertisements and relying on false reports that paid articles peddle. One would have thought that a government’s performance can be better judged by what the people see or feel on the ground rather than what the sponsored writing says.
The force of political rhetoric combined with publicity blitz of advertisements and sponsored articles certainly influences the ordinary man and woman. But at the end of the day it is what they see and observe in their everyday life that leaves a lasting impression on them.
A hapless person being mercilessly beaten by a mob for no justifiable reason is a sight that those who witness it cannot forget easily. Subsequent write-ups which either absolve the authorities of their responsibility and duty or even justify in any manner the bestiality cannot change the negative picture formed in the minds. Perhaps it is now an outdated belief. People do see a lot of things that they do not like, including their own suffering, but gladly sacrifice it at the altar of patriotism and a one-sided narrative that extols the ruler and damns the dissenting voices. Well, Jharkhand may be expecting journalists to conform to this formula.