A Malaise in the Indian Media?

An Indian vendor arranges newspapers displaying front page headlines and photographs of re-elected US President Barack Obama
An Indian vendor arranges newspapers displaying front page headlines and photographs of re-elected US President Barack Obama at a newstand in Siliguri on November 8, 2012. US President Barack Obama swept to re-election November 7, making history by overcoming a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Diptendu DUTTA (Photo credit should read DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)

Two senior editors at India's widely watched Zee News were arrested last week by police in New Delhi on charges of extortion, leading to a massive debate in the world's largest democracy on the state of Indian media.

The Delhi crime branch arrested Sudhir Chaudhary, head of Zee News and Samir Ahluwalia, head of Zee Business, following a complaint by Indian member of parliament Naveen Jindal -- also a chairman of Jindal Power and Steel Ltd. -- accusing the two editors of attempting to extort a whopping 18 million dollars in advertisements in exchange for not airing news reports linking Jindal's company to a previous government scandal on allocation of coal contracts termed, "coalgate" in India.

The tables were turned on the journalists in a "reverse sting" by Jindal, which captured audio and video recordings of conversations between his officials and the Zee editors in which the latter allegedly offered to drop news about Jindal's link to the coal controversy if Jindal paid up. Jindal's company is among the companies named in investigations as one of the beneficiaries of the coal contracts in "coalgate," according to Indian media reports. Forensic experts who examined the recordings say they have not been doctored.

Zee News stands by the editors, and claims that the police are acting against them under political pressure. "This is a crude and direct attack on the freedom of the press," Zee said in a press release. Accused Chaudhary told Indian media, "Jindals were the biggest beneficiaries in the coal block allocation scam and we had exposed them. If they are targeting us, they are targeting investigative journalism. It's an attempt to malign us and seems a result of their frustration after being exposed."

Zee also alleges that its executives were offered bribes by Jindal, which has led many Indian journalists to question why this alleged bribe was not exposed by Zee News earlier. Some Indians are arguing that big media in the country has also succumbed to corruption and cronyism. Others are arguing that this is a conspiracy on the part of the government to gag journalists, and questioning if such arrests would have even happened if the case didn't involve such a high-ranking politician.

"No one seems to accept the claim [by Zee] that this is a press freedom issue. Zee really seems to have violated basic ethics," Geeta Seshu, an editor at The Hoot who runs the Free Speech Hub, The Hoot's project to monitor freedom of expression in India, told me. "To have someone play both an editorial role and a business role is unacceptable. Now for them to say this is a free speech issue won't wash away allegations against them."

The entire scandal raises critical questions about the state of Indian media and its interplay with political and economic actors. Zee is a large media conglomerate that has several Indian language news and entertainment channels in operations that span from North American to South Asia, reaching over 650 million viewers in 168 countries. Zee's owner and chairman, media mogul Subhash Chandra is known to have been close to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, according to Seshu.

The Zee scandal may just be a symptom of the deeper malaise in the media. The scandal has raised questions about the larger manner in which journalism functions in India and elsewhere -- journalism that is cash-hungry for revenue that comes in the form of advertisements from industrialists and politicians. "What Zee did is what many media houses in India do in a more discreet and sophisticated manner," said Indian freelance journalist Aayush Soni. "This is the model of journalism not just in India but elsewhere, too."

A number of journalists across India are critical of Zee's use of the free speech issue, according to Seshu. If its use of press freedom as a buoy in this debate is inauthentic, it will be a disservice to the entire journalism fraternity in India. "The results can be so disastrous," said Seshu.

At the time of writing, the two journalists were sent to Tihar jail in New Delhi for 14 days following two days in police custody and denied bail, according to Indian media reports. In addition, Zee chairman Chandra and his son were sent notices by the crime branch to join the investigation. The father and son have been granted an anticipatory bail, and are expected to appear before the Delhi Police on December 8, according to media reports.