The Chhattisgarh accountant general (AG) has hauled up the state government for its "unjustified and avoidable" expenditure of over Rs. 90 crore on publicity via advertisements to electronic channels and newspapers and on travel, living arrangements for visiting journalists.
In an inspection report, the AG said payments were made without an assessment of the need for coverage and, in some cases, without budgetary provisions.
Most payments were made for news items and ‘live’ coverage of speeches and programmes featuring chief minister Raman Singh. The report said TV channels like Sahara Samay, ZEE 24 Ghante Chhattisgarh, ETV, Bansal News, Sadhna News and NDTV 24x7, as well as Radio Mirchi, were paid about Rs. 18 crore to broadcast ‘news’ events; the implication being that the channels would have covered these events anyway.
To curb paid news in print, the draft Press and Registration of Books and Publications Bill, 2013, states that publications found indulging in paid news may be suspended. But electronic channels must regulate themselves through the national broadcasters association.
Paying for news in electronic media
The AG studied records of the public relations (PR) department from February 2010 to January 2013. It found the TV and radio channels in question were paid to cover national events like Independence Day, Republic Day and the national budget as well as local events such as the Chitakote and Sirpur Mahotsavas. It says though channels were paid for this coverage, some channels used the "live/news" tag during broadcast.
OP Choudhary, director of Chhattisgarh’s PR department, justified the expense, saying channels tend to air the Prime Minister and President’s speeches during national events as a result of which state CMs — who highlight achievements, policies and welfare schemes in speeches — get little air time. The ‘coverage’ helps create awareness, he said, adding that the AG’s observations were part of a draft audit report.
However, activists don’t buy his argument. "Taxpayers money has been misused by the state to influence media. This… prevents ordinary citizens from knowing the correct facts," said Ajay Dubey, an activist, who obtained the report under the Right to information Act.
The state spent Rs. 1.18 crore for coverage of the Gram Suraj Abhiyan in which the CM goes on surprise inspections to examine the implementation of welfare schemes. "The event is a news item… and would probably have been covered by the media… it does not seem justified to incur a large expenditure for coverage." The report adds that the coverage ‘arrangement’ was at the initiative of the electronic media.
KK Naik, CEO-IBC 24, previously Zee24 Ghante Chhattisgarh, and SK Gupta, ETV, GM-marketing refused to comment, saying the issue was between the state and the AG; Praful Pare, state bureau head of Bansal News said the channel sold slots to the government based on its needs and the process is clearly defined. Ganesh Dubey, marketing head, Sahara Samay, Chhattisgarh, said only the AG knew the grounds on which they have raised objections.
Smeeta Chakrabarti, CEO, NDTV GoodTimes, said: "Chhattisgarh govt issued a work order in favour of NDTV Lifestyle Limited, an NDTV group company… for the production, promotion and airing of a six-part series… The series was not carried on NDTV 24x7. Our news channels only carried the usual internal advertising spots to promote the series."
Nitin Choubey, vice-president, Sadhna News, accepted that the AG’s objections seem justified to an extent. But Radio Mirchi station head, Nikhil Trivedi, didn’t see a problem with the channel airing such content. "… we have no news content. We sell spot (air-time) to meet the cost we are incurring…"
Favours for journalists
The report highlights irregular payments of about Rs. 22 crore to newspapers for publication of classifieds without assessing whether these were published. Three fledgling newspapers – Dainik Patrika, Lokmaya, Pioneer (English) were given lakhs without any record made of it. Rules say newspapers should complete a year to qualify for government advertising.
Suryakant Tiwari, marketing head of Pioneer, Raipur, and Ashok Bhatnagar, owner of Lokmaya, denied their papers were ineligible for advertising. Tiwari said since his paper was a franchise of Delhi-based Pioneer, it qualified within six months. Bhatnagar argued that any newspaper published for three months was eligible. Dainik Patrika refused comment.
Choudhary said, "A roster can’t be maintained to issue equal advertisements to all newspapers as advertisements are not issued for financial assistance."
The report also points out that the government spent crores to make arrangements for visiting journalists even though the purpose of these visits was not clear from records scrutinised. The AG also found fake taxi bills during its audit. Choudhary denied making irregular payments, saying everything was done with the sanction of higher authorities.