Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reliance is telling CNN IBN journalists how to cover the Aam Aadmi Party

Journalists at CNN IBN say that they have received instructions in recent days from the channel’s editors.. Most notable of these instances is one pertaining to July 9, when Amit Shah was named president of the BJP. According to two newsroom staffers with knowledge of developments, CNN IBN’s bulletin at night as well as the graphics on air, were edited to remove references to the criminal charges faced by Shah. 

It’s been more than a month since industrial giant Reliance Industries took over Network18 Group, which runs a suite of television channels including the CNN and CNBC affiliates in India. Everyone has wondered if the company owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani would interfere in the news-gathering operations of its new properties. The answer appears to be yes. 

Last week, a day after founding editor Rajdeep Sardesai emailed his resignation to the staff, a small group of executives from Reliance (RIL) held a town hall in the suburban New Delhi offices of CNN IBN, the English news channel. Journalists from sister channels, such as CNBC TV18, Hindi news channel IBN7 and the Marathi version IBN Lokmat, were also present, according to at least two accounts of that meeting.

Until that day—the meeting was held on July 7 around 5:30pm—RIL’s takeover had been notable for a transition that was unremarkable, very much business as usual. Now, employees gathered to hear the new management’s vision.

When the floor opened to questions, a few journalists raised their hands, according to the two attendees. One question from a CNBC reporter was about how they were expected to cover new owner RIL, a vast industrial conglomerate with interests in energy, materials, defence, retail, telecom, and media. Rohit Bansal, an RIL official now named non-executive director at Network18, answered. He said staff would be expected to cover the new owner in the same manner that the channel used to cover the previous owner Raghav Bahl and the company Network18. The company’s channels typically carried very little coverage about its owners.

The next question was from CNN IBN anchor and journalist Karma Paljor. He asked the group how the channel was expected to cover the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the independent political movement devoted to India’s “common man.” Paljor declined to comment for this story.

It’s important to understand the context of this question in order to understand the answer. Reliance Industries and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party have something of a contentious relationship. Kejriwal, who became Delhi chief minister riding an anti-corruption wave, has publicly made allegations against RIL and Ambani. When he was Delhi chief minister, Kejriwal asked the state’s anti-corruption bureau to register cases against Ambani as well as serving and former petroleum ministers for allegedly colluding to raise gas prices to benefit Reliance. The company, in turn, has slapped legal notices on television channels that broadcast the footage of press conferences in which Kejriwal raised these allegations.

With Delhi set to go to elections once again, Kejriwal would be back in the news. That is why the CNN IBN journalist wanted to know the expectations from the new owner, RIL...