Letter from NEW DELHI

Lobby scandal tars competitive media

Raja quit last week, denying allegations that he undersold mobile phone licenses.
Raja quit last week, denying allegations that he undersold mobile phone licenses.
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

India's fiercely competitive and hungry free press has become the rising nation's watchdog, unearthing a long list of banking scandals, real estate scams and, most recently, extensive government corruption during the international Commonwealth Games.

But in recent days, Indian journalists have also been accused of wrongdoing, including having inappropriate conversations with a corporate lobbyist and acting more like power brokers in recordings released as part of an investigation into an alleged high-stakes swindle - considered the biggest scandal to hit the new India.

At the heart of the controversy is Andimuthu Raja, a little-known regional politician who became the powerful telecommunications minister in the world's fastest-growing mobile phone market. During his first stint as minister, he was accused of selling lucrative mobile telephone licenses at dirt-cheap prices, costing the Indian treasury as much as $40 billion, according to a government investigative report released last week.

Raja quit last week, denying allegations that he had undersold licenses in the mobile phone industry, which has half a billion subscribers in India and is an engine of the country's economic growth.

The incident was the latest in a string of corruption scandals to hit Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party. While allegations of widespread graft are nothing new in India, the accusations that seemed to cause the most surprise were the revelations that some of India's most influential journalists were taped having chummy conversations with high-powered Indian lobbyist Nira Radia about Raja's second appointment as minister. The journalists allegedly promised that they would offer opinions and advice for the government formation after the 2009 general elections.

Despite a high-level investigation into the allegations against Raja, he was reappointed to head the ministry. Business leaders who are alleged to have benefited from the low-priced licenses seemed to go out of their way to hire lobbyists to talk to well-known media personalities, among others, to ensure that Raja remained in the telecom ministry, said Manoj Mitta, a founding member of India's Foundation for Media Professionals.

While the journalists have not been accused of giving or receiving bribes, the recorded conversations raise questions about ethics in the Indian media and its coziness with corporate and political bigwigs, especially at a time of unprecedented economic growth.

The incident suggests that India's free press may not be free from pressure to act as a go-between for India's government and corporate leaders.

"In India's ultra-competitive journalism world, the lobbyists are gatekeepers to getting interviews with industrialists," Mitta said. "The quid pro quo seems to be that the lobbyist will give access for interviews with the big industrialists to the journalist, who is then able to do them a good turn by conveying the lobbyist's needs to ruling party leaders. In the process, it's the journalists that are getting compromised and the Indian public that therefore suffers."

Indian journalists also increasingly serve as advisers for companies and as brand strategists on five-star hotel advisory boards. They are often paid by think tanks and are alleged to be paid sometimes to write stories by interested parties, media experts say.

"The list is endless. It's a life of world capital-hopping, freebies, networking and seminars and summits," said Viranda Gopinath, a columnist who wrote in the New Delhi tabloid Mail Today, one of the few mainstream newspapers to carry a double-page spread about the media's role in the mobile phone controversy. "Let's not hoodwink ourselves to believe that this morally pornographic journalism is objective, fair and exact. All of it stinks, in varying degrees of severity and phoniness."

The recorded conversations suggest that two of India's leading journalists, Vir Sanghvi, the advisory editorial director of the Hindustan Times, and NDTV talk show powerhouse Barkha Dutt said they would lobby for Raja with Congress Party kingpins.

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