Indian paid-journalism sting prompts defamation trial

A Goa-based journalist is facing trial for libel in India today after publishing details of a sting in which he claims a newspaper offered him media coverage for cash.

Writing on his blog Paid News in Goa, Mayabhushan Nagvenkar says he contacted a leading regional daily pretending to be fictional local election candidate Bernard Costa in October 2010 and asked for coverage in return for money.

That paper is now suing him for defamation, with the first hearing due to take place today.

Nagvenkar claims to have exposed the practice of ‘paid news’, where politicians are granted favourable media coverage for financial payment, which he believes is widespread in the Indian press.

A series of emails and telephone transcripts on his blog appear to show the newspaper granting ‘Bernard Costa’a campaign interview with pre-agreed questions in return for $1700 and a television appearance on the organisation’s cable channel for $1000.

Writing on the blog, the editor of the paper concerned said that allegations of corruption against his title were false: “As editor, my stated position both within and outside the organisation has been that paid content cannot be disguised as news.”

Nagvenkar’s story has attracted widespread attention in India and was featured on the front page of leading national newspaper The Hindu.

He is being backed in his legal fight by the Goa Union of Journalists, who have said they will pay his legal fees.

Nagvenkar said: ‘The paid news phenomenon is not new in India. And in Goa, which is a state in the western part of India, the media is swamped with news articles, which are so obviously paid for.

‘My story was aimed at pricking this trend,’he said, ‘which virtually renders the very spirit of journalism useless.

‘It has gotten people here talking about an evil in the media, which had always been lurking silently in the backdrop. Hopefully similar efforts will result in some kind public pressure on the media and make it think twice before indulging in such corrupt malpractices.”

A report published by the Press Council of India in August 2010 said the practice of ‘paid news’in the country was ‘pervasive, structured and highly organised’and that it was ‘undermining democracy in India”. Nagvenkar has submitted evidence of his investigation to the Council.

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