One of India's top English-language dailies has become the subject of a government investigation after the federal home ministry red-flagged the newspaper for carrying a four-page China Watch supplement on 30 October, Sputnik has learnt.
A formal complaint against Hindustan Times, the New Delhi-headquartered broadsheet, was filed with the home ministry by Maharashtra-based activist outfit Legal Rights Observatory (LRO) on 2 November.
“The Chinese money is flowing freely to peddle its propaganda against India well within the Indian media. [Hindustan Times'] brazen act of sedition needs to be investigated thoroughly,” read the complaint.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is understood to have demanded a probe into the matter “within 24 hours” of receiving the complaint.
“It is requested that appropriate action may kindly be taken... at the earliest,” the order from the MHA stated. It was addressed to the Bureau of Outreach and Communication, a unit under the federal government’s publicity wing Department of Audio and Visual Publicity (DAVP) which in turn is overseen by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Legal Rights Observatory told Sputnik that it would ideally want the alleged "financial transaction" between the newspaper and the Chinese Embassy to be investigated. "However, whether advertising rules have been violated needs to be looked into as well. In all likelihood, the Chinese entities have overpaid them for the newspaper space," the group alleged in its complaint to the MHA.
"And if no money changed hands, how could an Indian media house give space to a Chinese government entity when our troops are being killed at the border," it asked.
A similar complaint by LRO against The Hindu newspaper on 15 October for carrying a one-page advertorial, apparently sponsored by the Chinese Embassy in India, is already under investigation by the Income Tax Department for foreign “inflows”. In the case of Chennai-headquartered The Hindu, the MHA has given a 30-day deadline to the tax department to come out with its findings.
The DAVP wasn’t available for comment at the time of writing this report.
The Hindustan Times has been contacted for a comment.
HT’s decision to carry a China Watch supplement has been criticised by prominent social media users, including veteran strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney and former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal among others. The former top diplomat labelled the newspaper management’s call as being “totally incongruous with [the] seriousness of [the] border standoff".
As a Freedom House report says, CCP's "China Watch" pages blur the line between Chinese propaganda and foreign media's own reporting. CCP pays handsomely: $1 million per year to UK's Daily Telegraph to run such supplements. Its payments are known to influence editorial decisions. pic.twitter.com/FeykWke7lg— Brahma Chellaney (@Chellaney) October 30, 2020
Although there is no federal ban as such on advertising revenue in India from the Chinese government or companies, the question of Chinese money has become a touchy issue for many in the country against the backdrop of the military stand-off in eastern Ladakh.
India's advertising revenue, already reeling under the impact of COVID-19-induced economic distress, faces the double whammy of more revenue losses because of calls backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - a cultural outfit thought of as the ideological parent of the ruling BJP - to boycott Chinese companies.
And in August, India's peak cricket body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) suspended its sponsorship deal with Chinese-smartphone maker Vivo for the Indian Premier League (IPL) after public outrage over the association in the wake of the Galwan Valley clashes. Nearly $224 million is estimated to have been lost in advertising revenue because of the contract's abrupt termination by the Indian cricket body.
Declining ad revenues have directly contributed to lay-offs in the media and entertainment sector over the past six months. More than 500 journalists had been laid off until July when newsrooms shut operations in the absence of ad-buyers, in the wake of nationwide lockdown.
The seven-month-old face-off at the disputed yet de-facto Line of Actual Control (LAC) is said to be at its deadliest between the Asian powerhouses since the 1962 border war. Twenty Indian troops and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers were killed in clashes in the Galwan Valley region in June this year, amid the ongoing stand-off.