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Indian Media Where Art Thou on Media Scandal

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A shadow has been cast over the Indian media -- the bastion of the nation's democracy. A telecom and political scandal rocking the country has now sucked in top journalists but the media coverage of this new twist is timid -- a simple Google search shows that.

A few bloggers and publications have got the word out but twittering and blogging isn't the staple diet in a country where the majority of its 1.2 billion people are more likely to be reached through mainstream news.

"The complete blackout of the Niira Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country," writes G Sampath, the deputy editor of the Daily News & Analysis (DNA) published out of Mumbai.

"But what is really scary is that, despite living in a 'democracy' that boasts of a 'free press,' if you were dependent only on TV and the big newspapers for the biggest news developments of the day, you would never have known about the Niira Radia tapes, and the murky role of media as political power brokers," he continued.

The back story involves a massive telecommunications scandal called "2G Spectrum" -- dubbed as the biggest corruption scam to hit the nation worth. It involves big money, powerful people, and has led to the resignation of telecom minister Andimuthu Raja.

What A. Raja did is to sell mobile telephone licenses at incredibly cheap prices, which has cost the Indian government $40 billion. India is currently one of the world's fastest-growing mobile markets with more than 545 millions cellphones in use.

A U.N. report, this year, said that more people in the country had access to phones than basic sanitation. The number of cell phones per 100 people has exploded from 0.35 in year 2000-01 to about 45 today.

As part of the investigation, India's Income Tax department tapped the phone of a corporate lobbyist Niira Radia whose clients are global business tycoons like the Tatas and Mukesh Ambani.

This week, recording of phone conversations indicated that two of India's prominent journalists, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, were allegedly lobbying to get Raja his job in 2009 after the national elections.

The recording of the alleged conversation between Dutt and Radia, posted on youtube, would ordinarily have got at least a million hits.

Both Sanghvi and Dutt have denied any wrongdoing -- fair enough. But what is missing is the usual dose of robust articles, frantic web updates and harried anchors who are needed to talk about just that.

"The Indian media have clamped down on this story. It is a matter of shame that foreign establishments are publishing stories that Indian media WILL NOT," reads a comment on India Real Time--the Indian blog of The Wall Street Journal.

Outlook Magazine and Open Magazine are among the publications in India, which are harping on the matter. "India, the republic, is now on sale. Participating in the auction is a group of powerful individuals, corporate houses, lobbyists, bureaucrats and journalists," reads Outlook's story.

"The tapes also paint a dismal picture of how everything -- from cabinet berths to natural resources -- is now available for the right price," it said, reporting that other journalists like Prabhu Chawla, G. Ganapathy Subramaniam and M.K. Venu also had elaborate conversations with Radia.

Similar to what the Western media did with WikiLeaks, both magazines are running transcripts of what was said in the tapped conversation.

"Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?" Dutt allegedly says, in a conversation. "What kind of story do you want?" allegedly says Sanghvi, in another recording.

Live Mint's editor, Sukumar Ranganathan, said that the publication isn't running the story because it cannot verify the authenticity of the documents.

"My reporters and editors had no way of finding out... (and believe me, we tried)... Just as a point of comparison, the New York Times spent three months vetting the Pentagon papers," he said.

Dutt's channel, NDTV, called the story a "clear misrepresentation" of the conversations in May 2009.

"In the pursuit of news and information, journalists talk to an array of people from all professional backgrounds; this case being an unfolding political story on cabinet formation, after the general elections," it said.

"Amazed Angered and saddened at inability of some to distinguish between gathering info and ridiculous labels like lobbying/powerbroking," Dutt tweeted herself. There are other bloggers speaking out in defense -- well sort of -- saying that it comes with the territory.

Open Magazine, which broke the story, The X Tapes, said in response, "Open maintains that there was no misrepresentation. The conversations were carried as they appeared in the recordings."

Manoj Mitta, founding member of India's Foundation for Media Professionals, told The Washington Post that the foundation will host a conference on journalists as power brokers this week.

"It forces us to address the problem. We as journalists sit in judgment of others all the time. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard," he said.

It's been days since the Open's story was first published. After a news morgue type situation, the discussion is picking up a little -- but just a tad.