Why Paying the Media to Uncover Corruption Would Work in India

Jennifer Kline’s recent post on this blog proposed a novel way to support and encourage investigative journalism that exposes corruption: When such exposés result in legal actions that impose substantial monetary penalties on wrongdoers, the responsible media outlet should receive a percentage of the penalty as a reward—comparable to how some countries have programs that pay whistleblowers a percentage of any monetary recoveries that result from the original information that the whistleblowers supplied. While Jennifer’s discussion of this idea was fairly general, and seemed to have in mind implementation in countries like the United States, her proposal may be especially suitable for a country like India. 

  • First, although corruption in India is endemic, and the media extensively covers the biggest scams, corruption is paradoxically under-reported. The basic problem is that corruption coverage in India is skewed toward excessive attention to the most sensational scams, at the expense of original reporting on more prosaic, but no less important, corruption incidents. When there is so much corruption to cover, only the juiciest apples get picked. A rewards program would give media outlets stronger incentive to uncover and report on forms of corruption that are more likely to result in some form of redress, rather than focusing only on those stories that will generate the most “clicks,” regardless of substance. Rewards would also encourage more original investigative reporting, rather than repetitive coverage of the salacious details of well-known scandals.
  • Second, a rewards program would help offset the costs that Indian media outlets often face when they blow the lid on corruption scandals that involve those in power—costs that include frivolous law suits, unnecessary regulatory scrutiny, and lost ad revenue from commercial shops pressured to take their advertising money elsewhere. In 2010, for instance, Outlook Magazine’s revenue stream from ads ran dry after the magazine published transcripts of wiretapped conversations of corporate honchos colluding with government officials. The subsequent broadcast media blackout of the transcripts was a dramatic demonstration of the media’s reluctance to offend its corporate cash-cows—and illustrates just how valuable it would be for the media to be less dependent on advertising revenues. Additionally, the fact that reporting on corruption in India is a risky and costly undertaking means that a rewards program is less likely to lead to reckless allegations in India than in a country like the United States—such rewards may partially offset the built-in financial disincentives to aggressive reporting, but are unlikely to loom large enough to create excessive incentives in the other direction. (It’s also worth noting, in this regard, that in India those who make false claims can be penalized with a fine and up to two years of imprisonment.)
  • Third, and relatedly, a rewards program would encourage more journalists to assume the risks of exposing corruption. India’s journalists are increasingly under attack, with “undesirable” coverage of powerful people resulting in death threats, rape threats, physical attacks, and false arrests. As recently as December, a journalist was burned to death in his own home after reporting extensively on local corruption. Such horrifying incidents of retaliation against journalists reporting on corruption are not new. While the prospect of monetary recompense does not make up for threats to one’s safety, money can buy better security and some attendant peace of mind, and also offer a sense of justice to journalists and their families. Material motives may not be what fuels journalists, but it can go a long way in enabling safety and supporting victims’ families. 
  • Fourth, a rewards program would give media outlets a strong incentive to keep a given case in the news so as to put pressure on the government to prosecute it. Corruption is very much under-prosecuted in India, with zero recorded convictions in several states. When a media outlet that first breaks a corruption scandal knows that its reward is linked to reporting that results in a fine or settlement, the outlet has a powerful incentive to keep the story in the news, and to keep up the public pressure on the government. 

Jennifer’s post laid out some guiding principles for the adoption of a media rewards program. While her guidelines for qualifying monetary thresholds, restrictions on media outlets that receive rewards, and the creation of an impartial panel to ascertain rewards have merit even in India, some adjustments would be appropriate in the Indian context:

  • For one thing, while Jennifer proposes providing the rewards only to media outlets, rather than individual journalists, in a country like India it would be more appropriate to provide the reward to the journalist who breaks the story rather than to his or her employer. Journalists in India who cover corruption are assuming much higher risks than their developed country counterparts, and should be compensated as such. 
  • Additionally, while Jennifer’s proposal—following the model of most existing whistleblower rewards programs—provides a reward only after a story leads to a monetary penalty on the wrongdoer, in a country like India it would make more sense for a journalist who uncovers significant corruption to receive a fixed reward up front, with the rest paid out after monetary recovery. This would help pay for security for journalists undertaking risky coverage, and also make up for the slower judicial process and recovery time in India as opposed to a developed country like the United States. 

Admittedly, creating a media rewards program may seem like even more of a pipe dream in India than in other countries. After all, India’s national government is busy cracking down on freedom of the press, and a rewards program could lead to reporting that would embarrass the ruling party and its corporate allies. That said, the government has repeatedly claimed that fighting corruption is a top priority, and a bold initiative like a media rewards program for corruption reporting would be the sort of big ticket item—much like the 2016 demonetization and the 2017 introduction of a national goods and services tax—that the ruling party could use to distinguish itself from its allegedly corrupt rivals. Furthermore, individual state governments could adopt a reward program of this kind, even if the national government fails to act. Such an initiative might be especially appealing to the anticorruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), as well as other regional parties seeking to signal their anticorruption commitment. While it may be a long-shot, creative new thinking like this is desperately needed to clean up the murky depths of corruption in India.

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