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This post is republished in public interest from the Cobrapost website, which appears to be having trouble.

Cobrapost exposes more than two dozen media houses, including some prima donnas of India’s holy Fourth Estate, where they all show their underbelly in its most visceral form.

New Delhi: In the second part of Operation 136, Cobrapost has exposed owners and high-ranking personnel of more than two dozen media houses, both mainstream and regional, the biggest ones and the smaller ones, the oldest ones and the newer ones. ‘Operation 136: Part II,’ in fact, shows Indian media’s underbelly in its most visceral form, where even the “big daddies” do not mind agreeing to undertake a campaign that has the potential to not only cause communal disharmony among citizens but also tilt the electoral outcome in favour of a particular party. This they will do if they are paid the right price, and sometimes they have no compunctions to quote a price as high as Rs. 1000 crore, as did the Times Group owner Vineet Jain, while others showed a propensity to indulge in any kind of illegality bordering on criminality.

The media houses agreeing to run the campaign are Times of India, India Today, Hindustan Times, Zee News, Network 18, Star India, ABP News, Dainik Jagaran, Radio One, Red FM, Lokmat, ABN Andhra Jyothy, TV5, Dinamalar, Big FM, K News, India Voice, The New Indian Express, MVTV and Open magazine.

We have received an exparte stay order from the honourable Delhi High Court on the evening of 24th May, 2018, which debars us from including the Dainik Bhaskar Group in our investigation. The honourable High Court has passed the injunction in favour of Dainik Bhaskar without hearing our side of the case, and we shall consequently be challenging the court order in the interest of truth and justice.

Senior Investigative Journalist Pushp Sharma used the same cover and the same ruse! Wearing the garb of a seasoned Pracharak, Sharma adopted malleable identities which he used according to the situation at hand. He first used his association with an Ujjain-based ashram, claiming himself to have been schooled at Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, to have studied in IIT Delhi and IIM Bangalore, settled in Australia and to have been running his e-gaming company out of Scotland. Sometimes, he claimed to be the head of the Madhya Pradesh unit of Om Prakash Rajbhar’s outfit, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, charged with party affairs in Karnataka, Maharashtra and the Northeast. At times, the journalist used all his assumed identities in a single meeting. As the investigation evolved to take on a pan-India character, he assumed the identity of a representative of a fictitious religious organization, Shrimad Bhagwad Gita Prachar Samiti, purportedly on a mission, a gupt vyavastha (secret arrangement), at the behest of the “Sangathan” to bolster the prospects of the party in power in coming elections.

The journalist approached these media houses with his hideous proposition. As he offered them a fortune in return, Cobrapost saw them all crumble under the weight of a “big business opportunity” that was knocking on their doors without asking. Almost all bent themselves backward to grab this opportunity. However, there were two notable exceptions, Bartaman Patrika and the Dainik Sambad, which refused to play ball. No amount of cajoling or inducements could bring them around.

While meeting the owners and senior-most personnel of these media houses, Sharma asked them to run a media campaign on his behalf. While offering them a big fortune in terms of ad spend, which ranged anything between few crore rupees and Rs. 500 crore, he spread wide before them these essential ingredients of his agenda:

In the initial phase, the first three months, promote Hindutva through customized religious programmes to create a congenial atmosphere.
Then, the campaign will be geared up to polarize the electorate on communal lines by promoting speeches of Hindutva hardliners, the likes of Vinay Katiyar, Uma Bharti and Mohan Bhagwat, among others.
As elections approach, the campaign will target opposition leaders, namely, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, caricaturing them using less than dignified language like Pappu, Bua and Babua, respectively, for them, in order to show them in poor light before the electorate.
They will have to run this campaign on all platforms – print, electronic, radio or digital including, e-news portals, web sites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Negotiating hard, in what you can say was a value-for-money deal, the journalist drove home all these points as they all spread a red carpet for him. The interactions that the senior journalist had with all these media houses during the course of Operation: Part II can be summed up as follows:

They agreed to promote Hindutva in the garb of spiritualism and religious discourse.
They agreed to publish content with potential to polarize the electorate along communal lines.
They concurred to besmirch or thrash political rivals of the party in power by posting or publishing defamatory content about them.
Many of them were ready to accept unaccounted cash, in other words, for the job to be assigned to them.
Some of them agreed to route cash through a third-party agency to turn it into white, even suggesting hawala routes such as Angadiyas.
Some of the owners or important functionaries admitted that they were either associated with the RSS or they were pro-Hindutva and would thus be happy to work on the campaign, forgetting the cardinal principle of journalism: neutrality.
Some of them agreed to plant stories in favour of the party in power in their publications, while others were ready to unleash their investigative teams to rake muck on opposition leaders.
Many of them agreed to develop and carry advertorials especially for this purpose.
Many of them agreed to develop content for this invidious campaign by employing their own creative team.
Almost all agreed to run this campaign on their platforms – print, electronic, FM radio or digital in its various avatars such as e-news portal, e-paper or social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
Some of them even agreed to run down Union ministers Arun Jaitley, Manoj Sinha, Maneka Gandhi and her son Varun Gandhi, among others.
Some of them also agreed to run stories against leaders of BJP alliance partners, like Anupriya Patel, Om Prakash Rajbhar and Upendra Kushwaha.
Some of them even agreed to paint agitating farmers as Maoists in their stories.
Many of them agreed to create and promote such content as would aim for the “character assassination” of leaders like Rahul Gandhi.
Many of them are ready to run the content in such manner as would not look like paid for.
Almost all FM radio stations agreed to allow their customer to monopolize their free air time.
Many FM radio stations also agreed to use RJ mentions to promote the agenda: Hindutva and character assassination of rivals.

Operation 136: Part II is unique in the sense that it not only has exposed all these media houses but has also brought to the fore the fact that in a technology-driven age an agenda can find a mobile app a very effective medium to reach out to millions of users. Our expose of Paytm does exactly that. It brings home the point that one does not need an elaborate arrangement of the conventional media such TV channels or newspapers. A simple mobile app can achieve what the conventional platforms cannot: it can deliver the message with a blink of an eye. In fact, our interaction with top Paytm honchos is quite revealing in many respects, for it not only shows the company’s affinity to both the BJP government and its ideological fountainhead RSS, but also shows that users’ data can be compromised.

As India has slipped two paces to 138 from its position of 136, as this investigation was underway, in World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking#), Operation 136 has found that most of the media houses are either owned by politicians themselves, particularly the regional ones, or patronized by politicians, and it is natural for them to become their masters’ voice. It was high time we coined a new phrase to define this journalism as crony journalism a la crony capitalism. For instance, ABN Andhra Jyothy, a prominent Telugu TV news channel is patronized by TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu. It is no surprise if we hear its Chief Marketing Manager E.V. Seshidhar say: “We have very good connects with TDP … We have do [sic] lot of what do you call we have main official what do you call for AP government Andhra Pradesh government, we have official event telecaster rights for Andhra Pradesh government.” While this connect goes beyond the TDP, to include the BJP and other outfits, Seshidhar even goes to say that their newspaper Andhra Jyothy holds so much sway that they could influence the outcome of the Karnataka elections.

On the other hand, Lakshmipathy Adimoolam, the owner of the 70-year-old prominent Tamil daily published from Chennai, wears his family allegiance to the Sangh Brotherhood on his sleeve. We are, therefore, least surprised to hear him say that he has imported especially designed software which could help in the promotion of Brand Modi: “You have newsletters … sent to … brochures, leaflets sent to party workers … say there is Modiji’s picture is there, just move your camera over here … it gives audio of Modiji.”

It was not that Cobrapost has exposed only those high ranking-personnel whose business is to negotiate a deal and bring business to the organization they are working for. In the course of this investigation, Cobrapost found some senior journalists, who have now donned the mantle of owners or CEOs, genuflecting before their big-ticket client and happily agreeing to work for his agenda. One such senior journalist was Purushottam Vaishnav who is working for Zee Media as its CEO Regional News Channels. Agreeing to run down political rivals by unleashing their SIT on them, Purushottam said: “Content mein jo aapki taraf se input aayega wo absorb ho jayega … humare taraf se jo content generate hoga investigative journalism humlog karte hain karwa denge jitna hum logon ne kya hai utna kisi ne nahi kiya hoga wo humlog karenge (Whatever input you will send in the form of content that will be absorbed … the content we will generate … we have been doing investigative journalism, we will do it for you. [Compared to Zee] None of the channels has done so many … we will do that).”

In fact, our investigation establishes the fact that the RSS, and as a corollary, Hindutva, has made deep inroads into not only the newsrooms but also the boardrooms of Indian media houses where even owners either blatantly admit their allegiance to the party in power and its parent organization or are eager to have an association with them. For instance, Big FM Sr. Business Partner Amit Choudhary admits to the relationship between the company that owns Big FM and the party in power in no uncertain terms: “Waise bhi Reliance BJP ka supporter hee hai (Anyway, Reliance is always a supporter of the BJP).” Then we have Basab Ghosh, Regional Sales Head of Open magazine, which is owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, who also confesses to their allegiance to the RSS: “Acharyaji shayad aap bhi busy rehte hain aap shayad Open dekhte nahi hain regular. Main aapko ek baat bataata hoon. Open jitna support karte hain sangathan ka shayad hee koi karta hoga. (Acharyaji, perhaps you are a busy man and maybe you don’t read Open regularly. Let me tell you one thing. Nobody supports the Sangathan [RSS] as much as does Open).”

While the journalist had a tough time in convincing Ajay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm that he was there to fulfill the assignment received directly from the Sangathan under a “gupt vyavastha” or secret arrangement, the senior vice president of the mobile-app utility payment company candidly admitted his association with the top brass of both the RSS and the BJP. Taking his prospective client as someone belonging to the Sangh Brotherhood, he made a very shocking revelation. Referring to the stone pelting in Kashmir last year, Ajay Shekhar said: “Jab JK mein band huye the na pathar … toh humari personally PMO se phone aya tha kaha gaya tha ki data de do ho sakta hai ki Paytm user hon (When the stone-pelting stopped there in J&K, I personally got a phone call from the PMO. They told us to give them data saying maybe some of the stone-pelters are Paytm users.)” Paytm users may now be wondering if the company has violated its policy of privacy and data safety!

Another interesting fact that has emerged during the course of ‘Operation 136: Part II’ is that although they might be swearing by their allegiance to the RSS or the BJP, they don’t give a damn to Modi’s public stance against black money for which the Prime Minister did not back away from subjecting the entire citizenry to untold miseries by enforcing demonetization in November 2016. Punching holes in what has been gloried as “surgical strike” against black money, we found Vineet Jain, Managing Director of the Times Group, and his aide Executive President Sanjeev Shah, naming some big corporate houses which could help make black money squeaky clean and even suggesting to employ the services of ‘Angadias’—a Gujarati name for hawaladars or hawala operators of illicit money—to get the job done. While Vineet Jain says, “Aur bhi businessmen honge jo humein cheque denge aap unhe cash de do (There are other businessmen who would give us cheque against the cash you may give them), his aide Shah informs us: “Who will take that from him in Delhi suppose if Goenka says I want it in Ahmedabad so that I Angadia will have contact in Ahmedabad where they will exchange in number on a note or whatever.” Hope our Prime Minister and other arms of his government are listening!

Of all interviews that the journalist had with the owners and personnel of all these media houses in the course of this investigation, Manda Mhatre’s stands out in its revelations. While criticizing her own party, and claiming that it was the RSS leadership which ensured she got a ticket to fight election after she switched loyalties from NCP to the BJP, what the BJP legislator from Belapur, Pune, told Cobrapost is quite revealing: “Mere ko Sangh wale bol rahe the ki Muslim masjid todo ye karo. Main boli sorry main ye nahi kar sakti. Masjid sthal sab kachre ke maafiq dekhte hain. Itna log ko hum haay nahi le sakte hain kyonki aadhe log apne se jud gaye hain (The Sangh people were telling me time and again to destroy the masjids of Muslims. I told them ‘Sorry I can’t do that.’ They all look at a masjid something like trash. I cannot afford to earn so much ill-will of all those people [by resorting to such hate] because many Muslims have joined the BJP).”

We know it well that such open confessions of their allegiance to the ideology of the RSS could be brushed aside as personal opinions, but given the position they hold in their respective organizations what they say cannot be taken lightly. The reason is that it is rather the business interests that have an overarching influence on the editorial policy of a media organization, and Operation 136 has once again shown it in ample measure. The first part of Operation 136 had exposed India TV, Dainik Jagaran, Hindi Khabar, SAB TV, DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Amar Ujala, UNI, 9X Tashan, Samachar Plus, HNN Live 24×7, Punjab Kesari, Swatantra Bharat, ScoopWhoop, Rediff.com, IndiaWatch, Aj and Sadhna Prime News.

All these on-camera confessions make it clear that the malaise of paid news has set in deep as it is no longer confined to a few individuals who would show no scruples while publishing paid content, camouflaging it as news stories or reports. Over the years, paid news has become institutionalized, as this investigation establishes, for no one in authority in news business would receive an agenda, which is overtly communal and defamatory, with enthusiasm, let alone committing to undertake it, particularly when there are clear-cut guidelines to follow and laws to abide by.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has well laid-down provisions, for instance, to deal with various unlawful acts that these media houses agreed to commit. Section 153(A) makes any attempt to “promote disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different groups” punishable with imprisonment for a term of three years or a fine or both. Section 295(A) of the IPC also provides for the same punishment to be meted out when an individual deliberately, and with malicious intent, hurts the religious feelings of a community. Then, Chapter IXA of the IPC deals comprehensively with offences related to elections. Section 171 of the IPC makes interference with the free exercise of electoral right, in any form, punishable with an imprisonment of one year or fine or both. These provisions of the IPC, thus, ensure that the offence of polarizing a group on the basis of religion, caste or community is punished. The provisions of Chapter IXA of the IPC with regard to free exercise of electoral rights are overarching in their ambit as they are also relevant paid news to influence voters to gain electoral benefits.

In addition, the provisions of Cable Television Networks (Regulation Act) 1995, along with Cables Rules, and Representation of People’s Act, along with Conduct of Election Rules, make paid news and communal polarization for electoral gains an offence. Both the Cable Act and the Cable Rules prohibit transmission or re-transmission of programmes that do not conform to the advertisement code. While Rule 6 of the Cable Rules prohibits programmes of communal nature or that promote anti-national attitudes, Rule 7 also lays down the advertisement code prohibits publication of advertisements of political or religious nature. Rule 7(10) of the Cable Rules further states that “all advertisements should be clearly distinguishable programmes, viz., use of lower part of screen to carry captions, static or moving alongside the programme”. Then, Section 125 of the RPA makes communal polarization an offence punishable with imprisonment for three years or fine or both, while various provisions of Section 123 declare an act aimed at polarization and the practice of paid news as “corrupt practices” making election of a candidate null and void.

Apart from these and other legal provisions, there are “Norms and Guidelines on Paid News” of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority and “Norms of Journalistic Conduct, 2010” of the Press Council of India, which all media establishments are expected to adhere to. But do they really care for such scrupulous adherence? Our investigation says no.

We would like to make it clear that Operation 136 should in no way be taken as an effort to undermine Indian media or question its sanctity as an institution. Our investigation does not intend to cast any aspersions or pass judgment, either, on the journalists who are working in these media platforms. They have done good journalism in the past and will do so in future. However, if the management indulges in paid news, in all its gray shades, it creates a very difficult atmosphere for the journalists to ply their trade in. This story aims to underline our earnestness to address the malaise that has been dogging Indian media for the past three decades or so and look within to make course correction, so that the faith of India’s citizenry in this vibrant pillar of democracy is not dented.

The Election Commission has issued notice to Ashok Chavan for fudging poll expenses and asking him why he should not be disqualified (a pointless question, me thinks - what possible answer could be there?).

"The commission is of the considered view that respondent (Ashok Chavan) cannot validly claim ignorance about the publication of the above-mentioned 25 advertisements in which his name, the name of his constituency and also his photograph prominently appeared."

If you remember, this was the case broken in The Hindu by Sainath and others in 2009 that put "paid news" on our attention maps (leading to further delicious scandals, but little action).

A quick reminder of the creative accounting involved:

 

Ashok Chavan (of Adarsh Scam fame) submitted election expenses to the Eletion Commission of India stated that he spent less than 7 lakh on his total election campaign, inluding Rs. 5,379 on newspaper advertisements (for 6 ads in one minor daily) and Rs.6,000 on cable television ads. Burst out laughing, didja? The Hindu stated that it had collected 47 full page color advertisements in newspapers (including at least one full front page and major dailies ) like Lokmat (which is among the 10 largest newspapers in India and top in Maharashtra -NRS 2006). Essentially, Chavan submitted acounts that would give him a full color page in a newspaper for less than Rs. 200.

It opened a whole new can of worms that culminated in the Supreme Court drawing the line and issuing a deadline in the peak of the Election frenzy.

P. Sainath and others in The Hindu had covered painstakingly over a series of 21 exposes dogging every development in the case and collecting full page after full page of color advertisements in investigations, with this notice to Ashok Chavan.

It is unclear what reply the Election Commission now expects, but no surprises are anticipated and we may finally see a precedent that sets they way for further action in controlling this open secret of media-political corruption.

Absurdly, Ashok Chavan seems to have lost his sanity, as he seems to see himself being found guilty a vindication of the Congress stand - whatever that means, since the Congress had actually tried to disempower the Election Commission to protect him - and failed. For what it is worth, this is what he reportedly said:

"Our stand on the paid news issue has been confirmed by the Election Commission. Even the High court and Supreme court had taken a similar stand when our opponents had filed a petition. The courts had rejected their petition. Now this (EC) order is also very clear. There is no question of paid news,"

Or perhaps he means that he has been found guilty of fudging his bills for paid advertisements and not news. One never knows what fig leaf a politician will grab.

This comes at a particularly sentimental moment, as P. Sainath, the senior journalist who broke the case ends his career at The Hindu with a sense of closure on one of the major long investigations he did there.

Disclosure: I manage P. Sainath's blog with his writing in a technical and administrative capacity.

Indian citizens have the freedom of speech. But freedom of speech in itself means little without freedom of information. If you are free to decide for yourself and speak up, but you are deliberately fed information that makes something look really good and something look really bad, your condemning what was informed to you as bad, or your praising what was informed to you as good holds little meaning. Yet, your voice raised as an opinion lends its power to decisions the country takes. Whether as protests or public opinion on the street, choices in goods or accepting or refusing policies.... and voting in your own interest in elections. Your voice can be manipulated by feeding you inaccurate or invented information.

Paid news in coloquial use can refer to the practice of placing favorable news reports in mainstream news organizations. Practically, it extends to false or exaggerated criticism or deliberate double standards in evaluating. It can be used to influence decisions, as seen in the superb expose by Sainath of the favorable reporting of Monsanto by Times of India, which was aimed at preventing a ban because of farmer complaints. As it stands, the Parliamentary Committee report vindicated the facts from the expose in their interactions with villagers. The Analytical Monthly Review has published a robustly argued article linking the phenomenon of paid media with the neo-liberalization of India's economy and media.

On record, paid news is specifically the practice of manipulated reporting related with elections.

The increasing prevalence of manipulated news reporting aimed at influencing electoral results alarmed the Press Council of India after the 2009 elections and a Press Council of India Committee Report first defined what it considered as paid news in 2010:

Paid News can be defined as “Any news or analysis appearing in any media (Print & Electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”

The Press Council Committee report aims to not only define paid news, but to document the ways in which paid media manifests and attempts to recommend guidelines for the Press and the Press Council in tackling the phenomenon. A stinging 70 page Press Council Sub-Committee report on paid news, also in 2010 listed various instances of paid media that came to their attention. Another report that emerged from the monitoring of Gujarat Assembly Elections followed as well as careful documentation of Private Treaties (can't find document, will update) as a development in media being able to offer "deals". But there is not much that can be done.

There is no dearth of understanding the issue, and sting operations have as much as revealed rate cards with paid media coverage packages and politicians admitting that they cannot win elections without buying such coverage. However, the problem is manifold. The deals happening in secret, even if open secret, acquiring proof is not easy. There have been guidelines for media and even the Election Commission for accepting complaints related with paid news, but not much appears to have come out of it.

There does not appear to be much motivation either, as the lawmakers are the ones profiting from such favorable coverage and the media that can mobilize or stifle public opinion profits from the continued practice. This can sometimes go to absurd levels, like the UPA government filing an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the Election Commission  only has to make sure that the accounts of a candidate (which include spending on media) are filed on time, but they cannot disqualify if the accounts are falsified. It is the same UPA that would state in the Parliament two years later, as they attempted to ram through an amendment that would prevent RTI for political parties that political parties are already accountable to the Election Commission.

In the meanwhile the run up to this upcoming Loksabha Elections have seen more exposes. Operation Blue Virus by Cobrapost exposed a new dimension to paid media - the use of social media to create perceptions of massive support for candidates or slander opponents. "Services" offered by "providers" included planting false defamatory information and even spreading rumors to cause riots. There is no depth to which the profit machine will refuse to fall, it seems.

In the meanwhile, Operation Prime Minister by News Express exposed the manipulation of poll survey data to project favorable results for parties on demand.

After Aam Aadmi Party started challenging corporate corruption, the coverage changed to the point where some allegations in media coverage stopped making any sense at times. Arvind Kejriwal's direct confrontation of media and statement that if elected his government would take action against such media had news anchors throwing fits of fury on screen, as though this was the first time they had heard of paid media. Strangely, it were the same channels covering with a bias that were the loudest in claiming persecution of media as well. The NBA stopped an inch short of issuing an outright threat as they stated that they would have to see how the AAP was covered if Kejriwal continued to act in this manner.

There were, however several journalists who did take the allegations with the gravity they deserved. Here was the nation's largest democracy heading off to the what counts as among the world's largest election processes and rampant paid media was happening in the full eye of the world and drawing increasing comment. Notable among these were the panel hosted by Girish Nikam on Rajya Sabha TV with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (Sr. Journalist) ; Ravi Mohan Khanna (Media analyst) ; Vipul Mudgal (Former Resident Editor, Hindustan Times) ; Saurabh Bharadwaj (Former Minister, AAP) as guests

and Nikhil Wagle's interview of Arvind Kejriwal.

There was a dramatic drop in biased coverage against Aam Aadmi Party in a few days after Arvind Kejriwal's allegations. However, how long this drop lasts is anyone's guess. The problem of paid media is also compounded by the complete lack of intellectual challenge to journalists and particularly television journalists, who essentially operate in whatever manner suits them with little criticism or peer commentary ever. It is extremely unlikely for one channel's absurd coverage of something to draw comment from another channel, and thus any outrage by people impacted by the inferior quality of journalism largely remains limited to tiny audiences and ineffective as deterrent.

A recent example is the declaration of Priti Gandhi as the person behind BJP's campaign using Assange's falsified quote. Yet all Wikileaks had done was to point out to Mrs Priti Gandhi promoting the image to her 40 thousand followers. The tweet in question was a retweet, and thus the image was clearly not posted originally by her. So it is really unclear how media has reached the conclusion that it is her behind the campaign without any further proof. But this is how media is. A grasshopper on caffeine. An elephant in a China shop. There is little sense of nuance, very poor comprehension skills and a complete disinterest in evolving. With BJP on the backfoot about the larger allegation of false social media plants, it is unlikely they will defend her on this technicality, so in all likelihood, Mrs. Gandhi will go down in history as the chief accused in Modi's Social Media fraud plants.

But beyond that, the facts of the case are so obfuscated in desperate labeling of heroes and villains and flying accusations that there is little time to take a deep breath and understand what really happened, let alone narrate it accurately. The speed of news has translated extremely poorly for the intellect that should drive it. Journalism is a post graduate degree course in India and our journalists don't link to sources of the facts they claim in their article, because their education has trained them for print and years of actual hands on work cannot bring them to this century.

What does this mean for you, as a citizen? It means that you cannot afford to be lazy with your own rights. You cannot count on media for accurate information, because whether out of motivated manipulation or poor comprehension or careless reporting, facts are often distorted. It is important that you use your ability to discern and evaluate.

It suits those in power if the masses can be kept stupidified and gullible and easy to herd to choice decisions through invented fears or invented qualities. It is mental colonization of a sort, where a few people with the ability to design and power to deploy mass media can engineer your perceptions.

The next freedom struggle of India is going to be of the mind.