NEW DELHI - The Indian media, a pillar of the country's vibrant democracy, is riddled with corruption that sees journalists report stories for cash in a phenomenon known as 'paid news,' a probe has revealed.
The findings of an investigation for the Press Council of India, seen by AFP but yet to be released publicly, throw a damning light on an industry that is meant to serve as a bulwark against corruption in other areas of public life.
Regional newspapers in vernacular languages are the biggest culprits but their national English language counterparts do not escape criticism and the venerable Times of India group is also in the firing line.
'This malpractice has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large in different languages and located in different parts of the country,' the report concludes.
The detailed 70-page study, prepared by two senior investigative journalists for the Council, lists testimony from leading journalists and politicians, as well as examples of suspect reports.
In its worst form, 'paid news' sees newspapers present a rate card to political candidates who must pay a set amount for coverage for themselves or critical coverage of their opponents.
Former civil aviation minister Harmohan Dhawan is quoted describing his experience in 2009 of contesting a seat in the state of Punjab when he had calls from the Hindi-language Dainik Jagran and the Punjab Kesri newspapers.
'A representative of Dainik Jagran came to me 20 days before the election and clearly told me: 'If you want coverage in this election, you have to buy a package',' he said.
He turned down the offers. Various politicians quoted in the report said they had been offered packages by newspapers ranging from 1,000 dollars (S$1,373) to 20,000 dollars.
In southern Andhra Pradesh state, journalist unions have estimated the size of the illicit market at 70-220 million dollars.
'I felt that newspapers would cover large election rallies ... but the rallies that were conducted on my behalf were not mentioned in these newspapers,' Dhawan continued.
A manager from the Jagran group called repeated allegations against his company 'rumours spread by lost candidates in frustration.'
In other cases, the report cites examples of how some newspapers routinely run political advertising as news stories without clearly indicating that the story has been written by the media team of a candidate.
In southern Maharastra state, identical articles appeared in three Marati newspapers in October last year headlined 'Young, dynamic leadership' praising the chief minister of the state, Ashok Chavan.
Chavan replied that these were press releases that had mistakenly made their way past copy editors at the publications.
In addition to planted stories, there are also conflicts of interests that have built up in the Indian media business after the introduction of something called 'private treaties.'
The practice was pioneered by the publishers of the Times of India which began taking stakes in companies from 2005 in exchange for advertising space in its outlets.
At the end of 2007, the company had investments in 140 companies in aviation, media, retail and entertainment, the report said, compromising its ability to report independently on these groups.
'When you do not disclose these interests then the whole issue of conflict of interest becomes important,' one of the authors, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, told AFP.
'What the reader or viewer does not know is that you have a financial relationship and have a vested interest in the share of the companies going up.'
Examples of dubious entertainment, society or product news being passed off as independent reporting have existed for a long time, says Thakurta, but it is the advent of political 'paid news' that is most pernicious.
'When paid news enters the political realm then you are undermining the election process and therefore undermining democracy itself,' he said.
The consequences are unfair election results and plummeting trust in the media.
In a survey cited in the report conducted by Reader's Digest in March of this year, journalists were ranked 30 out of 40 on a list of trusted professions - next to barbers and bus drivers.
The probe has been presented to the Press Council, which is currently debating how much of it to make public.