In India last week, newspapers and television channels were conspicuously silent on a story that should have been major news. Cobrapost, an investigative news site with a penchant for undercover exposes, posted videos from a secret camera sting operation targeting 27 Indian media outlets, including some of the country's biggest.

"The story's not just about paid news, it is something beyond, they are getting to defame the political rivals of the client, they agreed to take compensation in cash," said Aniruddha Bahal, Cobrapost's editor-in-chief.

"They even agreed to not only peddle an ideology, but also in many ways a lot of them agreed to polarise Indian society. So, in those terms, this is beyond paid news, this is criminal behaviour," he told Al Jazeera.

Cobrapost called its expose Operation 136. That number refers to India's ranking in the media watchdog Reporter's Without Borders' 2017 world press freedom index. It's well down the list – and has since slipped in the 2018 rankings, to 138.

Operation 136 was met with silence from most of India's mainstream outlets. They hardly covered it. Of the outlets targeted, four took legal steps by obtaining injunctions or issuing legal notices to Cobrapost, forcing the site to take down some of its videos.

India's largest media conglomerate, The Times Group, took a different tack.

This is beyond paid news, this is criminal behaviour.

Aniruddha Bahal, Cobrapost, editor-in-chief

After its Managing Director Vineet Jain appeared on tape, the company announced the video had been "doctored" and that in fact, The Times Group had been conducting its own "reverse sting" on Cobrapost when the undercover filming took place.

"The idea of a reverse sting is laughable simply because it's like, being caught speeding by a police officer and telling him, "I was testing your cameras," said Raju Narisetti, founder, Mint newspaper.

"... It's a very poor defence of what was on tape and other media companies have said the tapes are doctored, it doesn't show the full picture. But what it shows is quite damning."

Polarisation across the media

However, not everyone is a fan of Cobrapost or sting operations.

Instead, sting operations should be used as "a very last resort," according to Chitra Subramaniam, cofounder, The News Minute and editorial adviser, Republic TV.

"And by that, I mean, when you have exhausted all the options, which includes giving the opposite party as many options to respond, instead of just exposing them suddenly for all the world to see, that would be to me, tantamount to like a policing operation, or raiding somebody without giving them adequate space," she said.

The suspicion that Indian media outlets can be bought is not new. So for many, the Cobrapost sting simply confirmed what they had long suspected and did so at an already problematic time for Indian journalism.

In the four years of the Narendra Modi government, polarisation across the media has grown more extreme; the voices more shrill.

The hounding of journalists by online mobs, self-censorship in newsrooms, the killings of journalists - especially in smaller cities away from the spotlight of Delhi and Mumbai, most of the news about India's media has not been good.

Source: Al Jazeera