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About three years ago, Makoto Watanabe, then an investigative reporter at The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, had a “hunch,” based on his experience covering the pharmaceutical industry, that an advertising agency might be paying a major news organization to write stories about certain drugs to promote companies the agency represented.

After digging around, he eventually struck gold. Documents obtained from a source showed a subsidiary of Dentsu, the world’s fifth-largest ad agency, which represented the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, had made payments to a company tied to the Kyodo News agency for “public relations assistance” through its articles.

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