Pressing interests in conflict

By Sunil K Poolani | 07 Feb 2002

Mumbai: Its more than six year since the debate over whether the Indian government should allow the entry of foreign media interests and foreign investment into the countrys newspaper sector began. In this span, there have been several arguments, mudslinging matches and political interests about the subject that spilled over from where else the print media to the telly and the Internet.

Those you oppose the entry claim that foreign media interests into the press sector will not make constitutional sense as neither "freedom of speech and expression" nor "the freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business" is guaranteed to non-citizens by the Constitution of India. And those who support the entry argue that it would only bring in more financial investment, editorial quality and transparency, and does not interfere with Indias constitutional rights?

Not surprisingly, now the internecine fight (yes, its now ceasing to become a mere debate) is between the big newspaper groups, who feel threatened by the foreign print media magnates, and the small newspaper groups, who feel threatened by the Indian print media magnates. Capitalists and communists are hand in hand in their fight to either protect their own businesses from foreign invasion or to welcome it.

So you have a Times of India editorial saying: "With a fraction of that stake [26 per cent foreign holding] at his command, a media magnate from abroad can twist the arms of any manager or editor, not least if the magnates prime interest is to take the politics of the country in a given direction." And you have The Hindus N Ram saying: "Once allowed in, foreign capital will also launch new newspapers in collaboration with Indian parties, which can be either active or passive partners."

Again not surprisingly, a large number of the press barons and editors this writer spoke to are in favour of the entry of foreign papers, notwithstanding the threat they may face with regard to circulation, advertisements and even journalistic quality.

An unperturbed Santosh Goenka, executive publisher, Indian Express Business Publications Division, is one of them. Says he: "I dont find any threat. We have been having media tie-ups with several foreign journalists for a long time now, and it has only helped us provide more information. Journalists will get more pay, and the quality of news coverage will definitely improve."

This opinion that journalists will be the main beneficiaries was endorsed by most of the media persons who agreed to share their views. But what about press freedom, the command Indian papers have over the readers what will happen to them?

"I dont understand what is so sacrosanct about Indian publications. Obviously, the only advantage with the entry is that there will be better pay-scales. Whether they will control our media is one thing we have to be very careful about. We have always taken chances; I think here too we should do that, says R Jagannathan, former executive editor of The Financial Express, who now edits

And what about opinion-makers? Wouldnt the foreign papers get a stranglehold on them? Mani Shankar Aiyer, Congress politician and well-known columnist, says: After 54 years of Independence, India is a sufficiently self-confident country to withstand that. After all, it is not as if opinions are deadly viruses that can e imported from foreign countries."

Jug Suraiya, senior editor, The Times of India, agrees: "Any journalist worth his/her salt would welcome the move if I am getting the chance to pit my skills in the international arena, I would be glad. Moreover, the foreign print media is already here. You have got Time, Newsweek and the like (with special reports about India) readily available. Now, it is just a question of formality." The Times of India bosses may not agree, though.

But will the foreign papers be objective in reporting about India? Or, contrarily, as outsiders, will their objectivity be greater than that of Indian journalists some of whom are even believed to be paid off by companies and political parties? "We are allowing in everything from cars to potato chips. So why now the media? We dont have to be afraid of them we are better journalists," says a confident Prabhu Chawla, India Today editor. "The only thing I would insist on is a level-playing field. The government should allow duty-free imports of capital equipment, and compassionate loans for upgradation for Indian publications."

Another objection, which was a matter of much debate when satellite channels began making inroads into India drawing rooms, is whether Indian culture will take a battering. Will these publications be another tool for colonisation? This fear, too, seems to be unfounded. Media critic Iqbal Masud, who passed away sometime back, had said: "I have never objected to their entry; cultural colonialism is media crap. I can tell you one thing. Without an international perspective, Indians can never improve. Tell me, who are our best English writers? Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Chandra, Shashi Tharoor? All have been educated and worked in and been exposed to a sophisticated world. Thats quality for you. It wouldnt come sitting inside an abysmal well. Even vernacular writers like Quaratullain Haider excelled after their stint in a foreign milieu."

Goenka echoes the same sentiment. "In this age, there is a serious quest from out youngsters to acquire the latest trends from all over the world. The entry of satellite television only proves this. If change has to occur, it will. No force can stop it."

But the sceptics remain unconvinced. Sarosh Bana, deputy editor, Business India, is among them. Says he: "The Indian media is capable of standing on its own feet; we need no outside help. The foreign media is one-sided. The cultural arrogance they proudly flaunt will definitely creep in. Why should we allow something of this sort?"

Sherna Gandhy, editor, Pune Times, agrees to an extent. "The foreign papers will influence out thinking process. Their views and opinions are in great measure anti-Third World, and unquestionably show a slant when it comes to news concerning us. Regardless of the advantages it is going to provide the profession, the foreign medias entry will surely help filter down unwanted elements."

Strongly supporting the 1955 resolution keeping out foreign papers, former editor of Patriot, Sitanshu Das, says: "The media is not merely about producing a commodity; it cannot be considered on the same footing as, say, food processing. It concerns aspects like education, religion and politics of the country. Hence, there should not be any foreign equity participation in the Indian print media. It should be handled by Indians themselves."

But Aiyer draws a different picture: "I dont think there is any point denying entry to the foreign print media, especially as we have allowed in their electronic counterparts. (The foreign electronic media had, in the form of radio, entered our homes as far back as in the 1940s). If there were any perils of The International Herald Tribune replacing Dinamani and Dinamalar in my region, of course, I would have been concerned. But that is not the case it is impossible for them to replace our press. They can only supplement, and strengthen, the Indian media."

Now, the man from the street says: "Even liberalisation has failed to register any marked improvement in our lives. So, why this debate."

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