Report from India: India’s Press Comes of Age

Times of India building, Mumbai, India

Times of India building, Mumbai, India

By Robert Israel

When the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency in 1975, the press in India literally suffered its darkest hour. Electricity supplied to the presses in Delhi was shut off. Press censorship was imposed. Several publications were forced to shut down. Foreign correspondents were harassed. Native journalists were arrested. Anyone not complying with the government edict was arrested until the government lifted restrictions in 1977.

Freedom of the press in India is subjected to ongoing debate among the country’s journalists, even though India is the world’s largest democracy. Some feel the press has considerable access and power; others claim it is still inhibited by a restrictive government.

“The press in India has been a major force in this country’s independence,” says S. Viswam, former bureau chief of The Tribune, a daily newspaper. “Many politicians are journalists, and many journalists are politicians, the most famous being Mahatma Gandhi, who edited and published his own newspaper. Now that India is an independent country, the press has to determine if it wants a new role for the press. Should the press be supportive of the government, or should the press take an adversarial role?”

Issues that remain contentious ones in India include the government’s control of newsprint.

“The government could, if it wanted to, limit the supply of newsprint to a newspaper it doesn’t favor,” Viswam says. “There are other government controls in place, too, namely control of the broadcasting industry. The government is India’s largest employer, and, consequently, one of the country’s largest advertisers. What if they decided to withdraw these sources of revenue from the press? The loss of income would be crippling.”

Newspaper and newspaper reporters have always lived with threats of violence. When conflicts flare up in remote sections of the sub-continent, reporters covering these incidents take enormous risks. Viswam remembers when there was fighting among Sikh extremists in Chandighar, where The Tribune is based.

“At the time,” he says, “one of our editors received a death threat. He has unmarked police cars parked in front of his office and home daily.”

Vir Sanghvi, former editor, Hindustan Times

Vir Sanghvi, former editor, Hindustan Times

Vir Sanghvi, former editor of The Hindustan Times, wrote, in a piece published in The Illustrated Weekly of India, that the Indian press has had a longstanding struggle to obtain information, despite India’s claim to be a free society:

“Frequently,” Sanghvi wrote, “you hear of photographers being beaten up, reporters dragged to court on flimsy charges trumped up by those they have exposed, issues of magazines being snatched off the stalls by cops and local goons. Journalists have been charged with obscenity, contempt of court, defamation and even sedition. Editors have been threatened with murder.”

Pritish Nandy, an Indian poet, painter, journalist and media mogul, once devoted a cover story to an expose of J. B. Patnaik, a controversial chief minister. Titled, “The Sex Escapades of J.B. Patnaik,” the story caused a furor all over India against Nandy, who was then serving as editor of the magazine. A civil suit, later dropped, was brought against him for defaming Patnaik’s character.

Pritish Nandy, former editor, The Illustrated Weekly of India

Pritish Nandy, former editor, The Illustrated Weekly of India

“The plain truth of the matter is that journalists in India are prime targets,” Nandy says. “When there is a disagreement, the veneer of civility is a thin membrane. It doesn’t take long before the goon squads find their targets and start browbeating — and beating — the press.”

The press in India also panders to the sensational, which doesn’t help its cause to become a recognized — and respected voice for the common man and woman. Frequently the press, taking its cues from the British press, shoots from the hip, attacking their subjects with sensational headlines and accusations. Now, with the advent of the World Wide Web, there is an increase in scrutiny, not only among reporters, but also among the online publications that have sprouted up in many of India’s largest cities.

India, by all accounts, is realizing that the press is a sleeping giant, and that the eyes of the world are upon its numerous published products. As it continues to make strides toward fairness and accuracy in its reporting, that sleeping giant will emerge as the key source to a growing world giant whose influence continues to command attention.

Robert Israel can be reached at A version of this report appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe.


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