Whither the Indian press?

Whither the Indian press?
By Rahul Singh, Dawn, March 15, 2008

THE Indian media takes great pride in being independent and fearless, among the freest in the developing world. Indeed, the press is held up as one of the mainstays of Indian democracy. But is this really so? Take the abrupt and recent sacking of one of the country’s most distinguished editors, Mubashar Jawed Akbar.

On March 2, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of The Asian Age was on his way to his office in New Delhi when he got an SMS on his cellphone from one of his staff members, asking him to look at the masthead of his paper. To his astonishment and dismay, he found his name was missing! When he arrived at his office he was met by an editorial staff in mourning, some of whom broke down.

Word had clearly reached them of their boss’s unceremonious ouster. MJ, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, quickly emptied his drawers, said farewell to his staff and departed.

He had launched The Asian Age almost two decades ago and made it into probably the country’s most outspoken and readable newspaper. With publication centres in several parts of the country, it boasted a daily circulation of close to one million copies, second only to The Times of India in the English-language category of papers.

Many questioned its financial viability, since it carried few advertisements. But Akbar claimed that the paper was ‘franchised’ out to various businessmen-cum-politicians, which is how it survived — and apparently thrived.

One of the franchisees was a certain Venkatram Reddy, a successful entrepreneur who owned the Deccan Chronicle, a money-spinning publication centred in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

Deccan Chronicle Holdings became a publicly listed company on the stock exchange a few years ago and its IPO (initial public offering) brought in a considerable sum of money to Reddy.

This enabled him to buy out the other major franchisees of The Asian Age, so that he was able to corner 90 per cent of its shares, the remaining ten per cent being held by Akbar. Though the details have not yet been made public, it seems that Akbar also recently sold his shares to Reddy, which ultimately cleared the way for his removal.

Word has it that Akbar had seen the writing on the wall some months back.

Reddy was keen to enter politics by getting into the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. He wanted to be nominated by the Congress Party. But there was a problem: The Asian Age had been critical of the present government, the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in particular over the proposed nuclear deal with the US on which both the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have staked their prestige.

Was Reddy told that the Congress Party would support him for a Rajya Sabha seat, provided he got rid of Akbar? That is the speculation and it will be confirmed if such a scenario actually comes to pass.

For the record, Akbar is arguably the most outstanding journalist of his generation. He started as a trainee in the Times of India, moving on to its sister publication the Illustrated Weekly of India, which was then edited by Khushwant Singh, who happens to be my father. (I was the editor of Reader’s Digest at the time.)

Akbar then became the founder editor of the hugely successful Sunday magazine, brought out by the Kolkata-based Anandabazar Patrika group.

He had several political scoops to his credit. With the same group, he also started The Telegraph, a daily paper from Kolkata which soon overtook the then dominant Statesman. Following differences with the Anandabazar Patrika group owner, he started The Asian Age.

In between, he flirted with politics when Rajiv Gandhi persuaded him to stand for parliament in 1989 from Kishanganj in Bihar, his home state. To everybody’s surprise, he won.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, however, he seems to have drifted away from the Gandhi family, in particular from Rajiv’s widow, the Italian-born Sonia. So he went back to journalism and also authored a number of highly acclaimed books, including one on jihad, Shade of Swords.

Akbar is by no means the first successful editor to have been fired in humiliating circumstances. Khushwant Singh took the circulation of the Illustrated Weekly from 100,000 to over 400,000, making it a power to reckon with. He was close to Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, and supported their dictatorial ‘emergency’ rule from 1975 to 1977.

When the Congress was routed in the 1977 election, the new prime minister, Morarji Desai, sent word through his son to the owners of the Illustrated Weekly, the Jains, that he should be removed.

His contract was not renewed. But worse was to follow. Thinking that his farewell editorial would contain something damaging to them, he was sent a letter of dismissal, asking him to leave the office immediately.

The same thing happened to George Verghese, the most eminent and respected editor of an earlier generation, in the Hindustan Times and to H.K. Dua, when he was removed as editor of The Times of India (he is now editor of the Chandigarh-based Tribune, which is run by a trust and is one of the few truly independent papers in the country).

In the confrontation between Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh (who later went on to defeat Rajiv and become prime minister), Prem Shankar Jha, then the editor of the Hindustan Times, decided not to take sides and to treat news stories on their merits. A clear message was sent from the Rajiv Gandhi camp to the owners of the Hindustan Times that Jha should be asked to go. He was.

Independent editors have become a rarity in India. The Times of India, which boasts of being the largest circulating English broadsheet in the world, has not had a proper editor for over a decade, with various ‘editors’ given meaningless designations and put in charge of different sections of the paper: edit page, news, sports, supplements. The owners of the Hindustan Times and The Telegraph, the biggest dailies in north and east India respectively, are the real editors of their papers.

The four Fs now rule the Indian press — films, fashion, food and frolic. The wedding of Amitabh Bachchan’s son, the shenanigans of Sanjay Dutt and the liaisons of Saif Ali get front page treatment.

The marketing departments, not editorial, run the show, often making editorial appointments and deciding how the front page should look and what it should display.

Indian newspapers have become brands and products, not agents of change and enlightenment. This trivialisation of what is one of the main pillars of democracy should disturb all thinking Indians.

The writer is a former editor of Reader’s Digest, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times.singh.84@hotmail.com


Anonymous said…
Amin Fahim Out?
March 1st, 2008 by fahd (273 Views)
So the lame game and gimpy feeble personality of Makhdoom Amin Fahim is out of the list of PPP’s candidates for the Premier ship of Pakistan. He perhaps took it for granted and started meeting with the people in Islamabad without notifying Asif Ali Zardari, and then Zardari waved his magical wand and out went the friend of Pervez Muaharraf, Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim was being touted as the prime minister of Pakistan as an alternative of Benazir Bhutto, and when Benazir Bhutto died on 27th December in an assassination, everyone took it as a default to say that Makhdoom Amin Fahim would be the next leader of PPP, and in Naudero, Asif Ali Zardari also said exactly that, but then time is cruel and things have changed now.

Now the names of Shah Mehoomd Qureshi, Qaim Ali Shah, Yousuf Raza Gilani and Ahmad Muktar are being taken for the top slot. It is said that this could be for a shorter period and then Zardari would contest the elections, and join the fray himself.
Anonymous said…
Zardari being told to form cabinet without PM

By Muhammad Ahmad Noorani

ISLAMABAD: Asif Ali Zardari is in the company of strange legal experts, one of whom is trying to sell the idea that there could be a cabinet without a prime minister.

The legal aide, however, lacks the courage to say this on record. He claims that Asif Ali Zardari has barred him from going on record on this issue because his very name would suggest that he is voicing the PPP co-chairperson's words as has happened in the past.

The legal aide-cum-political leader, known for his urge for change of parties, seems to be impressed from General Zia-ul-Haq, who had once allowed a headless cabinet to proceed after sacking Muhammad Khan Junejo.

Zardari's aide insists that the formation of a headless cabinet is a great possibility. However, for others this is nothing less than a joke. Farhatullah Babar, the spokesperson for the PPP, denied that any such proposal was under consideration of the party leadership. Quoting Asif Ali Zardari, whom he contacted after The News put the question on Friday, said the PPP leadership was still consulting with its members, newly-elected legislators and coalition partners on all the aspects of the PM nominee and had not reached a final decision. "Within a few days, the situation would be clear," Babar said.

Reacting to Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar's statement that there will be no interim government and Asif Zardari had decided in principle not to become the prime minister, some other senior leaders of Pakistan People's Party have said this was not the case. At the same time, a large number of senior leaders are still of the view that Zardari is not becoming the prime minister and the prime minister to be appointed after a few days will be a permanent PM and not an interim one.

But those who are closer to Zardari, especially in the late night concluding-meeting of the day, tell a different story.

A senior PPP leader, who is also a lawyer, told The News that on the consistent demand of the newly-elected legislators of different parties, Asif was ready to contest for the top slot. However, he said there might be no interim set-up, as this was possible under Article 91 (1) of the Constitution. According to the interpretation of this top leader of the PPP, there is mention of the prime minister as the head of the cabinet but his immediate appointment and taking oath with other members of the cabinet is not necessary.

Article-91 of the Constitution reads: "There shall be a cabinet of ministers, with Prime Minister at its head, to aid and advise the President in the exercise of his functions."

Malik Muhammad Qayyum, commenting on the interpretation of the top legal aide of Zardari, said it was constitutionally impossible. He said a cabinet couldn't take oath without its head – the prime minister. He cited the example of the Haji Saifullah case of 1988 on the judges’ appointment issue, when some judges were appointed by the then dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq without the advice of the prime minister as the top government slot was vacant, which was mandatory constitutionally. Qayyum said that Justice Saifur Rehman, in a detailed verdict of the case, had written that not only the judges’ appointment was unconstitutional without the advice of the prime minister, there was also no concept of any cabinet without the prime minister.

The 1988 elections were held by a caretaker cabinet without a prime minister with Ishaq Khan as president heading the government. The interpretation of the senior PPP leader, which was not accepted even by other PPP legal minds, who didn't want to go on record to avoid any controversy, is that if the name of the prime minister and the federal cabinet members is announced and the prime minister or some other members of the cabinet do not take oath at the first stage, there is no problem constitutionally. He said in the case of the members of the National Assembly, any member could take oath later on the basis of some reason. While replying to questions that how the government could function without its head, and how the lower house of parliament will function without the leader of the house, he said there will be problems but constitutionally it was possible and it would be for some interim period of maximum 30 days after which Asif would return to the assembly by winning the by-polls from the constituency where the elections were not held because of the killing of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.

He said after the 2002 elections, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali also took oath after 31 days of the first session of the assembly. However, he did not discuss the complexity of the proposed situation as Jamali had taken oath with his cabinet.

He also said that the PML-N could also use this strategy in the Punjab to avoid the issue of interim chief minister. However, the situation became much complicated when Kanwar Dilshad, Secretary Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), was approached by The News. He said the by-election would be held after at least 52 days when the members of the National Assembly who had won more than one seat, would submit to the ECP which seat they would like to retain.

Keeping in view the statement of the ECP secretary, if the members who won more than one seat clarify their position on March 17, the day of the first session of the National Assembly, by-elections would be held at least after May 9. That means if the PPP would go ahead with its proposed plan of not installing an interim prime minister, the federal government will run without a prime minister for more than 50 days.

He said, however, this was an option under consideration, and an interim prime minister could also be installed, and in that case Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar will be the PPP nominee.

On the other hand, the senior PPP leader who gave the strange interpretation, confidently told The News that Asif had decided to become the prime minister and all the coalition partners had agreed to it.
Anonymous said…
ہارون رشید
بی بی سی اردو ڈاٹ کام، اسلام آباد

آصف زرداری اور مخدوم امین فہیم کے حق میں نعرے لگائے گئے
پیپلز پارٹی کے اندر وزارتِ عظمی کے امیدوار کی نامزدگی کا مسئلہ ڈرائنگ روموں اور میڈیا کی حدود سے نکل کر اب سڑکوں کی طرف بڑھنے لگا ہے۔
سنیچر کو اسلام آباد پریس کلب کے باہر وزارتِ عظمٰی کے امیدوار اور پیپلز پارٹی کے سینئر رہنما مخدوم امین فہیم اور آصف علی زرداری کے حق میں دو الگ الگ احتجاجی مظاہرے منعقد ہوئے۔

دونوں مظاہروں کے بیک وقت منعقد ہونے کے باوجود دونوں میں کسی قسم کی تلخی نہیں دیکھی گئی۔

مخدوم امین فہیم کی حمایت میں پیپلز پارٹی کے تقریباً تیس کارکنوں نے مظاہرہ کیا۔ انہوں نے مخدوم امین فہیم کے حق میں نعرے لگائے۔ مظاہرین کا مطالبہ تھا کہ مخدوم امین فہیم جماعت کے پرانے اور سینئر رہنما ہیں لہذا انہیں اس اہم عہدے پر فائز کیا جائے۔ شرکاء نے آصف علی زرداری کے خلاف’زرداری غداری‘ جیسے نعرے بھی بلند کیے۔

عین اسی وقت پیپلز سٹوڈنٹ فیڈریشن سمیت چند دیگر اراکین پیپلز پارٹی نے بھی آصف علی زرداری کے وزیراعظم بننے کے حق میں پریس کلب کے سامنے مظاہرہ کیا۔ اس مظاہرے میں شامل افراد کی تعداد بھی پچاس کے لگ بھگ تھی جنہوں نے آصف زرداری کے حق میں’ایک زرداری سب پہ بھاری‘جیسے نعرے لگائے۔

مخدوم امین فہیم کے حق میں مظاہرہ کرنے والے گروپ کی قیادت بالاکوٹ سے اپنے آپ کو پیپلز پارٹی کا نظریاتی کارکن کہلوانے والے حافظ عبدالباسط اور شاہ جہان کر رہے تھے جنہوں نے بعد میں اٹھارہ مارچ کو پارلیمنٹ ہاوس کے باہر دھرنا دینے کا اعلان کیا۔ انہوں نے اس موقع پر اجتماعی خود سوزی کی بھی دھمکی دی۔

اگرچہ یہ بہت چھوٹے پیمانے پر ہونے والا احتجاج تھا لیکن ان سے اس معاملے پر مسائل کے بدستور موجود ہونے کے اشارے ملتے ہیں۔ سیاسی تجزیہ نگار اس خدشے کا اظہار کر رہے ہیں کہ پیپلز پارٹی کے اندر اس تقسیم کو کہیں پارٹی مخالفین جن میں ایجنسیاں بھی شامل ہوسکتی ہیں جماعت کو کمزور کرنے کے لیئے استعمال نہ کریں۔

ادھر پیپلز پارٹی نے ایک غیرمعمولی بیان میں عوام کو مطلع کیا ہے کہ وہ ان لوگوں سے ہوشیار رہیں جو آصف علی زرداری کے نام کو استعمال کرکے دفاتر میں تقرریوں و تبادلوں اور ترقیاتی کام کروانے کی کوشش کر رہے ہیں۔ جماعت کے ترجمان فرحت اللہ بابر نے کہا کہ آصف زرداری نے کسی کو ان کاموں کا اختیار نہیں دیا ہے۔ ایسے لوگوں کی شکایت کے لیے بریگیڈئر امان کو مقرر کیا گیا ہے۔
Hazel Dream said…
Dear Mr Abbas

yes this article demonstrates the eternal struggle between the Arrogance of Power and wisdom of human intellect ..
but then one incident cant be taken as fact to make a judgement .

the freedom of expression is always there , if not in this piece of paper then may be some other .
Anonymous said…
Goodbye Pakistan. The game is over.
Pakistani Dream said…
Look at the BBC World service and compare it with BBC Urdu service.
You will fell the difference. What is said about Amin Fahim, Zardari Bhutto etc on the BBC World service in English. The BBC Urdu dare not to say in 200 years.
You may not be telling lies, but just bypassing the trurh, as Soviet Russian used to say"no truth in news, no news in truth" (The 2 leading news Soviet news paper of that era Pravda=Truth and Isvestia = News).

Every one has an agenda and no one is free, Freedom of press is just another Farce everywhere.

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