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AUGUST 11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The Media Factor
How journalists are contributing to the country's growing confidence
By ROGER MITTON New Delhi & Calcutta

As the galvanization of India gathers pace, it is being accompanied and fuelled by an epochal change in the press. Nowhere is it more evident than in the "new media" of 24-hour satellite television and pioneering websites. When Indians learned the shocking news that the nation's cricketers had been bribed to fix matches, the story broke not in a newspaper or on TV, but on a startup and upstart website called Tehelka.com.

Tehelka means "making waves" — and that's what its editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal, and a new generation of Indian journalists are trying to do. But it is not proving easy. India's print media in particular remain snared in a kind of colonial mindset. They are both endearing and infuriating. Only on the front page of an Indian newspaper would you find an enigmatic quote from the 18th-century French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the lead news story beginning: "He may still be in the eye of a storm, but the man who played Prospero and created the tempest around him says he is clean." This was a story about Mohammed Azharuddin, a cricketing icon accused of match-fixing. There is blimpish resistance to changing this ivory-tower style and format that belongs in a time gone by. Says Tejpal: "Even if they want to shake things up, editors of papers that are 50 or 60 years old can only push the envelope up to a certain point."

The general state of the media resembles the country itself: vastly improved but still falling short of potential; infuriatingly pedantic and leadfooted, yet peppered with displays of brilliance. The press is exceptionally free — and consequently despised by those in authority. Notes Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of the weekly newsmagazine Outlook: "Politicians in India, especially those in the governing BJP, are paranoid about journalists. We are probably No. 1 on their hit list. So the independent editor or reporter is finding it increasingly difficult to function in India." Well, everything is relative. The many Indian journalists who are lured by high salaries to Malaysia or Singapore invariably end up complaining about how much more restrictive things are there. And the difference is further illuminated by Mehta himself, who recalls: "A BJP minister told me, 'I don't trust you.' I replied, 'Thank you for the compliment, because I don't want to be trusted by you.'" Imagine, if you can, that kind of conversation in Singapore. That is why the Indian media, despite all their faults, are so superior to those in much of the rest of Asia.

In the print world, there are more than 20 major English-language daily papers, all of them aspiring to be serious and authoritative — and all extremely domestically focused. Ravindra Kumar, managing editor of the Calcutta-based The Statesman, finds this understandable. "We are a big country, so this is to be expected," he argues. The limited foreign news is rarely about Southeast Asia. Vir Sanghvi, the young and dynamic editor of The Hindustan Times, complains: "The coverage of Southeast Asia in Indian newspapers is pathetic. We've tried very hard to introduce more news on Asia, but nobody gives a damn. In the U.K., a Labor MP denounces Tony Blair, and it's a big story here; there's a coup in Thailand, Indians couldn't care less."

But they do care about watching TV, which has burgeoned over the past 15 years. Says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, anchor of a current-affairs show: "Since the mid-1980s, TV growth in India has been the fastest in the world." There are now some 70 million television sets in the country, and 45% of them have cable. Thakurta comments: "It's unique. For about $4, you get 40-plus channels." Echoes broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley: "From the cities to the villages, people are exposed to television. It is going to be a human resource, it is going to be education, development, reform." And much of it is homegrown. Witness Prannoy Roy's New Delhi TV, a 24-hour news channel. Says Outlook's Mehta: "It's a great success story — an independent TV station. That's the sort of service the politicians instinctively dislike." But they are going to have to learn to live with it, because more is on the way.

The Internet is already beginning to transform the face of modern India, bringing the news, knowledge and empowerment of the cities to the depths of the Hindu heartland. It is also bringing the Indian Diaspora together as never before — and this helps stoke the new national resurgence and self-confidence. Says Tejpal: "The Web can, in real time, bring all Indians together on the same platform. At 11 p.m., we put out a story and everywhere around the world Indians can access it within minutes. And that's what they do. We get tremendous feedback."

Well, that's the cutting-edge part, but what about those dinosaurs in the print media? There's good news — they are shaping up, in part because they have also reaped the benefit of India's new economic vibrancy. Says Sanghvi of The Hindustan Times: "The problem before was not that editors felt they weren't as good as people abroad, but that they felt like mid-level civil servants. Now journalists are paid much more than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and their editors feel economically on a par with the MDs of companies. That's the real change." The top-selling Times of India (circulation about 1.4 million) has perked up its image — only to be unfairly charged by rivals with dumbing down. Says Mehta: "In terms of serious editorial content, The Times of India may have fallen a few notches, but it's still a very successful publication."

Even so, there remains vast scope for improvement. Breakfast rooms across India display a vista of glazed eyes ploughing wearily through the turgid, circumlocutory language of the morning papers. Tejpal laments: "The design is dull, the presentation is dull. We just do a bad job of making our newspapers." He claims a new generation of bright, kick-butt editors will change this. But even Sanghvi knows this won't be easy. He warns: "The great challenge in India is to transform newspapers without their becoming trivial, while still making them interesting."

The temptation is to forsake fossilized print for the new opportunities of the dotcom world. Webmeister Tejpal can hardly contain himself as he gushes about his new baby, Tehelka (motto: "News, views, all the juice"). His 40 journalists already put about 15 stories a day on the website. "I wanted to create a product that spans all the spectrum, from highbrow to lowbrow, from detailed analysis and debate down to an erotic review," he says. But there's a long way to go. Mehta scoffs: "The Indian dotcom players are very untested. I find the editorial quality truly appalling."

Whatever the professionalism of Indian journalism, there is no sense there will ever be a compromise on the high value placed on free speech. That is why the Indian media — in all their manifestations — remain alive and vibrant and full of surprises. Says Mehta: "There is terrestrial and satellite TV. And there are the new challenges from all these websites. Yet the Indian print media are still doing their job and have found a new role. Readership and advertising figures are up."

So, it seems, is the mood of journalists in India — in print, TV and on the web. There is a sense that they can affect, and indeed shape, their newly resurgent nation. Says print man Mehta: "There is a thriving, independent press in India. There are no institutional fetters. The government tries to woo us and corrupt us and emasculate us. But we remain free." And journalists are using that freedom — and the new economic good times — to greater advantage. Says TV man Thakurta: "The media have played a bigger role in Indian society over the past few years with the proliferation of new TV channels vying with each other to break the news." Finally, webmeister Tejpal predicts: "All of us who lived through 1980s journalism in India know that every major issue of that decade was pushed by journalists. In the 1990s, a lot of that was lost. It is being found again." These are exciting times for pressmen in India. Who'd be anywhere else?

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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