Archive for February, 2009

Calcutta editor arrested for Independent article

12 February 2009

Many years ago, a news editor of Indian origin was arrested in Dubai for having carried a Peanuts cartoon strip that was not OK with the censors.

In a similar incident, the editor, and publisher and printer, of The Statesman, Calcutta, were arrested yesterday on “a specific complaint” from a resident of Calcutta against the republication of an article from The Independent, London, which was deemed to be offensive to “the religious sentiments of a minority community”.

The editor, Ravindra Kumar, and the printer-publisher Anand Sinha, were later granted bail, but the arrests, under sections 295A (maliciously insulting the religions or the religious belief of any class) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code, underlined the growing perils of editors and publishers even in “secular” Bengal.

Only last year, the exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, who had made Calcutta her home, was forced to flee after a few lines from a short story were deemed offensive.

The original Independent article titled “Why should I respect these repressive religions” was by Johann Hari—the youngest person to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing. The Statesman carried it as per a syndication arrangement with the London paper.

Read the original article: Why should I respect these repressive religions

Sauce for a paper ain’t sauce for a TV channel?

11 February 2009

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If it is not all right in the eyes of The Hoot for NDTV to select the BJP’s prime minister-in-waiting L.K. Advani for a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2009, was it OK for Business Standard—in which Hoot editor Sevanti Ninan has a staketo invite the leader of the opposition to hand the Business Standard Awards in 2008?

Photograph: courtesy Business Standard

Also read: Should the media be honouring politicians?

Conflict of interest and an interest in conflicts?

Should the government bail out the media?

10 February 2009

Just a few months ago, Indian media organisations were prancing around in joy, launching new channels, new editions, new supplements, new “events”, as if there was no tomorrow.

Where there was madness without a method, there is now panic without a method.

Now, suddenly, media managers are acting as if there are ants in their pants. Hundreds of media workers have been laid off, all plans are on hold. Cost-cutting is in as are salary cuts, freeze on recruitment, curtailment of travel, hotel stay, etc. The sizes of most newspapers has seen a decline, as advertisements see a sharp fall.

In the midst of all this, a delegation of three newspaper publishers and editors—Shobhana Bharatia of Hindustan Times, Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express, T.N. Ninan of Business Standard—has met the officiating information and broadcasting minister Anand Sharma to plead for a “bail out”.

Absent from the delegation were television moguls, who are in worse shape, and magazine publishers, and radio broadcasters…

Questions: Should the government bail out corporate media? Should the corporate media which has often ranted against subsidies for farmers, etc, be asking for artificial sustenance? Will a party/alliance about to face an election lend its hand without attaching strings? Can a media that depends on government help for support really be independent? Or does it not matter?

Also read: Why the media mustn’t bail out the print media

Tehelka promoters ‘vindicated’ by official papers

9 February 2009

First Global, the brokerage promoted by Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra which had a 14.50 per cent stake in the webzine turned magazine Tehelka, has scored a major victory with official documents reportedly showing that the firm had been harassed by market regulators on trumped-up charges, after the then BJP-led government had been shamed by a Tehelka expose that caught the BJP president taking a cash bribe on camera.

According to a story in Business Standard, official documents obtained from the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) under the Right to Information (RTI) Act show that First Global had no “advance knowledge” of the stock market crash of March 2001 following the Tehelka story.

Titled “Operation Westend“, the investigation by journalists Aniruddha Bahal and Matthew Samuel resulted in the resignation of the then BJP chief Bangaru Laxman, defence minister George Fernandes, and plenty of egg on the BJP’s face.

But it also resulted in a massive witchhunt against the webzine and its promoters.

Documents obtained under RTI show that the brokerage—first Asian firm outside of Japan to become a member of the London Stock Exchange —had no role in hammering down the stock markets. In fact, it did not figure in the list of the top-50 sellers from mid-February to mid-March 2001.

But, because of its links to Tehelka, First Global was stripped off its registration; Shankar Sharma and his wife and partner Devina (a former Business India journalist) were arrested as they were about to board a flight to London (Shankar was arrested two more times); and hundreds of cases were lodged against the duo in an extraordinary act of political vendetta that eventually resulted in the closure of Tehelka online before its resurrection as an offline magazine.

First Global, which “paid more taxes than companies like Proctor & Gamble, Ranbaxy, and Titan“, was also forced to shut shop.

The assault on Tehelka resulting in its closure, was one of two standout cases of media harassment by the former BJP government, whose prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani was recently decorated by India’s leading English language broadcaster NDTV with a “lifetime achievement” award.

“Always in favour of anti-terrorism laws, he abolished Press Censorship and repealed anti-press legislation during his tenure in 1977-1979 as the I&B Minister,” read the citation. Advani is also credited for his Emergency era comment on the Indian press: “When you were only asked to bend, many of you chose to crawl.”

Photograph: courtesy rediff.com

Yes. No. Maybe. Don’t know. Can’t say.

9 February 2009

Recession or no recession, the fascination of the media with opinion polls continues. And recession or no recession, the pollsters turn out results that the media likes to hear.

It takes a brief clip from ‘Yes, Prime Minister‘ to realise how it is all done. As Stephen Colbert said on Larry King Live: “I’m not saying anything, Larry, what are you asking me?”

Should the media be honouring politicians?

8 February 2009

Should a designated prime ministerial candidate of a mainstream political party be chosen and given an award by a television channel which might have to cover him if and when he takes charge? Should the candidate so eagerly accept such a public honour?

The candidate is L.K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the channel is New Delhi Television (NDTV). On 20 January 2009, in the midst of its annual awards ritual, Prannoy Roy‘s channel called Advani on stage and handed him the “Lifetime Achievement Award”.

According to a news item put up on Advani’s website, the NDTV citation read:

“He (L.K. Advani) is a grassroot (sic) leader and is credited with having made the BJP a formidable force in Indian politics, through clarity of vision, precise statements and an astute sense of timing. Always in favour of anti-terrorism laws, he abolished Press Censorship and repealed anti-press legislation during his tenure in 1977-1979 as the I&B Minister. BJP has named him as a Prime Ministerial candidate for the party and the National Democratic Alliance for the 2009 general elections.”

There were two surprising things about this:

1) Advani was being given an award from an English language television station that he and others of his ilk have firmly cast in the “pseudo-secular” mould, a cynical portmanteau that is Advani’s sad and singular contribution to the English language.

2) The jury comprising, besides Roy, Anu Aga, executive chairperson, Thermax group; Fali S. Nariman, senior advocate, Supreme Court; William Dalrymple, historian and writer; Harsha Bhogle, cricket commentator; Rahul Bajaj, businessman; Shashi Tharoor, former UN official, were reportedly not aware that such an award was being bestowed on Advani.

There is a third element that is even more unsettling: the unwholesome sight of a major journalism outlet handing out a “lifetime achievment award” by talking of his pro-media stand 33 years ago, while ignoring his more recent “contributions” to Indian society.

The media website, The Hoot, run by Sevanti Ninan, wife of Business Standard editor T.N. Ninan, has picked holes in the ethics behind the handout.

“What exactly, some of us want to ask, have been Advani’s  contributions to Indian politics which deserve an award? Setting in motion the events that led to the destruction of the Babri masjid?  And contributed  to a heightened  communalising of the Indian polity?

“An award coming from a channel that helped to expose the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat which took place under the watch of a BJP government? The party Advani is leading into the elections this year? A channel that doubtless sees itself as a champion of secularism?”

The seven-member jury, according to The Hoot, had not voted to give Advani an award on awards’ night.

It was also not made clear to the audience at the NDTV awards’ function or the audience viewing the spectacle back home that the jury had no role in choosing Advani for a lifetime of achievements.

Indeed, two members of the jury wrote to Roy on the issue, with one of them reportedly saying “he would not want to be associated with any award which gave prizes to communal hatemongers”.

(At least one member of the jury, Anu Aga, is known for having confronted Advani’s protege, Narendra Modi, with the situation prevailing in the relief camps set up in the state for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.)

Roy reportedly clarified that it has been “normal practice every eyar for NDTV to reserve the right for its editors to select and present one or more non-jury awards.”

***

Just who NDTV’s editors picked in previous years is uncertain, but one of the strongest criticisms for this year’s choice has come from Siddharth Varadarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu.

On his blog, Varadarajan writes:

“After all, Advani was widely acknowledged as being one of India’s worst Home ministers when he held the job between 1998 and 2004. And he’s no great shakes in his current avatar as Leader of the Opposition either.”

Varadarajan then goes on to make a “brief list” of Advani’s “achievements” during just 11 years of his life, starting 1992, a period NDTV clearly ignored in its citation, while waxing eloquent on his “anti-terror” stance:

1. Demolition of Babri Masjid (contribution to conspiracy thereof), 1992
2. Hijacking of IC 814 and release of deadly terrorists like Masood Azhar, 1999
3. Massacre of Sikhs by terrorists at Chittisinghpora, 2000
4. Massacre of Kashmiri Pandits at Nadimarg, March 2003
5. First-ever terrorist attack on Amarnath yatris, 1999
6. Terrorist attack on Parliament, December 2001
7. Godhra and the Gujarat massacre of Muslims, 2002
8. Terrorist attack on Akshardham and Raghunath temples in 2002
9. Harassment of media from Tehelka to Iftikhar Gilani
10. Failure to take any decision on dozens of death row mercy petitions pending before him from 1998 to 2004 and now demanding the Congress government move swiftly on the mercy petition of Afzal.

So,does L.K. Advani really deserve a “lifetime achievement” award? Should a media organisation be giving an award to a potential prime minister it might have to cover? Should a potential prime minister be so over-eager to receive it?

Adapted from a longer article on churumuri.com

Also read: ‘The man who sowed the dragon seeds of hatred’

‘Weak Manmohan, yes, but what about Advani?’

CHURUMURI POLL: Is L.K. Advani lying on IC-814?

A businessman behind an iconic common man

6 February 2009

KPN photo

India’s greatest cartoonist, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman aka R.K. Laxman, inaugurates an exhibition of his work at the Indian Institute of Cartoonists in Bangalore on Friday.

Wheeling the legendary Times of India linesman, at right, is ‘Master’ Manjunath, the boy who played “Swami” in the television show Malgudi Days, based on Laxman’s brother, R.K. Narayan‘s famous work and directed by the late Shankar Nag. Behind Laxman is Ashok Kheny, the controversial businessman whose strange benevolence helped in the creation of the Indian Institute of Cartoonists.

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: Making all of us smile can make one of us cry

M.J. Akbar: Look, who inspired R.K. Laxman’s common man!

The slow but sure death of editorial cartoonists

The slaughter of the media lambs in Sri Lanka

5 February 2009

Sri Lanka is on the verge of winning the war against the Tamil Tigers in the North, but will it ever win the peace? Thousands of civilians are missing, and efforts to trace them are weak.

Nine journalists have died at work in the last three years, and the number may be even higher. Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley reports on the dangers facing those in Sri Lankan media who speak out.

Also read: SRI LANKA, THE KILLING FIELDS OF JOURNALISTS

Jaffna journalist hasn’t gone home for 13 months

Chris Morris, BBC: Lanka journalists ‘risk death’

‘Journalists face escalation of violence’

IFJ: More than 100 media professionals killed in 2008

Vir Sanghvi’s first HT blog targets Mint again

2 February 2009

Former Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi has once again launched into the new editor of Mint, R. Sukumar, for not carrying a column in which he had attacked the fledgling business paper’s coverage of the INX saga starring Sanghvi.

In his first column for the newly launched blogs section of HT, Sanghvi writes glowingly of the freedom he allowed columnists who took a contrarian position (backed, he claims, by the paper’s owners K.K. Birla and Shobana Bharatia), but disses Sukumar for censoring a column which contained “two paras” that were critical of Mint‘s coverage.

“Clearly, Mint can dish it out but it can’t take it.

“The mature option would have been to carry the piece, which would probably have passed unnoticed. I am an admirer of Mint and my criticism was restricted to its media coverage, which is already regarded within the profession as a joke, an island of gossip and inaccuracy amidst page after page of well-meaning, serious, magazine-type articles.”

Read the full blog: Critical freedom

Also read: Vir Sanghvi lashes out at Mint censorship

Will NDTV and Barkha Dutt sue Facebook next?

1 February 2009

If there is anything that l’affaire Barkha Dutt versus Cheytanya Kunte holds a mirror to—besides media hypocrisy, thin skins, forked tongues, and such like—it is: a) the quality of legal advice media behemoths receive and act upon, and b) the mainstream media’s bottomless ignorance of the wired world and how it works.

Even the spitting-image puppets that NDTV hauls out of the cupboard a few times a day to generate a laugh would have counselled Prannoy Roy & Co (for free) against embarking on the petty path of picking on a hapless blogger sitting in The Netherlands.

The bomb-Shell™ (pun intended) had boomerang written all over it, and in more ways than one.

If Dutt and NDTV wanted to protect their fair name, etc, from the slander, what are they proposing to do about Admiral Sureesh Mehta, who repeated the libellous charge of the channel and the correspondent “endangering lives” in Kargil by asking a military officer to trigger the Bofors gun for their cameras, at a media conference?

Has the channel issued the Admiral a notice, like it did to Kunte? Has he clarified/ retracted his comments/ apologised? Why is his response not public?

Secondly, how far is NDTV, which has a “convergence” outfit, from achieving convergence?

Was NDTV unaware that NDTV.com had run excerpts from the blog item that their lawyers were suing Cheytanya Kunte for? And do the “tech” chaps who run NDTV.com have no idea that everything, including everything they remove, is cached by Big Brother at Mountain View?

Scaring a blogger to apologise was the easy part.

What do NDTV, Prannoy Roy and Barkha Dutt propose to do with the Facebook group that has over 4,660 members demanding that she be taken off air? Will they sue Mark Zuckerberg next?

Good luck, NDTV (third-quarter losses: Rs 120.8 crore).

Prem Panicker, the editorial director of India Abroad, the New York weekly newspaper owned and run by rediff.com, asks the best questions about Dutt’s (and NDTV’s) fundamental inability to differentiate between fact and opinion:

***

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By PREM PANICKER in Bombay

“But in journalism, we know that, praise and criticism are twins that travel together. And we welcome both and try and listen to both carefully.”

That is Barkha Dutt, writing against the backdrop of pervasive criticism of her conduct, and those of her electronic media confreres, during and in the immediate aftermath of 26/11.

Admirable sentiments, admirably expressed.

One of the many critical voices Dutt and her media parent NDTV listened to was this blog post [From Google cache; scroll down to the post titled ‘Shoddy Journalism’]. And as a result of that careful listening to a critical voice, this happened.

Kunte’s withdrawal and apology, likely the outcome of a threat of legal action by Dutt and NDTV [Parenthetical aside: Can I be sued for saying this? If yes, I the undersigned do hereby, et cetera...], has created an even greater storm than the television media’s hysteria-tinged coverage of 26/11 did.

Here’s a round up of posts: Patrix; a DesiPundit round up; The Comic Project; Venkatesh Sridhar… [There are likely many others, but you get the picture].

The immediate temptation is to wear my blogger’s hat, and blast away at NDTV and Dutt for muscling Kunte—the classic reaction in a David v Goliath face-off.

It is not that simple, though—I also have a journalist’s hat, and with it on my head, some points occur.

My name is my brand—and as with any brand, its equity is built carefully, over time, through much hard work and careful attention to quality. Legitimate criticism of that brand is welcomed [and even if I didn’t like it, there is SFA I can do about it, provided the operational word is ‘legitimate’].  In this case, though, I am not so sure: While respecting Kunte’s right to his opinion, I would suggest that ‘opinion’ needs to be differentiated from ‘fact’.

It is my considered opinion that Barkha Dutt is as a television personality a borderline hysteric; most comical when she is attempting to be most serious; and far too prone to put herself at the center of every story [Among the many moments when, even in the midst of the mayhem, I found myself laughing out loud was the one where Dutt, during the climactic phase of the Taj operation, got into a major flap about a flapping window curtain and alternately spoke to the viewer and to the cameraman on the lines of There, see, look at it, the curtain is flapping… no no, focus on the curtain, zoom in… no, now pan to me… there, see, the curtain is still flapping...].

That is fair comment [and if Barkha doesn’t like it she can do the other thing]. I do not, however, have the right to state as fact that Dutt endangered lives, whether in Kargil or in Mumbai—because the causal chain of Dutt’s admittedly over-the-top reporting and loss of life has not been established.

I’m totally with Kunte when he opines that Dutt and her ilk are insufferable bordering on incompetent [Barkha, note, that is an opinion]; I’m not however able to defend his right to state as fact something that is not demonstrably true [Brief aside: No, it is not a defense to say that I was merely quoting someone else, and to ask why that someone else—in this case, a wiki entry—has not been sued.].

All of that said, the NDTV-Barkha Dutt action leading to Kunte’s retraction leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. In her earlier, lengthy defense, Dutt says two things that IMH opinion are contradictory:

But in journalism, we know that, praise and criticism are twins that travel together. And we welcome both and try and listen to both carefully.

And:

I believe that criticism is what helps us evolve and reinvent ourselves. But when malice and rumour are regarded as feedback, there can be no constructive dialogue. Viewing preferences are highly subjective and always deeply personal choices, and the most fitting rejection of someone who doesn’t appeal to your aesthetics of intelligence, is simply to flick the channel and watch someone else.

How does Barkha Dutt reconcile her stated respect for criticism and her intention to learn from it with the suggestion that those who don’t like what she does and the way she does it can say it with the remote? What the latter statement reveals is the hypocrisy inherent in the former—no more, no less.

A Barkha Dutt who grandly titles her show ‘We the People‘ [That title, factually rendered, should read ‘We the minuscule minority with access to cable TV who haven’t yet dissed you with our remotes], and who sheltering under that inclusive flag assumes the right to criticize the conduct of every politician, businessman, movie star and public figure in this country, needed to have shown more grace in accepting criticism directed her way.

So, we will now add this lack of grace, this intolerance for criticism, this tendency to the notion that you are immune to the searching examination you subject others to, to the already long list of reasons to reach for that remote.

Photograph: courtesy NDTV

Also read: The media is not the message

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