Posts Tagged ‘Wikileaks’

N. RAM: caustic, opinionated, humane & sensitive

14 January 2012

Thursday, 19 January 2012, is a red-letter day in The Hindu calendar. After an eight-year tenure as its helmsman, Narasimhan Ram will step down as editor-in-chief of South India’s largest English newspaper; a tenure pockmarked by several professional highs and as many personal lows.

While N. Ram can justly claim to have played a role in making The Hindu top-of-the-mind reading by his stewardship of the WikiLeaks India cables among other stories, there can be little doubt that the paper’s openly partisan coverage of the Left parties, China and Sri Lanka have not quite cast the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” in great light.

Above all, while Ram was merely the custodian for eight years of the 133-year-old newspaper, his actions in undercutting his brothers and cousins under the alibi of “professionalising” the family-owned media house have the potential to have long-term implications on the family-owned Hindu in a competitive market.

What cannot be doubted is that while the former Tamil Nadu wicket-keeper invites intense dislike among his baiters, and there are many, the dog-breeder is also intensely loved by his admirers, and there are many of them too. Here, a former Bangalore correspondent of Frontline, the fortnightly owned by The Hindu, pens a panegyric to his former boss.

***

By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

In the early 1990s, as eager students pursuing journalism studies in Mysore’s historic Maharaja’s College, our class was vertically split in its choice of the two main heroes who were blazing a new trail in India’s lively media arena.

While one bunch supported Arun Shourie, who, among other things, in the late 1980s had launched a campaign against the introduction of the defamation bill, an instrument introduced by the then Rajiv Gandhi government to curtail a free media, especially the Indian Express of which he was the editor.

The other-half idolized N. Ram.

Ram, we believed, was the true anti-establishment hero who, through his trenchant and hard-hitting writings had exposed the Bofors scandal. For us ‘hungry cubs’ fed on antediluvian and archaic theories, this was a potent manifestation of the true power of independent and ethical journalism, of impactful journalism.

Further underlining his fiery credentials was his defiant rebellion, in October 1989, against his own editor-uncle G. Kasturi of The Hindu.

Ram, who was then associate editor of the paper and second in command in the editorial structure, rather disillusionedly, wrote of The Hindu’s editor:

… Every time the question of publishing something major and original on the Bofors scandal arose, he [Kasturi] countered the idea of publication with the question. ‘What is really new about this? Isn’t what we have already published enough to make clear to everyone who is involved?’ He also repeatedly stated that while he personally was convinced of the guilt of the government in the Bofors affair, he was afraid that “the institution is in great danger.” This was his perspective on The Hindu which was founded in 1878 and has seen many trials and challenges in its history. (I repeatedly pointed out to the editor the failure to understand the significance of history which underlay his statement.) Kasturi also expressed serious concern over the impact of the fall-out from the Bofors expose on the interests of the “family” behind the newspaper.”

Ram took the extraordinary step of venturing out of the “four walls of The Hindu” to explain the situation to the public at large.

I decided to speak to my colleagues in the profession and ask for the hospitality of their columns to throw light on this vital national and ethical issue. I wonder whether this expose of what has happened within one major journalistic institution would be kept away from the readers of The Hindu through editorial censorship…,” Ram added.

In college, we conducted seminars on Indian journalism’s reigning deity and in our own, sometimes half-baked way attempted to analyze his brand of journalism.

Despite the ideological slant, his writings were direct and factual. It was strident and appealed to our activistic fervour.

***

Fortunately, during the course of my studies, I had established an indirect connection with Ram through the writer R.K. Narayan (my grand-uncle and mentor) who had moved from Mysore to Madras by then, and at whose Eldams Road residence Ram was a “welcome intrusion” almost every evening.

RKN diligently read through all the articles that I had written for Mysore’s local newspaper Star of Mysore and would occasionally give me Ram’s positive feedback with whom he obviously shared my clippings sometimes.

Needless to say, I was thrilled and motivated me to stay the course.

After securing my degree and encouraged by a gold medal and the Sampemane Krishnamurthy award for “excellence in journalism”, I went to Madras for an interview with the then deputy editor of Frontline K. Narayanan, a venerable journalist in his own right.

“KN” spoke to me for some time and on learning that I was just 22 years old, said that I should come back after a few more years of academic rigour. He said I was “underaged and underqualified”.  Frontline did have a reputation of hiring erudite scholars and seasoned journalists, and I didn’t quite fit the profile.

Later, KN conferred with Ram, and on the condition that I pursue my post graduate studies simultaneously was given the job. At that time, I was probably the youngest reporter on the rolls of the magazine.

***

The magazine had demanding standards and I was put through the paces.  However, my first assignment for the magazine came directly from Ram and was relayed to me by KN: it was to be a detailed article on the renowned artist S.G. Vasudev.

I went about it with the single minded dedication of a hardworking debutant and gave it all I had. For me, it was a fulfilling first, and Frontline gave it solid coverage.

A few more months into my job and I got my first cover story for the magazine. The feeling was heady:  Ram was very inspiring, and kept regular tabs on how I was coping with my job and on one occasion even wanted to know whether I had procured a two-wheeler to cover my beat.

Ram’s journalistic principles were exacting. For instance, a reporter could not take chances while spelling names of people and had to prefix even the initials correctly. You were expected to be accurate when you put down statistics. No guess work, no approximation.

Once, I was anchoring a special supplement on KSFC or the Karnataka State Financial Corporation. All through the supplement I had inadvertently called it Karnataka State Finance Corporation. The desk had apparently overlooked this ‘minor’ aspect and the pages were sent for printing. However, in due course this error was noticed and the pages had to be recalled at the last minute.

For my shoddiness, I was issued a written reprimand by the then deputy editor V.K. Ramachandran.

In Ram’s scheme of things fastidiousness had to be a habit not a virtue.

During his visits to Bangalore, I would meet him at The Hindu guesthouse for a few minutes, when he would enquire about the prevailing political equations, and give me a passing perspective of his thinking on the issues.

***

In another instance, I was chasing a ‘scoop’ involving the then Union food minister Kalpnath Rai. Sources intimate to the then cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah had promised to provide me with incriminating documents that clearly indicted Rai in a scam involving the import of sugar at a price higher than that of the market, apparently causing a loss of Rs 650 crore to the exchequer.

The minute I got whiff of the scandal, I discussed it with RKN over the phone.

“Why do you want to get into all these fancy issues? You will only get into trouble and nothing will come out of it. Look at Bofors, even after so many years nothing has happend,” he cautioned me with concern.

That night, as was his habit, Ram dropped into RKN’s Madras house for their routine chat, which usually covered a range of subjects and extended late into the night. RKN informed him about this overzealous young chap who had called him earlier in the day.

I guess, Ram gave in to his journalistic instincts and immediately spoke to me on the lead that I had picked up. He flew me down to Madras the very next day and encouraged me to work on the story from there. As luck would have it, my source who was supposed to deliver the documents by a flight from New Delhi backtracked even as I was waiting at the airport.

I was completely devastated.

Moreover, the embarrassment of facing Ram, who was waiting patiently at his residence, to study the documents was even more unnerving. Before leaving to the airport, I had boasted in all my youthful enthusiasm that the scale of the scam was bigger than that of the Bofors.

Ram had also given me permission to travel to Delhi if the story warranted it.

When I mumbled an apology to Ram that evening, he immediately understood the situation, gave me a quick pep talk, and ensured that I didn’t feel low or disheartened.

That same fortnight, a rival magazine carried the full story with the documents reproduced in print. It was obvious that my source had provided it to the rival magazine at the very last minute. Minister Kalpanath Rai was arrested in 1994 jailed in connection with the swindle but was later acquitted by the courts.

***

On another occasion, on the last day of a grand Madras vacation, I decided to visit The Hindu office and meet all my colleagues on the desk. Towards evening, just before heading out to catch my train, I gathered courage to pay an unscheduled visit to Ram’s office hoping to brief him about my work.

On learning that he was busy in meetings, and as time was running out, I decided to leave. Just then, he called me into his cabin.

At the end of our discussions, Ram queried how I was returning to Bangalore. I told him that I was originally scheduled to leave by the train but it would have long left and I would instead depart by the night bus now.

Ram looked at me almost guilty that he had made me miss the train. “Night buses can be quite tedious and unsafe,” he told me. He directed his secretary to lead me to the finance department and disburse money required for an air ticket. “We have had discussions related to your work. Your trip is official now, ‘’ he told me before packing me off.

I have never been able to forget that generous gesture.

My aunt Rajni still talks about how Ram went about mobilizing blood donors for my cousin Sudarshan, who was recuperating from a bad scooter accident that I had caused during that time.  Ram ensured that Madras’s leading orthopedic surgeon Mohandas attended on him.

Ram could be overweening, sometimes caustic and opinionated but deep down, he came across as being humane–and sensitive.

***

There is one last anecdote that I should probably narrate. After I did a piece on Mysore’s famous motorcycle manufacturer Ideal Jawa,  Ram contemplated moving me to Bombay as a business correspondent. Once I got to hear this, I was confused and excited.

I called my other famous grand-uncle, the cartoonist R.K. Laxman, with the intention of requesting him to get me a PG dig, and naively told him about Ram’s proposed plans to transfer me to Mumbai.

To my surprise,  Laxman reacted rather sharply and said Bombay was no place for youngsters. He hyperbolically ventilated that people were dying of plague and pestilence and Ram shouldn’t be sending me into this city.

That evening when I spoke to RKN all hell had broken loose. Laxman in his inimitable way had called Ram and restated all the things he had told me. Narayan mentioned that this had irritated Ram as he thought that I had  deliberately cribbed to Laxman.

In hindsight, I feel quite amused that I took out all my frustrations in a long letter that I wrote to Ram. I told him how the distinction between my personal and professional lives seemed to have progressively blurred.  I had mentioned something in good faith, and quite unintentionally to a family member and it had triggered of a professional crisis for me, I indicated in my letter.

Probably, Narayan and Ram would have had a good laugh over my letter. I don’t know what happened. I was forgiven, and stayed on in Bangalore.

In 1997, I quit to join The Week magazine from the stables of the Malayala Manorama.

***

As a journalist who enjoyed and value my tenure at Kasturi & Sons, I genuinely wish that its stakeholders sink their differences and surface as one strong family.

If not for anything at least for the future of good journalism in this country.

The family, as I have known, would still be among the more decent and fair minded employers.

These are rare attributes in the Indian media industry.

File photograph: N. Ram, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Hindu, at a lecture in New Delhi in April 2011 (courtesy Kanekal Kuppesh)

Also read: N. Ram to quit as The Hindu editor-in-chief on Jan 19

Why N. Ravi quit The Hindu after 20 years as editor

Nirmala Lakshman: I didn’t step down; I resigned

Malini Parthasarathy quits as Hindu‘s executive editor

The four great wars of N. Ram on The Hindu soil

N. Murali: The Hindu is run like a banana republic

In which Julian Assange gives it to MasterCard

3 July 2011

20 secure phones to assist in staying anonymous: $5,000

Fighting legal cases across five countries: $one million

Upkeep of servers in over 40 countries: $200,000

Donations lost due to banking blockade: $15 million

Added cost due to house arrest: $500,000

Watching the world as a result of your work: priceless.

Also read: How The Hindu got hold of the WikiLeaks India cables

Could WikiLeaks strike some Indian journalists?

The curious case of N.Ram, DMK and Jayalalitha

How US forces hunted down Reuters staffers

The WikiLeak cable on the journalist who…

29 April 2011

M.D. Nalapat, former resident of The Times of India in Bangalore and Delhi, in the Pakistan Observer:

“While some NGOs are run by sincere individuals interested not in personal but in social gain, many of the organisations active in India act as milch cows for those controlling them.

“For example, a top journalist got formed an NGO headed by his son, and then used his contacts in foreign embassies to ensure a huge flow of grants to the organisation, enough to ensure that Junior could leave India and live in Europe.”

Read the full article: Running a country, NGO-style

Also read: Bangalore journos named in site allotment scam

Only in India: 90% off for journalists!

Cash transfer scheme is already here for journalists

Media houses are sitting on plots leased at one rupee!

Anti-corruption campaigner’s “error of judgement”

‘Indian media eclipses America’s and Europe’s’

12 April 2011

It is one thing to scoop the cables of American diplomats obtained by WikiLeaks, and it is quite another to project WikiLeaks’ maverick founder, Julian Assange, not merely as the facilitator of the cable-leaks but as the fount of all wisdom contained in them. But The Hindu has managed to do both inside 30 days.

First, the Madras-based behemoth published the first tranche of the 5,100 cables obtained by it, via WikiLeaks. And now, a glowing, front-page story by editor-in-chief N. Ram in today’s paper has Assange offering his view on the Indian prime minister’s disputation of the authenticity of the US embassy cables.

Inside, on the op-ed page, is the first part of a 60-minute interview by Ram and The Hindu‘s UK correspondent, Hasan Suroor, with Assange, in which the “brilliant and articulate editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks” offers his view on —pinch yourself—“a broad range of issues relating to India, the world, political economy, journalism, the goals and methods of WikiLeaks, and the threoretical framework worked out by its chief”.

Question No. 1: Mr. Assange, the publication in March-April 2011 of the India Cables accessed by The Hindu through an agreement with WikiLeaks — and thank you very much for that — has made a dramatic impact on politics and public opinion in India. As you know, it rocked Parliament and put the Manmohan Singh Government on the back foot, at the same time not sparing the Opposition. The Indian news media, newspapers as well as television, have picked up the continuing story in a big way and, I think, WikiLeaks has become a household name in India. Not that you were not known before but now it has great relevance in India, as Bofors did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How do you think this compares with the impact Cablegate had when it first broke in November of 2010 through The Guardian and four other western newspapers?

Julian Assange: I am very encouraged by what’s happened in India – for The Hindu that’s 21 front pages and there’s a spectrum of publishing in India which I think eclipses that of The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and The New York Times, and El Pais, which were our original partners, although some of them had also done some very fine work. This is something we have seen with some of our other regional partners in Latin America, like Peru and Costa Rica coming up before elections — that the local focus is able to really burrow into important details.

I am tempted to say, based upon my reading of The Hindu that it is in a position to report more freely than these other papers are in their respective countries. That may be, I suspect, not just as a result of the strength of The Hindu but as a result of the weakness of the Indian federal government as a structure that is able to pull together patronage networks and suppress journalism as a whole in India. While it’s certainly true that each one of the factions involved in Indian national politics is able to exert pressures, I think it is encouraging that India as a whole has not turned into one central pyramid of patronage, which is something we do see a bit in other countries like the United States.

Read the full interview: ‘WikiLeaks has provided the critical climate for political change’

Photograph: N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu (left), with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (courtesy The Hindu)

***

Also read: How The Hindu got hold of the WikiLeaks India cables

Newspapers used to bribe voters in Tamil Nadu

Could WikiLeaks strike some Indian journalists?

Mr. Assange, the publication in March-April 2011 of the India Cables accessed by The Hindu through an agreement with WikiLeaks — and thank you very much for that — has made a dramatic impact on politics and public opinion in India. As you know, it rocked Parliament and put the Manmohan Singh Government on the back foot, at the same time not sparing the Opposition. The Indian news media, newspapers as well as television, have picked up the continuing story in a big way and, I think, WikiLeaks has become a household name in India. Not that you were not known before but now it has great relevance in India, as Bofors did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How do you think this compares with the impact Cablegate had when it first broke in November of 2010 through The Guardian and four other western newspapers?

I am very encouraged by whats happened in India – for The Hindu thats 21 front pages and theres a spectrum of publishing in India which I think eclipses that of The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and The New York Times, and El Pais, which were our original partners, although some of them had also done some very fine work. This is something we have seen with some of our other regional partners in Latin America, like Peru and Costa Rica coming up before elections — that the local focus is able to really burrow into important details. I am tempted to say, based upon my reading of The Hindu that it is in a position to report more freely than these other papers are in their respective countries. That may be, I suspect, not just as a result of the strength of The Hindu but as a result of the weakness of the Indian federal government as a structure that is able to pull together patronage networks and suppress journalism as a whole in India. While its certainly true that each one of the factions involved in Indian national politics is able to exert pressures, I think it is encouraging that India as a whole has not turned into one central pyramid of patronage, which is something we do see a bit in other countries like the United States.

Newspapers used to bribe voters in Tamil Nadu

16 March 2011

The second tranche of American diplomatic cables published by The Hindu today in collaboration with Wikileaks, throws light on how newspapers—yes—have become a delivery vehicle for politicians and parties to deliver cash to voters at the time of elections.

The paper quotes from a cable sent by Frederick J. Kaplan, acting principal officer of the US consulate-general in Madras, to the State department, after meeting M. Puttarajan, an aide of Union chemicals and fertilisers minister M.K. Azhagiri, son of the Tamil Nadu chief M. Karunanidhi:

“In an instructive and entertaining section titled ‘Can I get another morning paper?’ Kaplan explained the modus operandi for cash distribution adopted by the DMK in Thirumangalam: “Rather than using the traditional practice of handing cash to voters in the middle of the night, in Thirumangalam, the DMK distributed money to every person on the voting roll in envelopes inserted in their morning newspapers.

“In addition to the money, the envelopes contained the DMK ‘voting slip’ which instructed the recipient for whom they should vote.” This, Kaplan noted, “forced everyone to receive the bribe.” Patturajan , he wrote, “confirmed the newspaper distribution method of handing out money, but questioned its efficiency. He [Patturajan] pointed out that giving bribes every voter wasted money on committed anti-DMK voters, but conceded that it was an effective way to ensure the cash reached every potential persuadable voter”.

The Kaplan cable reports that Patturajan expected difficulties in replicating the Thirumangalam model in the 2009 parliamentary election because the Lok Sabha constituency was seven times the size of the Assembly seat.

According to the cable:

“Azhagiri has been forced to ratchet the payment back down to more typical levels, but he still plans on giving it to every voter through the newspaper distribution method.”

Little wonder every politician and political party wants to start a newspaper?

Cartoon: courtesy Keshav/ The Hindu

Also read: How The Hindu got hold of the Wikileaks India cables

How the US hunted down Reuters’ staffers

How The Hindu got hold of Wikileaks’ India cables

15 March 2011

The Hindu has a massive, six-million-word scoop today.

The newspaper has gained access to the 5,100 US embassy cables with the State department, thanks to Wikileaks, and has begun publishing them in tranches. (So far, only 40 or so cables relating to India have seen the light of day.)

The cables, in the words of the paper’s editor-in-chief N. Ram, provide:

unprecedented insights into India’s foreign policy and domestic affairs, diplomatic, political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual“.

Besides, Ram, five senior journalists have pieces in today’s paper, analysing the cables: Suresh Nambath, Nirupama Subramanian, P. Sainath, Siddharth Varadarajan and Hasan Suroor.

The Hindu reportage is also remarkable for the candour with which the paper reveals how it got hold the cables and how it proceeded to put them out.

“Hopes of getting our hands on the entire India Cache rose in the second half of December when [Wikileaks founder] Julian Assange spoke, in a newspaper interview, of  “the incredible potential of the Indian media” in a context of “a lot of corruption” (waiting to be exposed), a rising middle class, and growing access to the internet – and specifically mentioned and praised The Hindu.

“Our active contacts with WikiLeaks resumed in mid-February 2011. A breakthrough was achieved without any fuss, resulting in a detailed understanding on the terms and modus of publication, including redacting (where, and only where, necessary) and compliance with a security protocol for protecting and handling the sensitive material – and we had the whole cache of the India Cables in our hands in early March.

“Unlike the experience of the five western newspapers, which were involved in a prolonged and complex collaborative venture even while making independent publication choices (described in two books published by The Guardian and The New York Times), The Hindu’s receipt, processing, and publication of the cables is a standalone arrangement with WikiLeaks, which, as in the case of the five newspapers, has no say in the content of stories we publish based on the cables.

“We quickly assembled a team of experienced journalists – writers, including foreign correspondents, and editors – as well as digital information and data specialists for the India Cables publication project, to which we gave no particular name.

“The team worked long hours in a secured office space, practically without a day’s break, sifting through the data, categorising, segmenting, and speed-reading the cables, searching with keywords, redacting if necessary, making a large first selection of what seemed most relevant and interesting, and re-reading the cables to write dozens of stories, formatting and uploading the cables online for global reach.

“Quiet, controlled excitement reigned for the most part within the confined environment, even when fatigue set in and nerves were frayed. It is still work in progress.”

The paper also places on record, upfront, that “the India Cables have been accessed by The Hindu through an arrangement with WikiLeaks that involves no financial transaction and no financial obligations on either side.”

Elsewhere, on the edit page, the paper’s deputy editor Siddharth Varadarajan, while analysing the cables on Iran’s nuclearisation, carries this curious paragraph:

“The challenge for Washington was to get India off the fence, especially when this would be seen in India as siding with the U.S. “An op-ed by a reliably anti-American reporter for The Hindu on September 1 encouraged the GOI to stand by Iran as the ‘litmus test’ of India’s willingness to pursue an ‘ independent’ foreign policy,” the cable noted.

Meanwhile, Varadarajan has clarified on Twitter just who the said “reliably anti-American repoter for The Hindu” was: Amit Baruah, former Islamabad and Colombo correspondent of the paper who joined BBC Hindi as its head.

How US forces hunted down Reuters staffers

6 April 2010

In July 2007, two employees of the Reuters news agency were among several killed in Iraq when US military forces opened fire on them. Saeed Chmagh, 40, a driver with the agency with a wife and four children, and Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, a war photographer, were among those killed.

The US military claimed the victims died in battle between US forces and insurgents, and that the conduct of the pilots and guncrew was “in accordance with laws of armed conflict and rules of engagement”. Reuters filed for the video of the attack to be made public under the US’s Freedom of Information Act.

The full video, shot from the primary helicopters, is now up on wikileaks and it is blood-curdling for the casualness with which civilians are hunted down. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine calls the video the “most damaging documentation of abuse since Abu-Ghraib”.

“As you watch, imagine the reaction in the US if the people on the ground had been Americans and the people on the machine guns had been Iraqi, Russian, Chinese, or any other nationality.”

From 2003-2009, a total of 139 journalists have been killed in Iraq in the line of duty.

Visit the site: www.collateralmurder.com

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