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Corporate takeover raises Indian media fears

Country's richest man buys into the media stoking concerns that journalistic independence needs to be protected.

Last updated: 12 Jun 2014 07:41
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Analysts are reluctant to describe Reliance's owner Mukesh Ambani as India's Rupert Murdoch [File: AP]

New Delhi, India - Fears are growing that the independence of India's media could be at risk as news outlets are swallowed up by corporate owners.

Concern has been stoked following the announcement by Reliance Industries, India's largest company owned by the country's richest man, that it has taken over the country's biggest media group.

While analysts are reluctant to describe Reliance's owner Mukesh Ambani as India's Rupert Murdoch, they point to the threat posed to media integrity by the "corporatisation" of journalism in a country where diversity is crucial to democracy.

Abhinandan Sekhri, the co-owner of the website Newslaundry, which scrutinises the media, said prime-time debates on news channels help to shape government policies - and Reliance was perceived by many to be a key beneficiary of flawed governance in India.

"If they are taking over one of the important voices in the news space, it will certainly lead to alarm over independence of the news media," he said.

Fear of interference

Last week, Reliance announced that it was taking over Network 18 Media and Investments, a media group that includes several television channels, including CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN and CNN Awaz as well as online news websites.

A media landscape made up of hundreds of news outlets operating in English, Hindi and regional languages has hitherto minimised the risk posed by monopolies, but concern is growing about the consequences for journalism of corporate ownership.

Listening Post - Indian media: Choosing sides?

Analysts and journalists voice fears about the consequences of large conglomerates controlling media outlets without effective safeguards to protect editorial decisions from interference.

The risk of interference is considered to be greater with a diversified group like Reliance - which has interests ranging from petrol to telecoms - where the media business is only one element of its vast empire, or in a family-run newspapers, when personal reputations are on the line.

"Nobody can have an effective monopoly in a country with so much media," said Sevanti Ninan, a founder-editor of The Hoot, an organisation created to safeguard media independence in India. "It is just a threat to the media's credibility."

Ninan said there was a risk that a news outlet in such a group would constantly be called upon to report developments that affect its owners - giving rise to a conflict of interest.

"It happened with the gas-pricing issue, and then again with the allegations levelled against Mukesh Ambani by the Aam Aadmi Party [about its financial practices]," she said. Reliance denied the allegations, which were reported by CNN-IBN and CNBC-TV18 among other news organisations.

Reliance did not respond to a request for comment by Al Jazeera about its takeover and Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, said that he did not wish to comment at this time.

The Reliance takeover is also a consequence of a difficult economic climate facing India's media, with corporations likely to acquire more outlets facing financial difficulties.

It was widely reported in 2012, for example, that Ambani had loaned Network 18 founder Raghav Bahl 1,700 crore rupees ($290m) to help rescue the network.

Independent media consultant Vivian Fernandez, who has worked with CNN IBN, wrote in The Hoot that the entrepreneur-driven network is being taken over by Reliance because Bahl could not repay.

Reputation

While corporations are looked at suspiciously, trust and credibility often boils down to the reputation of the boss - and Ambani's reputation took a beating in 2010 when he was named in a scandal involving Nira Radia, a corporate lobbyist.

In one conversation, taped by investigators, Ranjan Bhattacharya, the son-in-law of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, tells Radia that Ambani referred to the then ruling Congress Party as his "shop".

Some analysts say it is natural for corporate bosses to exercise control over editorial policy - but editors had to be capable of absorbing these pressures.

Manu Joseph, who recently resigned as the editor of Open, a weekly magazine run by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, said that describing corporate managers as villains is "facile" and suggested that a "constructive tension" should exist between the managers and editors.

"What often defeats the moral stand of the editorial [staff] is that the owners feel journalists, too, have vested interests and not everything they do is devoid of bias - so why not institutionalise these prejudices?" he said.

Journalists in India have been unsettled by the departure in recent months of prominent editors such as Hartosh Singh Bal, Open's political editor, who was fired. Siddharth Varadarajan was replaced as editor of The Hindu, when its family owners took editorial charge.

Social role

Concerns about the "corporatisation" of the Indian media have been fuelled by awareness of the unprecedented impact it is having on a rapidly changing society.

Over the past few years, the media has exposed corruption and driven growing public outrage at sexual violence against women. Rapes, once buried in the remote villages where they took place, are now routinely reported by 24-hour news channels.

Some analysts insist that the Reliance takover will not make a dramatic difference to media autonomy, and Tavleen Singh, a newspaper columnist, described it as a "non-story".

Another columnist, Harish Khare, an adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, said large corporations "already have a very significant leverage" in the media.

"It isn't necessary to take over a media company to exert influence," he said.

Analysts also point out that while corporate owners have mostly remained behind the scenes, in this case news viewers and readers are aware of the Reliance takeover.

Some propose that all news outlets should display the names of their owners and beneficiaries, introducing safeguards such as ownership and cross-ownership laws, or the creation of an independent regulator with statutory powers to deal with complaints.

The Editors Guild of India and the News Broadcasters Association, both industry bodies, issue best practice guidelines and occasionally raise the concerns of journalists.

Fernandez said a prevailing "pack mentality" among Indian media providers lowers standards and weakens independence, and proposed they adopt a more "dog-eat-dog attitude" and criticise each other by name - a practice common in the United States.

For some journalists, however, spaces in which to practise quality journalism are already shrinking.

Aniruddha Bahal, who founded an investigative journalism website called Cobra Post in 2005, said India lacked independent news outlets of the kind that proliferate in the US.

"A democracy needs many more outlets to handle the monopoly we are headed towards, and these institutions take time to build," he said.

But influencing public opinion, says Fernandez, remains more difficult in "India's diverse society than the United States, which is more homogenous".

Follow Betwa Sharma on Twitter: @betwasharma

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Al Jazeera
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