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'Managing' India's media

Between the economic downturn and an impending election, journalists in India are finding themselves rather vulnerable.

Last updated: 22 Nov 2013 09:03
Sevanti Ninan

Sevanti Ninan edits the Indian media watch website thehoot.org and and is a columnist for the business newspaper, Mint.
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Critics say that with Indian general elections approaching, self-censorship is coming into play [Getty Images]

Between the economic downturn and an impending election, journalists in India are finding themselves rather vulnerable.

There have been job losses almost every month since last June, both routine and high-profile ones.

Publications have abruptly shut shop, and stories concerning high profile media owners tend not to see the light of day. The country is becoming an object lesson in how a high decibel media presence masks both growing professional insecurity and increasing self-censorship.

Last week Hartosh Bal, the political editor of the weekly magazine Open found himself sacked. He said it wasn't exactly a bolt from the blue, he had been anticipating the move for at least a month and a half.

He said his editor Manu Joseph had told him that the industrialist Sanjiv Goenka who owns the company that publishes Open had been saying "because of Hartosh, I am making a lot of enemies...political enemies".

Bal has described to the handful of web publications that have taken note of the sacking the suggestions that have been made to him in recent weeks to restrict his commentary on political developments, as well as the negotiations over the compensation he could expect if he "left quietly".

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Last month another more high profile editorial departure made news, that of Siddharth Varadarajan who was the editor of The Hindu, one of the three top circulated English newspapers in the country. The circumstances were different, yet connected.

Varadarajan had completed barely 20 months as the first non-family editor of the 135-year-old newspaper. He was made editor in May 2011 but took charge of the paper in early 2012 when the chief editor N Ram retired.

His induction had been masterminded by Ram and announced as part of a bid to make both the editorial and management leadership of a newspaper that has always been run by the family that owns it more professional.

The experiment proved short-lived. At a board meeting on October 21, 2013 family members tied over a proposal by Ram to re-designate the editor and the CEO so that they would no longer be in charge.

Then as chairman of the board meeting he exercised a casting vote to enable the proposal to be adopted. Varadarajan who until then had been functioning independently as editor, was re-designated contributing editor and senior columnist, while the positions of editor and chief editor went to family members who had been running the paper as professionals before Varadarajan became editor. He resigned.

Testing media alignments

The connecting thread between events at The Hindu and at Open is the impending general elections in 2014. The countdown that began almost a year in advance has raised the political temperature and is already testing media alignments.

If the owners of The Hindu were uncomfortable with Varadarajan allegedly playing down the prime ministerial contender of the main opposition party, current Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and said as much, the proprietor of Open Sanjiv Goenka was uncomfortable with the political views Bal expressed.

According to the latter Goenka's family had Congress party links but he has no idea what political views the company chairman holds.Bal has been candid on television and in print about both Modi and the ruling party leader Rahul Gandhi.

Siddharth Vardarajan  was eased out last month from his position of editor at The Hindu [Getty Images]

Either way the eyebrow raising point is that political considerations seem to be impinging on decisions on editorial appointments. The general elections are being portrayed by a plethora of media as a contest between the personalities leading two principal parties, perhaps tempting both parties to make an extra effort to manage the media as part of managing the election. Interestingly, Mr Modi's camp has also been accused of "managing" social media in a big way.

The managing becomes increasingly possible because of the changing trends of ownership in India media. Both corporate and political ownership is growing, particularly of television channels.

Few countries can boast of as many news channels as India has (more than a 100 at a conservative estimate) because there are so many regional languages. Both big business and politicians would be aligned in an election year.

Self-censorship

Media self-censorship is also evident when big businessmen are being investigated. Last week there were no takers for leaked papers on a government investigation on surrogate media ownership involving India’s most powerful businessman Mukesh Ambani and a media house called NewsX.

This is a story that reporters at The Hindu were working on when Varadarajan was the editor. After his departure the paper did not publish the story. And shortly before that some sections of the media were self-censored when a leading industrialist was questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Though the focus has been on these two high-profile exits in the past two months, media job losses across the board are also increasing because the growth in media due to investments by politicians and big business is leading to a financial crunch for everyone.

The Indian economy is under pressure, media is overwhelmingly advertising-supported, and now there are too many players chasing a shrinking media pie. In July a leading magazine group, Outlook Group, shut down three franchise editions, People, Geo and Marie Claire which meant a host of media workers including three editors lost their jobs with very little notice.

In August a leading television network, Network 18, handed out pink slips to 300 plus employees, including TV anchors and senior journalists. Media companies are also laying off because they are restructuring. In January 2012 Mukesh Ambani acquired the debt of Network 18, and the August 2013 restructuring is seen as the cutting of flab in the media part of his empire by the business conglomerate.

Reporting on all these cases in the rest of the press has been very restrained. Sacking or retrenching of media personnel is usually not news for other media. Bal's exit has not been written about by leading newspapers or made it to the TV channels. India's feisty press turns reticent when called upon to report on its own.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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