issue 161 - July 1986
India's warpers of words
ON October 31, 1984 Rajiv Gandhi was touring eastern India when he first heard reports of the assassination of his mother. For corroboration he turned, not to All India Radio but to the BBC, which broadcast news of Indira Gandhi's death a full six hours before India's radio and television networks.
Nervous bureaucrats were still dithering about releasing the news until they received official clearance. The majority of India's 800 million people, relying on local sources of information, were kept in the dark.
Radio and TV in India are the fiefdom of the omnipotent Minister of Information and Broadcasting. They are run as a governmental propaganda machine in which factual reporting is subservient to State policy. Indeed the machine took a more active role directly after the assassination in screening unedited pictures which served to inflame the Hindu mobs wreaking bloody vengeance on the Sikhs.
The Sikhs in the Punjab have now taken to listening to the BBC Hindi service relayed from London. Indian news bulletins are regarded as light entertainment - perpetrating inaccuracies, half-truth and at times downright lies.
Rajiv Gandhi, when he first took on his mother's mantle (and living up to his 'realist' image) berated the State networks as mere purveyors of official handouts and obsessed with lifeless reporting centred round senior politicians - himself included. But he very quickly fell into line and has now emphatically declared that India is not yet 'ready' for an autonomous TV and radio network. This has at last finally shattered the myth, perpetuated by the three Prime Ministers who preceded him that India has independent airwaves. Big brother still needs absolute control.
TV and radio journalists openly admit to being shackled. They know that to succeed professionally and financially they have to play the disinformation game according to the prescribed rules. Newcomers with higher principles recently tried to produce a series of programmes exposing Indian bureaucracy and policymaking under the 'clean and fearless' new regime - only to have them blackballed by the Information Ministry.
A high-powered independent commission on India's electronic media was set up in 1978 and recommended autonomy much along the lines of the BBC. But this was thought to be too dangerous.
Those who can read have a wider choice of Information sources. India's thousands of privately owned magazines and newspapers offer a (comparatively) more realistic and critical account. There is little that the State can do to control news coverage directly. But it does have its ways of exerting pressure. It can, for example, dispense favours in the allocation of paper quotas (India imports 55 per cent of its newsprint) as well as being selective in the distribution of government advertising.
But self-censorship by the newspapers offers a more effective line of control. The larger papers are owned by press barons who combine business with politics and who support or oppose various political factions according to what they think they will get out of them. And the governing party is the most powerful faction of all.
This was never clearer than during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1976. During this 19-month period the press was heavily censored. In the words of one leading columnist they were required by the government to kneel. What they did, he said, was crawl. Only the Indian Express, the largest of the English language papers with a circulation of one and a half million nationwide, provided any effective opposition.
The other national dailies, rather than expose the corruption and misrule of functionaries of the ruling Congress-I Party, serve more as platforms for them. And journalists can get rapid rewards in the form of baubles lavished on them by State functionaries.
The central Government has built up such a position of media influence that It can now afford to ignore lone voices of opposition. Any stories of corruption, however well corroborated, are routinely denied and the guilty invariably rewarded. One senior official was proved to have misused his position to build a huge mansion. In February he was made Cabinet Secretary, the highest office In the Civil Service.
The Government is, however, very sensitive to what the international press thinks. In the first few weeks after the Prime Minister took office the national press had to run a bureaucratic gauntlet to be granted an interview - a privilege that was immediately granted to any foreign network, however minor. The national media can be influenced, coerced or bribed. But the foreign press is to be wooed.
More and more business houses are now investing in newspapers. And journalism in India, for so long regarded as the refuge of the loafer, is now acquiring a new status and even glamour. But in the present climate this seems to represent a hunger for power rather than for truth.
Rahul Bedi is a journalist with the Indian Express, currently in Europe on a Reuters Fellowship.