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Talking of Op-Eds

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 15:36 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

What exactly is the Op-Ed page? The term ‘Op-Ed’ refers not merely to a physical location in the newspaper, namely opposite the editorial page (from which it derives its name), but also to a type of article. While the editorial or comment page represents the view of the newspaper, the articles on an Op-Ed page express the views of writers not connected to the newspaper. It is supposed to be a lively forum for debate.

If nurtured properly, the Op-Ed page can become a huge asset to a newspaper.

Although this page’s readership is usually much lower than that for the news pages, its readers are usually influential and mould opinion in their spheres of influence.

Many newspapers’ Op-Ed pages, such as that of the New York Times, have become mini-institutions.

So why did we drop such a page in June last year? After all, HT Mumbai’s Op-Ed page had gathered a small but devoted following after the newspaper’s launch in the city in mid-2005. Due to space and staffing constraints, it had to go. As newsprint prices soared and an economic slowdown shrunk advertising revenue, all newspapers cut down on the number of pages. Something had to be sacrificed to make way for news.

Will HT ever restart the page, reader Milind Kher wanted to know, seven months after it was axed. It is hard to say right now.

Although I think that having a vigorous Op-Ed page will give HT an edge, given the difficult economic climate, it’s not likely to happen very soon.

The Op-Ed page can, however, become too lively for some readers’ tastes.

According to the ANI news agency, the Kolkata police arrested both the publisher and editor of The Statesman on February 11, for printing the article, ‘Why should I respect oppressive religions?’ by Johann Hari on the Op-Ed page.

What did the article say? Reprinted from The Independent, London, on February 5, it began thus: “The right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid. Across the world, the small, incremental gains made by secularism —giving us the space to doubt and question and make up our own minds—are being beaten back by belligerent demands that we ‘respect’ religion.”

The main culprits are, according to Hari, “a coalition of Islamist tyrants, led by Saudi Arabia.”

(For the full article, see o n / c o m m e n t a t o r s / j o h a n n -hari/johann-hari-why-should-i-respectthese-oppressive-religions-1517789.html) As if to prove his point, a small Muslim group protested and demanded that the editor and publisher be arrested.

The protests turned violent and the police arrested 70 people.

Finally, someone filed a complaint against The Statesman, which led to the arrest of its editor and publisher, who were booked for indulging in a “deliberate act with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings.”

Just last week, I talked about censorship, including self-censorship.Will this incident cause The Statesman to censor itself in future? I don’t know.

The Statesman has a long and vigorous tradition of standing up to intimidation.

But here is an example of how both society (through violent protest) and the state (by arresting the editor and publisher) can test even the most independent-minded media outlets.

If HT still had an Op-Ed page, do you think it would have been fine for us to carry Hari’s article?

How do you think Mumbai would have reacted?