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What gets left out

Earlier this week, I spoke to students at a college that had invited me for a question-andanswer session about censorship and the Indian media. Some of them were Hindustan Times readers and some of what came up might interest other readers.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 15:33 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

Earlier this week, I spoke to students at a college that had invited me for a question-andanswer session about censorship and the Indian media. Some of them were Hindustan Times readers and some of what came up might interest other readers.

Except during the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed, there has never been official government censorship in India. (And even during the Emergency, somenewspapers resisted the censorship).

But what about subtler forms, such as censorship as a result of pressure from advertisers and self-censorship?

There is no escaping the fact that as long as a newspaper gets the bulk of its revenue from advertising, there will be pressure. Once you acknowledge that, the question really is this: towhat extent does a particular newspaper withstand this pressure? Some newspapers do a better job than others.

Ironically, newspapers that are monopolies in a region ought to be able to resist pressure from corporate advertisers far more easily than if there were competing newspapers.

In a monopoly situation, advertisers have no alternatives, so the newspaper is in a better position to publish, for example, a hard-hitting exposé about a powerful company’swrongdoings, if —and this is a big if —its main aim is to serve readers.

Readers, how well do you think HT fares in this regard? Write in, write in.

Thenwhat about self-censorship? This is a slippery beast. Many a time, journalists censor themselves without even being aware of it.

A journalist forms an impression — even if it lurks deep in the sub-conscious — of what kind of story or slant to the story will be acceptable to or praised by their bosses. This impression may not even be accurate, but it lurks.

Again, once you acknowledge this, the question becomes: to what extent is the journalist willing to fight for a story that he or she believes will not give him brownie points with the boss but is a story he or she strongly believes is in the reader’s interest? This depends not only on the personality of the journalist but also on the culture of the newsroom.

I will end with one example of what I suspect was a case of self-censorship.

At the height of the controversy about Enron’s planned power project in Dabhol on the Konkan coast, I helped a foreign correspondent — a friend of a friend—meet people for a story on the subject. (I keep the details vague because the correspondent cannot provide his version of the story).

I accompaniedhimto an interviewwith an electrical engineer who had 30 years of experience consulting with power plants, andwhose calculationsmany journalists in India had used in their stories.

The engineer gave the correspondent a detailed three-hour presentation onwhy the plant was not good for Maharashtra for techno-economic reasons. “We have no problem with foreign investment,” I remember this gentleman saying. “We have a problem with expensive energy and a power purchase agreement that will bankrupt the state.” (Whichiswhat it did).

At that time, Enron was the darling of Wall Street and awhole array of Western pundits were touting its India project as a “test case” for other investors.

After the presentation, the correspondent told me the scales had fallen from his eyes.But he didn’t put any of the stuff in the article he sent to the editors. He madeno mention of any techno-economic critique of the project.

The entire slant was howIndia’s legacy of socialism and autarky had created a deep-seated fear of multinationals.

While this indeed was one current in the opposition to the project, leaving the techno-economic critique out suggested it was the only current. I got the feeling this was the only slant that his bosses wanted, so that’s what he gave them.