Whatever happened to the fearless and free Indian Press?

THE Indian media takes great pride in being independent and fearless, among the freest in the developing world. Indeed, the Press is held up as one of the mainstays of Indian democracy. But is this really so? Take the abrupt and recent sacking of one of the country’s most distinguished editors, Mubashar Jawed Akbar.

By Rahul Singh (First Person)

Published: Wed 26 Mar 2008, 8:15 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:27 PM

On March 2, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of The Asian Age was on his way to his office in New Delhi when he got an SMS on his cellphone from one of his staff members, asking him to look at the masthead of his paper. To his astonishment and dismay, he found his name was missing! When he arrived at his office he was met by an editorial staff in mourning, some of whom broke down.

Word had clearly reached them of their boss’s unceremonious ouster. MJ, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, quickly emptied his drawers, said farewell to his staff and departed.

He had launched The Asian Age almost two decades ago and made it into probably the country’s most outspoken and readable newspaper. With publication centres in several parts of the country, it boasted a daily circulation of close to one million copies, second only to The Times of India in the English-language category of papers.

Many questioned its financial viability, since it carried few advertisements. But Akbar claimed that the paper was ‘franchised’ out to various businessmen-cum-politicians, which is how it survived — and apparently thrived.

One of the franchisees was a certain Venkatram Reddy, a successful entrepreneur who owned the Deccan Chronicle, a money-spinning publication centred in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

Deccan Chronicle Holdings became a publicly listed company on the stock exchange a few years ago and its initial public offering brought in a considerable sum of money to Reddy.

This enabled him to buy out the other major franchisees of The Asian Age, so that he was able to corner 90 per cent of its shares, the remaining ten per cent being held by Akbar. Though the details have not yet been made public, it seems that Akbar also recently sold his shares to Reddy, which ultimately cleared the way for his removal.

Word has it that Akbar had seen the writing on the wall some months back.

Reddy was keen to enter politics by getting into the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. He wanted to be nominated by the Congress Party. But there was a problem: The Asian Age had been critical of the present government, the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in particular over the proposed nuclear deal with the US on which both the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have staked their prestige.

Was Reddy told that the Congress Party would support him for a Rajya Sabha seat, provided he got rid of Akbar? That is the speculation and it will be confirmed if such a scenario actually comes to pass.

For the record, Akbar is arguably the most outstanding journalist of his generation. He started as a trainee in the Times of India, moving on to its sister publication the Illustrated Weekly of India, which was then edited by Khushwant Singh, who happens to be my father. (I was the editor of Reader’s Digest at the time.)

Akbar then became the founder editor of the hugely successful Sunday magazine, brought out by the Kolkata-based Anandabazar Patrika group.

He had several political scoops to his credit. With the same group, he also started The Telegraph, a daily paper from Kolkata which soon overtook the then dominant Statesman. Following differences with the Anandabazar Patrika group owner, he started The Asian Age.

In between, he flirted with politics when Rajiv Gandhi persuaded him to stand for parliament in 1989 from Kishanganj in Bihar, his home state. To everybody’s surprise, he won.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, however, he seems to have drifted away from the Gandhi family, in particular from Rajiv’s widow, the Italian-born Sonia. So he went back to journalism and also authored a number of highly acclaimed books, including one on jihad, Shade of Swords.

Akbar is by no means the first successful editor to have been fired in humiliating circumstances. Khushwant Singh took the circulation of the Illustrated Weekly from 100,000 to over 400,000, making it a power to reckon with. He was close to Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, and supported their dictatorial ‘emergency’ rule from 1975 to 1977.

When the Congress was routed in the 1977 election, the new prime minister, Morarji Desai, sent word through his son to the owners of the Illustrated Weekly, the Jains, that he should be removed.

His contract was not renewed. But worse was to follow. Thinking that his farewell editorial would contain something damaging to them, he was sent a letter of dismissal, asking him to leave the office immediately.

The same thing happened to George Verghese, the most eminent and respected editor of an earlier generation, in the Hindustan Times and to HK Dua, when he was removed as editor of The Times of India (he is now editor of the Chandigarh-based Tribune, which is run by a trust and is one of the few truly independent papers in the country).

In the confrontation between Rajiv Gandhi and VP Singh (who later went on to defeat Rajiv and become prime minister), Prem Shankar Jha, then the editor of the Hindustan Times, decided not to take sides and to treat news stories on their merits. A clear message was sent from the Rajiv Gandhi camp to the owners of the Hindustan Times that Jha should be asked to go. He was.

Independent editors have become a rarity in India. The Times of India, which boasts of being the largest circulating English broadsheet in the world, has not had a proper editor for over a decade, with various ‘editors’ given meaningless designations and put in charge of different sections of the paper: edit page, news, sports, supplements. The owners of the Hindustan Times and The Telegraph, the biggest dailies in north and east India respectively, are the real editors of their papers.

The four Fs now rule the Indian Press — films, fashion, food and frolic. The wedding of Amitabh Bachchan’s son, the shenanigans of Sanjay Dutt and the liaisons of Saif Ali get front page treatment.

The marketing departments, not editorial, run the show, often making editorial appointments and deciding how the front page should look and what it should display.

Indian newspapers have become brands and products, not agents of change and enlightenment. This trivialisation of what is one of the main pillars of democracy should disturb all thinking Indians.

Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times. Contact him at singh.84@hotmail.com

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