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The World’s Biggest Banana Republic

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Shobhan Saxena

A couple of days ago, a Scottish delegate got a shock of his life when he saw a dog shitting on a bed inside a ‘swanky’ apartment at the Commonwealth Games village in Delhi. The Scotsman clicked a photo of the dog, and now the picture is part of the evidence submitted by the Scottish delegation to the Organising Committee to prove that the multi-million dollar village is not “fit for human habitation”. In the past few days, foreign TV crews and photographers have been busy chasing and clicking photos of dogs – peeing and shitting in the apartments, running on practice tracks, jumping into swimming pools and sleeping under the police cars and other vehicles parked at Games sites and venues. The foreigners are horrified – and scared to death – by the sight of street dogs running wild in the “sanitized areas”. For them, it’s a sign that India is not ready for the Games and the infrastructure here is not “world class”.

Now, there is no doubt that India’s carefully created, and airbrushed, image of an ’emerging superpower’ and the ‘second-fastest growing economy’ in the world rots in the piles of rubbish. The myth of ‘India Shining’ (BJP’s slogan) and ‘India Rising’ (the Congress’ slogan) has been busted. We have proved to the world – and to ourselves as well – that we are a third world banana republic which is sinking into a bottomless pit.

I am not worried about the mismanagement at the Games sites. We shouldn’t have organized the Games at all. The country which in 63 years of independence hasn’t been able to provide proper living houses, clean drinking water, uninterrupted electricity, fulltime jobs, healthy food, clean air and free education to all its citizens despite spending trillions of dollars, how did you expect the same country to pull off an international sporting event without it sinking into the slime and grime of corruption and bad governance.

I am not justifying corruption, but it’s a fact that graft is part and parcel of capitalism, though the level differs from country to country. This has been proved by western politicians and Wall Street bankers in the past couple of years. In the US, the bankers and financial giants robbed the American people, mostly the middle and working-class, clean and then declared themselves bankrupt, and they were bailed out by the American government with public money. This was the world’s biggest daylight robbery. And no one, except Michael Moore, raised the red flag.

In the US, this brazen act of corruption made thousands of houses go under water and millions became jobless, but in India something more sinister and dark has been happening in the garb of the Games. In the past two years or so, the governments of this country and this city have launched a full-scale war on the poor. Millions of poor people from the country’s dustbowls have been brought here to work at the Games’ construction sites. They have been slogging day and night at the venues and living like animals under plastic sheets, sleeping on wet ground and eating filthy food. That food is just about enough to keep their body and soul together so that they can build the glass and chrome buildings and showcase India Shining to the world.

In 21st century India, the street dogs are luckier than the poor. The dogs make news for shitting on expensive beds and the poor workers go to snake-infested swamps to take a leak at night, get bitten and die and not a soul is stirred.

On one hand the government has brought these people from poverty-ravaged villages to work on its corruption-tainted buildings, and on the other hand lakhs of hard-working but poor people have been thrown out of the city so that the foreigners coming here for the Games do not see the ugly, dirty side of India. Thousands of people living in Yamuna Pushta area were plucked from their houses and dumped on a wasteland in Haryana. Beggars were packed off earlier. Now, the police are scanning the slums of Delhi and Gurgaon and people are being forced to board trains back to their villages. These people have been living and working here for years and suddenly they have been asked to leave. The government doesn’t want any filth in the city during the Games. It’s putting bamboo screens in front of the slums.

But, now the filth is out in the open. The mismanagement and corruption has been exposed by the photos of dirty, filthy and unhygienic apartments at the Games village. And guess who gets blamed for it. Not the politicians or babus or contractors but the poor workers at the site. And when 27 workers got injured on Wednesday, when the footbridge near the JL Nehru stadium collapsed, they were herded like animals into private vehicles and dumped at a sarkari hospital. No ambulance for them, no post-recovery package for them. Just Rs 50,000 in damages for broken legs, cracked heads and damaged spinal chords.

And, to hide the accident near the Nehru stadium, the area was cordoned off and cops in full riot gear were stationed so that ordinary people and media and foreigners can’t get anywhere near the site and see one more horrendous accident. Suddenly, the government has one solution for every problem across the country: post heavily-armed police and paramilitary men at the scene of a “disturbance” and give them license to shoot at will. It happens everyday in Srinagar. It’s happening everyday in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. It’s happening in the villages of West Bengal. It’s happening in the villages of UP. Now, with Ayodhya verdict round the corner, the temple town is being turned into a fortress with men in khaki swarming over it.

These are symptoms of a failed state. We are catching up with Pakistan. We make tall claims about growth, but we treat out poor worse than animals. We aspire to be world power, but we can’t even provide drinking water to all our citizens. We claim to be world’s biggest democracy, but we ‘solve’ all our social and political problems with loaded guns in hand. It’s time we accepted that we are a banana republic and we are going to the dogs.

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Geo telecasts disrupted despite SC order

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KARACHI: Cable operators blocked the transmission of Pakistan’s favourite entertainment channel, Geo TV, on Sunday night due to which the organisation suffered a loss of crores of rupees.

Geo spokesman said different tactics were used at different places. Sometimes the picture was frozen and sometimes the voice was muted. Sometimes telecasts were closed and then opened again and again.

The viewers of Geo Entertainment channel were also annoyed with the situation and complained about the blockage of the channel on phone to the Geo TV offices.

It merits mentioning here that a few days ago, cable operators in Karachi were pressurised to block the transmission of Geo TV. Even after restoration of the Geo transmission, the channel has been set at last numbers due to which the viewers are facing difficulties.

A spokesman for Geo TV said Geo is the largest and most viewed channel of the country, which should be set on the first numbers in any circumstances. “It is a rule throughout the world that channels viewed most are set at the first numbers,” said the spokesman.

In this regard, the Supreme Court was told during the hearing of a petition filed by Geo viewers that cable operators have set Geo on last numbers under government pressure and till the case is decided Geo be kept on numbers where it was set previously.

The court directed Pemra to order cable operators to keep Geo at numbers where it was set previously and which it deserved. Geo spokesman said according to Pemra laws, basic channels are kept at the first 20 numbers and Geo is included in them.

For years, Geo has been telecast at initial numbers. Quoting sources, Geo spokesman said that all this is being done at the government’s behest and cable operators have been asked to close Geo and harass it to such an extent that they relent because in October and November, important judicial verdicts are to be announced.

The spokesman said Honey World cable operator is among those who blocked the Geo Entertainment transmission, while in Bahawalpur there is Al-Noor Cable. In Multan, Sky Vision covers Bosan road, Zakariya town, Shalimar colony, Gul Gusht and Smeejaabad, while Solo Digital Cable Operator, owned by Muhammad Tahir Chaudhry, who is a loop holder of World Call and licence holder with the name of Solo Digital Cable and has taken Sony Sky Vision loop nowadays, covers Wilayatabad and Shah Rukn Alam areas. Rawalpindi’s Unicom Cable covers Saddar, Tank Bata, Cantt, Airport road, Sadiqabad and Chandni Chowk; Pasban Cable covers Chaklala Scheme I, II, III, Afshan Colony and Gulzar-e-Quaid. Rahimyar Khan’s City Sky Cable runs only one cable in Sadiqabad; Karachi’s MPC Cable covers Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Gulistan-e-Jauhar and some areas of Federal B Area; KCS Cable covers North Nazimabad, North Karachi and Nazimabad, where World Call has jammed the signals.

In Quetta, Combined Cable covers Saryab road, College road, Alamdar road and some areas of Cantt. It is opened 100 % in Lahore.

Geo spokesman said that cable operators have also been told that if they did not cooperate, the government would immediately receive the dues which they (cable operators) have to pay to Pemra and action would be taken against them for telecasting foreign and Indian channels. Geo spokesman said that cable operators must abide by the law and perform their responsibilities while remaining in the legal framework and they should not annoy the people, as the people want to watch Geo TV. The spokesman asked them that they must avoid causing crores of rupees loss to the organisation by such an act and all the matters must be run in line with the law.

A Geo spokesman said when it was known on Sunday evening that Geo TV was being blocked, the Pemra chairman was informed about the whole situation forthwith and he was also given the details as to who was doing this.

He said that the Geo administration would move the court today (Monday) and the cable operators who closed the Geo transmission and the Pemra would be sued for damages. The Geo spokesman requested the people to come forward and provide proof to the court if someone had any because the court would require proof regarding the closure of Geo. The people might contact on the telephone numbers given in the advertisements in Monday’s editions of Jang and The News. They should inform the administration of Geo Network where the Geo transmissions had been closed so that the administration might tell the court that there were complaints from the people, which might be presented in the court as proof because the cable operators and Pemra officials denied the facts.

A Geo spokesman said that getting information is the right of the people for which Geo was making efforts. The Geo spokesman said that the associations of the print and electronic media from across the country contacted them and the associations would convene a meeting within two days in which the journalists from Jang, Geo as well as from other institutions would participate and the future line of action would be decided.

The Geo spokesman said, “how long will we endure torture for advocating rule of law in the country? The Supreme Court should take suo motu notice of the unending excesses being committed against us at the behest of the government.” He said, “We have given tremendous sacrifices for the rule of law in the country.” He said the previous government had inflicted a huge financial loss on Geo and the present government continued this policy of forcing a financial crunch on the channel. Billions of rupees losses have been inflicted on Geo.

The spokesman said that they intend to again approach the Supreme Court and also file criminal cases against cable operators and the government.The spokesman asked politicians, media associations, civil society and other public representatives to come out and play their role.

HEC chief ‘unwilling’ to continue in office

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ISLAMABAD: Higher Education Commission chairman Javed Leghari on Tuesday met President Asif Ali Zardari and updated him on the fake degree issue, sources in the Presidency told Dawn.


Javed Laghari had called on PM Gilani at Prime Minister’s House on Monday and presented him the report.-Photo by Online

No official press release was issued because it was said to be a one-on-one meeting for which media coverage was not allowed.

Like other events from which the Presidency tried to keep media away, the meeting between the president and the HEC chief took place inside the president’s residence.

Insiders said Mr Leghari presented a report on fake degrees and the names of politicians whose cases might be sent to the Election Commission for further action.

The HEC chairman had called on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Prime Minister’s House on Monday and presented him the report.

It has been learnt that the HEC chief has expressed his inability to work for the commission because of reported pressures and threats he had been receiving since he had started scrutiny of education degrees of lawmakers on a Supreme Court order.

However, President Zardari asked him to continue for some time because his resignation would generate a new controversy and ultimately the government would be blamed for it.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said he could not comment because it was a one-to-one meeting.

Meanwhile, a leader of Pakistan Muslim League-N, Abid Sher Ali, told a private TV channel that the HEC chairman was being harassed by Sindh Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza to keep the issue under wraps.

Pakistan’s maturing democracy

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Michael Meyer-Resende and Hannah Roberts

Despite its violent, dysfunctional image, recent reforms have restored key features of the country’s founding constitution

Pakistan is widely portrayed as the perennial dysfunctional country, where weak elected governments are inevitably overthrown by a powerful army. The violence of recent years has strengthened the perception of a failing state, obscuring a more encouraging trend: the maturing of Pakistani democracy, demonstrated in parliament’s adoption of far-reaching constitutional reforms.

While the continuing violence poses a threat to Pakistan’s development, there is also a risk that prophecies of a military takeover fulfil themselves, particularly in a context where the west badly needs Pakistan’s army for its Afghanistan strategy.

A comparison with Afghanistan illustrates the significance of Pakistan’s reforms: President Hamid Karzai is trying to take control of the appointment of the electoral complaints commissioners, whose integrity was instrumental in curtailing the widespread fraud that marred his re-election last year.

In Pakistan, the recent constitutional reforms reduce the president’s discretion to appoint election commissioners by giving the opposition a voice in this process.

However, the reforms go far beyond the issue of elections, restoring key features of the original constitution of 1973, adopted after the secession of East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh. The constitution foresaw a parliamentary system of government and significant competencies for the four provinces, but soon power shifted to the president, a trend that became even more marked under the periods of military rule byMuhammad Zia-Ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.

The reform, known as the 18th amendment, moves powers from the president to the prime minister and parliament, and from the federal level to the provinces. The president can no longer dissolve parliament at will, but only in specific, narrowly defined circumstances. The provinces will be exclusively in charge of a wide range of tasks, including social legislation, family law and criminal law. In signing the amendment,President Asif Ali Zadari will lose much of his authority, though he will remain extremely influential as co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples party.

Beyond the outcome, the constitutional reform is the result of an impressive process. In contrast to the fractious and poisonous relationships between political parties in the past, over the past 10 months all parliamentary parties negotiated the reform in 77 sessions of a parliamentary committee, ably steered by senator Raza Rabbani.

Dissent on various issues was recorded, but all members of the committee reached agreement in the overall interest of reform. Before final signature by the president, the amendments were approved unanimously by parties in both the lower and upper houses of the parliament.

In recent years, democracy has also flourished in other ways: the media has become much more free and courageous, the courts have asserted their independence and the 2008 elections saw a peaceful transfer of power. All three factors were instrumental in the overthrow of the Musharraf regime.

Granted, some of the constitutional changes are controversial and public life is chaotic, with political rhetoric that is often vitriolic and irresponsible. Yet, it is also vibrant and pluralistic, and a sense of public accountability is starting to grow.

Big challenges lie ahead for Pakistan’s politicians. Most importantly, the constitutional amendments need to be implemented. The four provinces need to develop significant capacity to take on additional powers. The federal parliament also needs to adopt electoral reforms to provide a credible and transparent framework for the next parliamentary elections, due in 2013. This is vital, since amendment of the electoral laws in line with international standards would not only enhance confidence in elections, but also reduce the potential for violence and instability.

Election reform would be the logical next step in fixing the political framework. Pakistan is making its third attempt at democracy in 63 tumultuous years since independence.

Focused on Afghanistan, the west supported the military rules of Zia-Ul-Haq and Musharraf, both of whom relied on fundamentalist Islamic parties to sustain their power. These mistakes should not be repeated a third time. Those who think that democracy support does not make good realpolitik should remember that in free elections, Pakistanis have overwhelmingly voted for centrist political parties. Pakistan needs all possible support to make the democratic system work.

• Michael Meyer-Resende and Hannah Roberts work for Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based organisation supporting political participation, with a programme underway in Pakistan. Roberts was the deputy chief observer of the EU Election Observation Mission to the 2008 elections in Pakistan

Light us up, please!

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By:Farrukh Khan Pitafi

Politicians sitting together in airconditioned rooms and mulling over the proposals submitted by WAPDA bureaucrats can hardly solve anything. If it at all could, it would have helped solve quite a lot already

Moving back to Islamabad has proved to be quite an experience. The city has grown more expensive by the day, not that it was more affordable in the past. But the most remarkable thing about it is the developmental change. Underpasses and flyovers have been built, which were only being thought of when I left. And I did not leave decades ago. Things have been built in not more than three and a half years. Another interesting feature of the city is the compartments in which it has been divided; most galling of all, of course, is the red zone. The name sounds as if we are living in Iraq.

It would not be indulging in hearsay to state that the city has stayed divided for quite some time, even if not for the sake of security. We used to say that between Sector G and F exists an invisible Durand Line, which keeps the have-nots away from the haves. But now something quite different is happening. The haves have been interned in a prison of their own devices. Fear, the mother of all compromises, has done it again.

And this is the place where the 17th Amendment was passed and has now been superseded by the 18th. This is the place where the current chief justice was deposed by a dictator who called himself the most democratic one. It was, of course, somewhere nearby that Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and decades ago her father hanged by her own country’s army upon the orders of its apex court. Now this city is swarming with the political leadership of the country to mull over the solution for our electricity disaster. At least the leaders sound committed today. But is there any real solution in the offing? I do not doubt that the issue of the electricity shortage, consequently the power outages, is a political problem too. I will come to the political part later. But primarily it is a technical matter. Only a committee comprising true professionals can do justice to it. All that the politicians can do is issue accurate data on the state of affairs concerning the electricity issue. The circular debt, the actual shortfall, the real installed capacity, the major bottlenecks, the best options available and the impact of international inflationary pressures and IMF terms on power generation, all can be published on the internet and in the papers within a day or two.

Once that is done, a convention can be called of all of the country’s leading electrical, nuclear and other relevant engineers. For even better measure, leading economists can be called in too. All can sit together to develop a set of proposals that the politicians can later implement. Otherwise, politicians sitting together in airconditioned rooms and mulling over the proposals submitted by WAPDA bureaucrats can hardly solve anything. If it at all could, it would have helped solve quite a lot already.

I know a lot is being said about conservation. We are told not to marry after dark, not to keep our shops open after that and make Saturdays a holiday as well. But with due respect, these are quite foolish suggestions. The only hope of a failing economy’s recovery lies in generating ample economic activity and, in a country where manufacturing industry has hardly ever flourished, functions like weddings and small businesses like shops are generating the actual activity. And now you want to shut them down. Actual conservation can come through putting an end to line losses and power theft. Why will people not steal electricity when wires hang naked on poles in front of their houses? In decent parts of the world, most of the cables are buried underground. It is an open fact that the country’s power authorities have failed miserably to modernise the power distribution system. No matter how much additional electricity you produce, it is bound to be lost in the labyrinth of this sordid system. The actual solution lies somewhere else. Why has WAPDA not improved its distribution system? Because there is no competition! How can we bring about change? By introducing competition, plain and simple. And it should not be an artificial competition. In Karachi, they did privatise KESC but still there is no competitor in terms of distribution.

Private, competing distributors certainly will initially sell electricity at more expensive rates and only the richer part of the population will buy it from them. But this will still lift pressure from the public sector, helping it to reach out to the underprivileged segments of society and perhaps also revamp its own distribution system.

Now comes the political bit. It is good that, finally, the politicians are at least showing active interest in solving this problem. Mian Shahbaz Sharif has even presented a nine-point paper on this. Many of these points are good, some brilliant. But, as I have said earlier, this country produces a good number of world-class technocrats per annum. It is time to consult them.

The prime minister should also be complimented for bringing all provincial heads and influential politicians to one table. This show of solidarity is impressive. But have you wondered why it took our politicians two years to sit together on this very critical issue? Because the country’s political culture was lacking consensus. Thanks to the 18th Amendment there is some consensus now. The government and other influentials need to work on it further.

Pakistan needs to renegotiate its terms of reference with Pakistan. This was a proposal that was actually presented by Mian Nawaz Sharif. His party boasts of a man of experience who could help in this situation because he has stayed free of Pervez Musharraf’s corroding shadows. I am talking about, as you must have guessed, Ishaq Dar. While everyone is complimenting Raza Rabbani, a man I have respected regardless of the 18th Amendment, we often forget the contribution of Ishaq Dar. The amendment would not have been possible without his contribution either. He is important also because he tailored the current term’s first budget. The PML-N needs to come back to the cabinet and we all need to convince it to do so. You will see a marked difference immediately, for democratic consensus and synergy is an absolute sine qua non. The Islamabad I knew could at least accomplish this much.

The writer is an independent columnist and a talk show host. He can be reached at farrukh.khan@pitafi.com

Written by rohitkumarsviews

April 22, 2010 at 7:56 am

Paid News: A Cancer in Indian Media

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By Nava Thakuria

Indian people, election commission, parliamentarians, media watchdog and even the media persons have finally woken up to the menace of ‘paid news’ culture in the mainstream media. The practice that involves money in acquiring unethically media space by the beneficiaries remained an important issue in India for many years. But lately a number of influential media persons’ organisations have shown their concern with the ill practice of journalism in the country. Then it was picked up by the Press Council of India, the Election Commission of India and the upper house of Indian parliament.

The practice of offering envelopes to reporters remained visible across Asian media and especially India and China for decades. But lately the practice appears to be becoming institutionalized, not by poverty-stricken reporters but by the publishers themselves.

It is alleged that many media houses in India irrespective of their volume of business have started selling news space after some understandings with the politicians and corporate people without disguising those items as advertisements.

First it was a meet of South Asia Free Media Association (India chapter) in Mumbai during the first week of December, where the issue of paid news was officially discussed with serious concern.

Then came the annual general meeting of the Editors’ Guild of India during the fourth week of December, where most of the members expressed concern at the growing tendency of a section of media groups (both print and visual) to receive money for some ‘non-advertorial’ items in their media space.

Condemning the unethical media practice, the guild even appealed all its member-editors to stand against the paid news. The editors’ forum sent a letter to all of them asking for pledges that his/her ‘publication/TV channel will not carry any paid news’ as the practice ‘violates and undermines the principles of free and fair journalism’.

The letter, signed by Rajdeep Sardesai and Coomi Kapoor, president and secretary general of the Guild respectively, expressed hope that ‘the entire journalist fraternity would come together on this issue’ and defend their credibility with public declarations on the subject in order to restore public trust.

Indian media has been recognised as sensitive, patriotic and very much influential tool in the socio-political sphere since the days of freedom movement. The father of Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi initiated his movement with the moral power of active journalism. Today, India with its billion population supports nearly 70,000 registered newspapers and over 450 Television channels (including some 24×7 news channels). The Indian media, as a whole, often plays the role of constructive opposition in the Parliament as well as in various Legislative Assemblies of the State. Journalists are, by and large, honoured and accepted as the moral guide in the Indian society. While the newspapers in Europe and America are losing their readership annually, the Indian print media is still going stronger with huge circulation figure and market avenues. For the democratic India, the media continues to be acclaimed as the fourth important pillar after judiciary, parliament and bureaucratic set-up.

But unfortunately a cancer in the form of paid news has been diagnosed with the Indian media in the recent past. Millions of rupees have been reportedly been paid to media houses.

Some veteran editor-journalists like Prabhash Joshi, the founding editor of the Hindi daily Jansatta, who died in November, and BG Verghese, previously the editor of both the Hindustan Times and Indian Express, warned the Press Council of India that paid news has already turned into a full-blown scandal.

It is worth mentioning that the Mumbai SAFMA meeting had serious discussion and concern on the recent trend of commercialisation of mainstream media, and degradation of media ethics and practices in the country. All the speakers in the meeting of SAFMA (which is recognized by the SAARC), were unanimous that media in the entire region must come forward in a transparent way with maintaining public trust.

Addressing the audience, eminent journalist and the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, P Sainath disclosed that that the corporatisation of the media world had simply threatened the existence of free media.

“Newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout,” P Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, warned another media group. It was Sainath who raised the issue of paid news through his regular columns in The Hindu, urging the press council and election commission to take appropriate action.

“The proprietors now grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of their ‘friendly politicians’ in the newspapers,” Sainath warned in his speech. “Furthermore, to entertain their growing demands, many media groups have even gone for arranging extra space (during election periods). Let’s finish the culture of paid news, otherwise it will finish us in the coming days.”

An official statement of the SAFMA meet, which was attended by many distinguished editor-journalists of India including K K Katyal, Satich Jacob, Kumar Ketkar (editor of Loksatta), Om Thanvi (editor of Jansatta), Vinod Sharma (political editor of Hindustan Times) etc, expressed serious concern at the growing trend of selling news space.

“Recent assembly elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere revealed the spread of the pernicious practice of accepting money for giving editorial space to contestants. In fact, this evil had been perpetrated by institutionalising it,” according to a statement by the South Asian Free Media Association.

Meanwhile, the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body, has decided to investigate, establishing a separate committee to examine violations of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting. The press council Chairman GN Ray, a retired justice, acknowledged that a section of Indian media had ‘indulged in monetary deals with some politicians and candidates by publishing their views as news items and bringing out negative news items against rival candidates’ during the last elections.’
The committee has already discussed the issue with the representatives from Indian Newspapers Society, Indian Language Newspapers Association with other stakeholders.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an eminent media critic and also the member of the press council investigative team said in an interview that the committee had received many complains from the journalists that a large number of newspapers and television channels (in various languages) had been receiving money to provide news space (and even editorials) for the benefit of politicians.

Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, Guha Thakurta claims that the paid news culture has finally violated the guidelines of the Election Commission (of India), which makes restriction in the expenditure of a candidate (for any Legislative Assembly or Parliamentary elections).

“Amazingly, we have found that some newspapers even prepared rate cards for the candidates in the last few elections. There are different rates for positive news coverage, interviews, editorials and also putting out damaging reports against the opponents,” Guha Thakurta asserted.
The Indian Election Commission recently asked the Press Council of India ‘to define what constitutes paid political news’, so it can adopt appropriate guidelines. During a December meeting, the elections body also directed the press council to ‘formulate guidelines to the media house’ to require that the money involved be incorporated in the political party and candidate expenditures.

Lately, the Guild had submitted a memorandum to the election commission expressing its grave concern over the paid news phenomenon. A delegation from the Guild, led by its president Rajdeep Sardesai met the election commission on January 22 and urged the chief election commissioner Navin Chawla to ‘take strong action against both candidates and media persons who violate the disclosure norms of election expenditure in regard to media publicity.’

Rajdeep Sardesai, the editor’s guild president and also the chief editor of the CNN-IBN television news channel, speaking to this writer, said that the Guild was ‘deeply shocked and seriously concerned at the increasing number of reports detailing the pernicious practice of publishing paid news by some newspapers and television channels, especially during the recent elections’.

“We strongly believe that the practice of putting out advertising as news is a grave journalistic malpractice. Moreover the trend threatens the foundation of journalism by eroding public faith in the credibility and impartiality of news reporting. It also vitiated the poll process and prevented a fair election, since richer candidates who could pay for their publicity had a clear advantage,” Sardesai added.

While admitting the right of news media to go for advertisements in various occasions, Sardesai insisted that the ‘media houses should distinguish the advertisements with full and proper disclosure norms, so that no reader and viewer is tricked by any subterfuge of advertisements published and broadcast in the same format, language and style of news’.
The Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists and the Network of Women in Media, India had also expressed concern over the issue.

Condemning the practice, NWMI, the forum of women media professionals, stated in a recent release, “We strongly believe that the present crisis in the media, of which paid news is a grim symptom, requires urgent, serious intervention by media professionals working together to safeguard the principles and values of journalism and the credibility of the news media, which are both critical factors for the effective functioning of our democracy.”

Lately, the Rajya Sabha witnessed a debate on the culture of paid news. Responding the questions of MPs, India´s Information & Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni admitted that the practice is ´a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press´.

“The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people. However, when paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion. Thus, there is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect the public’s right to correct and unbiased information,” Ms Soni added.

The opposition leader Arun Jaitley (Bharatiya Janata Party) earlier arued that the practice of paid news should be perceived as a trade or business with an unlawful purpose as it has nothing to do with the freedom of speech. Jaitley, who is also a senior advocate, insisted that a regulator should be set up with judicial authority (with power to impose deterrent penalties) to which all such complaints can be referred.

The readers or the viewers have the right to honest, unadulterated news, which is being denied to them. They are not even being informed that the news is motivated by monetary considerations, he added.

Jaitley went on saying that the paid news interdicts the process of free and fair elections as it violates the limits set out by the election commission for expenditure (by a candidate) in the polls. It also reflects the violation of income tax laws, he asserted.

Speaking to this writer, Hiten Mahanta, a Guwahati-based media observer claims that many regional newspapers in Northeast India in effect sell favourable reporting for extra income.

“You can find a number of examples in Guwahati, where the proprietors of the media houses had misused the media space for their individual benefits. It is amazing how some newspapers (and also news channels) change their point of views towards a politician or party suddenly after getting money (in cash or kinds),” Mahanta said.

There are specific allegations that many journalists in Guwahati, who are among the lowest paid in India with starting salaries as little as US$50 a month, enjoy regular payments like monthly lump sum compensation from politicians in power. Licenses for wine shops are offered to reporters (and accepted happily by many) with the inherent understanding that they only write positive stories and if possible, kill negative reports against their politician-financers.

However, the newspapers of Assam still maintain ethical values in respect of editorial space, as those are not being utilized visibly for earning extra hard cash till now, observers say.

But how long it will continue that remains a bigger question