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PRECIOUS FREEDOM

Threescore and Fifteen: The Story of the Indian Newspaper Society

By Ravindra Kumar, INS, Rs 399

The history of the Indian media is a fascinating one. While the electronic media arrived late on the scene, the print media were an early comer, and their trials and successes reflect the history of this country. The Indian Newspaper Society, set up to protect the interests of the proprietors of the print media, was established in February 1939, long after the press was already a well- established presence. The seventy-five years of the Society are recalled in this book by its current president.

The press in India had its origins in 1780 and by the 19th century existed in many languages. The first Indian language paper came out in 1818 and the oldest extant paper is the Bombay Samachar that started in 1822. By the 20th century, the print media had reached nearly all parts of the country. The Indian Society was a counterpart of a Society set up in London with the same purpose in 1927, that of coordinating responses to problems arising from newspaper production. Among the 14 Indian founder members were The Hindu, Hindustan Times, The Pioneer, The Statesman, The Times of India and The Tribune. By 2013 its membership had grown to 1,000 big, medium and small publications. In the last financial year, its revenues were Rs seven crore and its assets Rs 373 crore.

This book covers the threats and challenges to the press posed by the government. These cover three main areas; wages, advertisements and newsprint supply, and in each case the government tightened the screw while appealing to the ‘patriotism’ of the press to make sacrifices. The Working Journalists Act of 1955, the same year that Nehru laid the foundation stone of the Society’s building in New Delhi, gave rise to governmental interference and friction that dog the industry to this day. INS recognizes the need for a fair wage for journalists, but the levels must be realistic and not divorced from the capacity of the industry to pay, especially in times of competition from the electronic media, inflation and the costs of modernization. Rather than allowing the matter to be settled between employer and employee, this issue was used as a device to keep the press under control.

Newsprint import was intermittently a government monopoly and the authorities saw to it that unfriendly papers were starved of supply. The Society’s energies pre-1995 were largely devoted to the quest for newsprint and newspapers resorted to blocking capital in maintaining large inventories. It was not until the Narasimha Rao economic reforms that this imported item was freed from the grasp of the authorities and placed on open general licencing.

The placement of government advertisements proved the thin end of the wedge both in terms of space and payment, the former being magnified and the latter subject to infinite delays. During the emergency of Indira Gandhi only the papers that were compliant were favoured, the others frozen out. Before and after that period, government policy was never to assist the press but to add to its financial burdens. Arbitrary low rates are imposed and publishers forced into unequal relationships. The government now proposes new legislation to replace the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867, and the draft bill gives the government sweeping powers to cancel licences. Breach of parliamentary privilege is yet another issue; it is impossible to ascertain what privileges parliamentarians actually enjoy. The mindset of the government still favours regulation by quota, rate structure and controls rather than liberalism, and it is neither practical nor possible for publishers to appeal to the courts each time the government tests the limits of authority against the freedoms of the press.

Admirers of Nehru believe he was responsible for the press freedoms of then and now, and hold that his successors lacked his vision and democratic instincts. But history suggests that neither Nehru nor any successor trusted a totally free press; the rhetoric they used was laudable but their actions were normally opposed to freedom. Albert Camus summed it up: “A free press can... be good or bad, but... without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.” In illustrating clearly, with relevant documentation, the state of the print media today, Ravindra Kumar has done a service both to INS and the Indian reading public.