Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Rupert Murdoch casts his eyes on Malayalam television scene.

By B R P Bhaskar
Rupert Murdoch, who has already established a presence in the Indian media through the Hong Kong-based Star network, has cast his eyes on the growing Malayalam television scene.

Murdoch's Star India, which owns English, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Marathi channels, is negotiating with Asianet, pioneer of Malayalam satellite television, to gain controlling interest in it, according to market watchers.

There has been no word from either side on the progress of the negotiations. However, Asianet's plan to restructure its set-up is believed to be part of the preparations for a deal which will give the global major a stake in the Malayalam media.

Asianet, promoted by Shashi Kumar, who had been Gulf correspondent of The Hindu and head of Press Trust of India's television division, went on the air in 1993. It was not possible to uplink from India at the time. The channel, therefore, hired a studio in the Philippines and beamed programmes to India using a Russian satellite.

As Asianet showed financial promise, the Rahejas, who held 50% shares in a sister company, which was operating a cable network, sought a stake in it. In 1999, Shashi Kumar's uncle and co-promoter, Reji Menon, eased him out of both the companies. Reji Menon gave the cable company to the Rahejas and kept the channel company with himself.

Asianet expanded under Reji Menon's leadership. Today it operates a news channel and a youth channel, besides the wide-spectrum mother channel. Reaching out to viewers in 60 countries, it links Malayalis worldwide.

Asianet also operates radio stations in Kerala and the UAE. Its forays into Tamil and Kannada were unsuccessful.

Two years ago, a Bangalore-based Malayali businessman, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, acquired controlling interest in the channel from Reji Menon.

Under Chandrasekhar, who is a Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka and president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Asianet re-entered the Kannada market with an entertainment channel and a news channel and made plans to break into Telugu as well. Industry sources currently value its assets at Rs. 5 billion.

There are now a score of Malayalam channels competing for viewers and advertisers. The only player from outside the State is the Chennai-based Sun network, which runs an entertainment channel and a youth channel.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress party, the Catholic Church and the Hindu saint Mata Amritanandamayi are among those who promoted channels in Malayalam.

Malayalis in the Gulf States contributed substantially to the capital of three channel companies -- the CPI (M)'s Kairali, Muslim League leader MK Muneer's Indiavision and the Congress party's Jaihind.

While a Dubai-based Malayalam channel, Middle East Television, folded up quickly, there has been no fatality in Kerala so far. However, most channels are deeply in the red and kept alive by continuous infusion of capital.

Kerala, with only one percent of India's territory and three and a half percent of its population, accounts for more than 10% of the country's consumer goods sale. But the State media's share of the national advertising pie is only about four percent.

Big national and international players have steered clear of the State until now presumably because the market is not large enough to tempt them. Star India's interest stems from its desire to build a national network, which covers all major language groups. A deal with Asianet will enable it to complete coverage of the South.

Rajiv Chandrasekhar reportedly plans to reorganize his holdings in such a way that there will be separate companies for general entertainment, news, radio and infrastructure assets. If a deal with Star India materialises, it may be limited to the general entertainment business.

A network which can offer complete national coverage will have a distinct advantage over the rest as an advertising medium. So, if Star comes, can Zee be far behind? There are also other media enterprises, like the Hyderabad-based Eenadu TV, which have national ambitions.

Some global players like CNN and CNBC have already established presence at the national level. As the regional language markets grow, they may want to enter them. The struggling Malayalam channels may find their offers too tempting to refuse.

When the Times of India group acquired minority shares in the Mathrubhumi daily two decades ago, there was a furore in the State. Channel ownership does not evoke the same interest in the public as newspaper ownership.--First published: Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 7, 2008


Monday, 7 July 2008

Do Indian journalists face such dilemas?

This blog is about Media Scene In India, yet I am tempted to reproduce and document the following about a situation in The New York Times for a specific reason. I wondered if Indian journalists and their newspapers debate ethical issues in its day-to-day operations as their counterparts have done. If you know any such instance, do share with this blog:

When Principles Collide: The NYT and the CIA Interrogator

By Bob Steele (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=67
Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values

The New York Times faced a classic journalistic challenge as it approached publication of its investigation into the interrogation of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

As often happens in stories involving national security, the paper's commitment to reporting the story as fully and accurately as possible found itself in conflict with another important journalistic principle: minimizing harm to vulnerable stakeholders.

The story focused on the role of a CIA analyst who played a key role in the questioning of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. According to a Times Editors' Note, officials of the CIA and a lawyer for the analyst told the paper that identifying him would "invade his privacy and put him at risk of retaliation from terrorists or harassment from critics of the agency."

The paper said it weighed its assessment of those risks against its editors' judgment that "the name was necessary for the credibility and completeness of the article."

The Times has wrestled with the question of identification of subjects of prominent coverage at least a couple of times in recent weeks. My colleague, Kenny Irby, explored the paper's decision-making in the case of an injured baby in Zimbabwe in this Q&A with a Times photo editor.

Although the paper reached different conclusions in each case, both exemplify the essence of ethics and ethical decision-making process.

In his Sunday column, Times public editor Clark Hoyt examines the case of the CIA analyst the paper decided to identify, Deuce Martinez. Hoyt asked me for my thoughts, and the following is the gist of my e-mail response to him.

This case powerfully exemplifies the essence of ethics and ethical decision-making process. Times journalists were wrestling with several strong, competing principles:
. A duty to report accurate, precise and substantive information about a significant issue and event
. An obligation to seriously consider and weigh the consequences to a key stakeholder (Martinez) who is described as very vulnerable to harm
. A responsibility to protect journalistic independence in the face of pressure to withhold a key element (Martinez's name) from the story

While not irreconcilable, it is extremely difficult in this case to find alternative choices that honor each of those three principles. Each choice seemingly produces some good and some bad.

I would assign considerable weight to the importance of the first principle - a duty to report accurate, precise and substantive information. I do see this as a significant issue, and I'm presuming The Times' story offers new information that informs and enlightens the public. The Times makes a compelling argument in the seventh graph on the value of this story: "The story of Mr. Martinez's role...provides the closest look to date beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture..."

And there's an equally compelling justification for the story in this sentence from the 10th paragraph: "Mr. Martinez's success at building a rapport with the most ruthless of terrorists goes to the heart of the interrogation debate."

Further on, the story reports on Martinez's role as "a crucial player [that] captures the ad-hoc nature of the program. Officials acknowledge that it was cobbled together under enormous pressure in 2002 by an agency nearly devoid of expertise in detention and interrogation."

This story is powerful in its substance. That power is enhanced by the specific use of Deuce Martinez's name connecting him to the "ad-hoc" program and his surprising role (given his experience and skills) as a key interrogator in the anti-terrorism effort. He is a central character, and using his name gives readers a clear focal point. Using his name - rather than a pseudonym or just referring to him by title - also heightens reliability and validity in the reporting process. The story is more believable. Granted, the Times chose to use his nickname, Deuce, rather than his real first name, apparently to offer him some level of identity protection. But the use of his surname and nickname helps the paper achieve one of its primary objectives: bolstering the credibility of its reporting.

Based on the Editors' Note, I believe that The Times gave significant consideration to multiple requests that Martinez's name be withheld from the story. The reporter and editor had ethical obligations to seriously consider and weigh the potential consequences of identifying Martinez. The primary concern, I believe, is to his personal safety and to that of his family. Was there the potential for profound harm?

I don't believe the suggested "invasion of privacy" issue is a major concern in this situation. Nor would I give great weight to any arguments that revealing his name might have negative impact on his career or on his current employer. There might be impact in all of those areas, but any possible negative consequences related to his privacy or to his career don't appear to me to outweigh a duty to publish the story with Martinez's name included.

So, it comes down to assessing the potential safety risk to Deuce Martinez and his family if he is identified in the story.

That becomes a judgment call. Gather all the facts possible. Verify and scrutinize and make sense of those facts. Consider any missing pieces of the puzzle and how they could change things if known. Hear as many opinions as possible from diverse sources. Identify and recognize various motives of the stakeholders, including the journalists. Examine and challenge any assumptions.

Then explore various possible actions - a minimum of three alternatives is essential - and make a good decision. In this case, The Times could use his full name, use no name at all or use his surname but shield his identity at least partially by substituting his nickname for his given name and withholding family information.

My one concern is whether Times editors went far enough in seeking additional input from knowledgeable, independent individuals who could assess the potential risks to Martinez's personal safety and that of his family. I understand that they heard the views of Agency officials and Bob Bennett, the attorney representing Martinez. Obviously, those voices are connected to the story. They are not independent from the ethical issue to be resolved, whether to use Deuce Martinez's name in the story. Was it possible for the Times to find and hear from additional "independent" voices who might meaningfully assess potential risk to Martinez's personal safety or that of his family?

In the end, this case comes down to a judgment call.

Times executive editor Bill Keller and his colleagues had to make an ethical decision based on which principle deserved the greatest weight. They chose publishing an accurate, precise and substantive account of an important issue that included Deuce Martinez's name. Additionally, they honored the principle of independence through their process of including various key stakeholders in the deliberations. They were transparent and accountable in giving readers information on why and how they made their decisions. And, it appears they attempted to give some weight to the principle that lost out, the concern for potential, personal safety harm to Deuce Martinez. Times editors said they were judicious in what information they reported about him. They chose not to use his real first name, only his nickname (though it's hard to gauge what real level of protection that gave him). They did not report revealing details about his family.

Ethics is about principles and process. Well-intentioned, thoughtful people can and will disagree.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Pune Journalists react to CM's proposal on State Press Council

An important reason why several Pune journalists do not support the proposal to set up Press Council of Maharashtra (PCM) is that they believe the Press Council of India has failed in disciplining the erring journalists or those in power who try to curb the freedom of expression. What is the point in creating an additional council when we already have Press Council of India adjudicating the issues, with whatever impact it can create, they wonder. Almost every journalist feels that the recent vandalism in Thane and Pune were law and order issues that has to be dealt with by the police and the courts of law and not by a press council.

Arvind Gokhale, the deputy editor of Loksatta group of Marathi dailies, does not find any substance in the proposal. The PCI has not been able to function as an effective watchdog on the Press. How do you expect its state version to be effective? It will not be definitely useful to prevent physical violence against the press and the journalists. It is the responsibility of those who run the government to create a culture that will ensure a democratic way to express dissent through the columns of the newspapers.

Prof Arun Sadhu, who headed University of Pune's Department of Communication and Journalism, warns fellow journalists about the intentions of the state's political masters. He says: When the state plans to intervene in the functioning of the media, the media should beware. The PCI is a different thing; it's a body that came into being by an act of parliament. Its code is the only reasonable code of ethics for the press in India. There is no sense in Maharashtra government forming a different code.

The code should be self-regulatory. It is high time the media leaders realise the danger and sit together to write their own code and write rules and regulations for strict adherence of such a self-made code. In all democratic countries, the media is mostly self-regulated and self-controlled. Except India. There is ethical chaos in India, particularly after the rise of the electronic media.

Protecting journalists from attacks is a law and order issue. But when politicians launch physical attacks, it is much more serious than thugs attacking journalists. It is a threat to India's democracy and politicians should take note, Prof Sadhu insists.

Anant Bagaitkar, representing Pune's Sakal in New Delhi and a member of the PCI until recently, is very candid about the outcry in the media and in the political circles after the attacks on the house of Loksatta editor Kumar Ketkar in Thane and the office of Daily Saamana in Pune. Such things should be treated as professional hazards and journalists need not be too sensitive about these incidents.

He points out that there was a lathicharge on reporters assembled in Rashtrapati Bhavan when Chandra Sekhar was the prime minister. Journalists did protest and the prime minister tendered an apology about the police action. The Delhi Press quickly forgot the incident; nobody thought of approaching the PCI.

The British rulers dragged Lokmanya Tilak to the court for his writing in Kesari and was sentenced on charges of sedition. He could have organised protest meetings everywhere. Yet, he preferred to go to the jail, Bagaitkar reminds the peers in the press.

Anant Dikshit (Lokmat) believes that the PCM could be of some use provided it functions effectively to keep moral pressure on the concerned people. This will depend mostly on the Chairman who should not be a mere retired high court judge but should have knowledge of the functioning of the press and the ground realities in the state. Perhaps the PCM with fair-minded members nominated on the lines of the PCI will be able to provide a moral shelter to the rural journalists who function under perpetual pressures from local politicians.

He however draws attention to the rapidly changing mindset of every section of the society including the Print and Electronic Press. Masses are becoming more aware and have feelings pent up for decades against urban editors preaching from their ivory towers. It is time to ponder if these pent-up feelings turn into acts of vandalism. Journalists, more in television news channels, have been acting beyond their professional calling. Coverage of Arushi's murder case is one glaring example.

G K Patwardhan, the octogenarian veteran journalist, had years ago pursued the idea of units of the PCI on the lines of high courts in all the states. He had argued that the state councils would be in a position to hear the complaints quickly and more effectively because its members would come from the same cultural, social, and linguistic backgrounds. The then PCI chairman had, however, disagreed as he felt that different state councils were likely to give different rulings to similar cases. Patwardhan unsuccessfully tried to argue with the Chairman that it would not matter much because it would be akin to state high courts delivering different judgements on similar cases.

Mukund Sangoram (Loksatta) also believes that a PCM would be useful for the Marathi press because of his experience with the PCI. The Press Council of India expects English translation of Marathi news and features against which complaints have been filed for the benefit of its non-Marathi members.

He believes that there should be a separate judicial mechanism to speedily dispose off cases about attacks on journalists and newspaper establishments, defamation and the like. There are about four dozen cases pending in various courts which he has to attend as the Editor.

Anil Takalkar (Pudhari) also does not have happy experiences about the PCI where the interests of the Press or even of those who have grievance against journalists are served.

Dhananjay Jadhav, President of Pune Union of Working Journalists, feels that there should be a tribunal or a court to deal with the cases involving journalists.

Kishor Kulkarni (Lokmat online) generally agrees with other journalists on futility of the proposal to set up a PCM. He suggests that the journalists should use pen cautiously and with a sense of responsibility towards the society as whole. He deprecated the growing tendency of a section of the Press, which functions as a complainant, police, and also a judge at the same time. If the Press is to retain its credibility, it must shun trials by media.

Tailpiece: Just to point out how the PCI is helpless in tackling the Press: The Council is funded from the levy prescribed for various categories of newspapers. It is considered to be a statutory obligation. The PCI has powers to recover the outstanding levy as land revenue. Yet, a press note placed at the its website http://presscouncil.nic.in reveals that the Press in the country has not paid the levy totalling to Rs 337.43 lakhs in the financial year 2005-06!

(First appeared in DNA Pune Edition, July 01, 2008)

What do you say on the issue? Do you agree with the Chief Minister's proposal? Please click on the comment below and submit your views.

Vilasrao Deshmukh proposes Press Council for Maharashtra

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has recently announced that his government was contemplating to set up a Press Council for Maharashtra (PCM). His announcement comes in the wake of wide spread protests against attacks on the house of a veteran journalist in Thane and a newspaper office in Pune. It appears that the Chief Minister believes that the formation of a (PCM) will be a solution to prevent attacks on the freedom of expression, manifested by the vandalism.

Veteran journalists in Pune, by and large, seem to disagree with him. Those who feel that such a PCM will serve some purpose also have 'ifs and buts' provisos. Before we consider their views, let us first understand what the Press Council of India (PCI) does, its scope and limitations.

The PSI, first set up in the year 1966 by an act of the Parliament is a statutory, quasi-judicial body, which acts as a watchdog of the press. It adjudicates the complaints against and by the press for violation of ethics and for violation of the freedom of the press respectively.

The Press Council is headed by a Chairman, who has, by convention, been a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India. The Council consists of 28 other members of whom 20 represent the press and are nominated by the press organisations/news agencies. Five members are nominated from the two houses of Parliament and three represent cultural, literary and legal fields as nominees of the Sahitya Academy, University Grants Commission and the Bar Council of India. The members serve on the Council for a term of three years.

Thus, if a Press Council of Maharashtra has to be set up, it will be only after enactment of a law by the state legislature which can take may be a year or two. It will have to have the membership structure on the lines of the PCI if it is function as an independent body free from any pressure from politicians, bureaucracy, or even the readers.

If anyone has any grievance against a newspaper or a newspaper establishment in respect of violation of traditional code of ethics, he can file a complaint with the PCI. Similarly, the newspapers can approach the PCI to redress grievance against the governments or its agencies in respect of attempts to curb freedom of expression, even through stoppage of advertisements. The Press Council hears these complaints at its meetings held periodically in different cities in the country. These hearings take place on the lines of the proceedings in the court of law.

The PCI comes out with its recommendations to uphold or reject the complaints. Its decisions are recommendatory in nature as it may pass strictures against the newspaper/journalist or the government. It cannot go beyond passing the strictures, as it does not have punitive powers.

Precisely for this limitation, the Press Council of India is criticised as a toothless tiger. Defaulting newspapers and journalists do not bother to publish the PCI's verdicts, and the politicians and bureaucrats simply ignore its pronouncements. The situation has not changed over the years because the PCI has taken the position that the Council has to be a self-regulatory authority and not a judicial body to award punishments to the erring Press or the authorities in power. There is an argument that the aggrieved party has liberty to approach the courts of law if punishment is intended.

The authorities of the PCI quote Mahatma Gandhi on the role and responsibility of the Press vis-à-vis freedom of expression. The Mahatma, who was an eminent journalist in his own right, has said: "The sole aim of a journalist should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within." (emphasis added in italics)
Similarly, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has, while defending Press freedom, warned of the danger its irresponsible exercise entails: "If there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually withers away. This is true of a nation’s freedom and it applies as much to the Press as to any other group, organisation or individual."

These champions of the freedom of expression did not visualise that decades after they were gone, there would be a need to deal with acts of vandalism by those who were unhappy with the journalists and newspapers. Luminaries of the PCI, as indeed other veteran journalists outside the Council, have never spoken about a role of the PCI role to prevent vandalism, as the Chief Minister believes the proposed PCM should do. It is a different matter that several senior Pune journalists do not share his views.

(First appeared in DNA Pune Edition, July 01, 2008)

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