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How the govt squeezes the press

January 08, 2008 13:58 IST

When Indira Gandhi wanted to hit at Ram Nath Goenka, who owned the generally critical Indian Express, she squeezed him financially and tried to destroy his business. Government-owned banks denied him credit that had already been approved, his jute company was nationalised, government advertising was withdrawn and his printing machinery was sought to be seized.

In Rajiv Gandhi's time, Vijaypat Singhania, publisher of The Indian Post -- a shortlived newspaper in Mumbai that had limited damage potential -- was threatened with dire consequences because of what his paper was writing, so much so that he sold the paper and got out of the publishing business altogether.

More recently, during Mr Vajpayee's tenure as prime minister, there were tax raids on the owners of Outlook magazine, which was seen as being unfriendly to the National Democratic Alliance.

Now it is the turn of Ramoji Rao, who owns Eenadu, the leading Telugu newspaper which has been aligned for the past quarter century with the Telugu Desam and which ran a series of reports on the Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y Rajshekhar Reddy's land deals. The chosen response is the same: work the economic levers and coerce.

Coincidentally or not, the first shot was fired by the Reserve Bank, which stopped Mr Rao from accepting deposits from the public, and left him to find ways to return the money that had already been taken. Mr Rao sought to get out of the consequential liquidity crunch by raising money through other sources, namely by selling shares to Blackstone, the private equity investor.

This required the approval of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board, which sat on the issue for a few months but finally approved it. That however was not the end of the story, for the issue also needed clearance by a Cabinet committee -- and the finance minister or ministry has apparently been asking a series of questions and holding up the approval process for yet more months.

Allegations have been made quite openly that political pressure has been applied to make sure Mr Rao does not get his money and defaults on repaying his depositors. In a country that prides itself on its free press and due processes in government dealings, this is a scandalous sequence of events, and a thinly disguised assault on the press.

If press freedom is not to be treated as sacrosanct when the press is critical of the government, and if the only freedom available is to be a cheer-leader, that is not press freedom at all.

This is not very different from Mr Putin's Russia (where Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who chose to politically challenge Mr Putin, was thrown into jail, and his Yukos stripped of its assets, broken up and sold), except that Indian publishers don't get sent arbitrarily to jail.

Still, most businessmen, including those who are not in publishing, will not openly cross swords with the government, and will make their political donations covertly; they know that the state has all manner of weapons and harassment methods in its armoury, which it will not hesitate to use if provoked.

What is worth noting is the use of financial levers to circumscribe a Constitutionally guaranteed right. Indira Gandhi tried the trick too, when she tried to force a ridiculous page-price schedule on the press; fortunately, the Supreme Court struck that down.

The levers being used now are more covert and devious, and therefore more difficult to challenge. But no one is fooled -- and that too is perhaps the intention. Which newspaper in Andhra Pradesh will look at Mr Reddy's land deals, if the great Eenadu can be brought to its knees?

And, as a footnote, with what face can the government invite international investors to bring foreign direct investment into the country?

BS Bureau
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