Friday, June 24, 2011

Is there a ban on reporting bad news from India?

A recent article from the Independent paper:

Is there a ban on reporting bad news from India?

• By Andrew Buncombe
• The Foreign Desk
• Wednesday, 22 June 2011 at 6:41 am

It was the writer and activist Arundhati Roy who set foreign journalists in India busily chattering recently. In an interview with Stephen Moss in the Guardian, Ms Roy was discussing the Maoist and Adavasi “resistance” to encroachment on tribal lands. Mr Moss, asked her why, “we in the West don’t hear about these mini-wars?”.

Ms Roy replied: “I have been told quite openly by several correspondents of international newspapers, that they have instructions – ‘No negative news from India’ – because it’s an investment destination. So you don’t hear about it. But there is an insurrection, and it’s not just a Maoist insurrection. Everywhere in the country, people are fighting.”

Mr Moss’s response was: “I find the suggestion that such an injunction exists – or that self-respecting journalists would accept it – ridiculous. Foreign reporting of India might well be lazy or myopic, [Thanks Stephen, that's very decent of you.] but I don’t believe it’s corrupt.”

I’ve been thinking about what both of them said, and discussing the matter with some colleagues based in India. I’ve never received a “no bad news” order from London and the colleagues I spoke with insisted that neither had they. Several things struck me:

In the last decade or so India has certainly been successful in re-branding its international image. Where once it was seen as a hopeless, overwhelmingly poor country, there has instead been focus on a newly aspirational middle-class and economic progress, the new “Shining India”. As a result, there are fewer stories about malnutrition (which still haunts huge numbers of Indians) but more about new airlines, coffee shops, call centres, the World Is Flat, eight per cent growth and the attendant changing structure of society, especially in urban India. Though things have probably shifted too much, the change in focus is understandable enough; the media is always looking for something new, something different, to report on. I also think that in India – as elsewhere in the world – the priorities of Western corporations sometimes find their way into the news agenda; every month or so, some article will ask when India will finally allow the likes of Wal-Mart and Tesco to operate here.

At the same time, does this stop “bad news” about India being broadcast or published? In the time I’ve been here, I’ve written about insurgencies, caste, poverty, farmer suicides, religious violence, killings in Kashmir, Hindu terror cells, corruption (a number of times), honour killings, slums, land battles and homelessness. In the last 18 months, The Independent has published three substantial pieces on the Maoists. My colleagues have done the same, travelling to Nyamgiri to write about the tribal people’s fight against mining company Vedanta, to the Maoist “infested” areas of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, to Srinagar and Bihar, or working in Delhi where they highlighted the corruption and mis-management surrounding the Commonweath Games or else illegal child labour involved in the textile industry.

None of these issues could be considered positive for India’s image, and it’s true they are controversial. Invariably, articles that focus on such issues will be met by a barrage of condemnation on the web, usually from upper middle-class Indians who choose to believe the country has moved on from such things or else those living overseas. With some ugly and unhealthy exceptions, it must be said there is usually little interference from the Indian authorities.

I emailed Ms Roy, who I respect and admire even if I believe her analysis on some key issues is in need of some nuance, to ask if she had been misquoted and, if not, whether she could reveal the individuals labouring under the “no bad news” directive. She replied to say she had indeed been quoted correctly in the Guardian but that the correspondents she referred to had spoken to her “confidentially”. She said there had been two people who had told her this, which is a little different to “several” as she initially remarked.

Perhaps Mr Moss bears some of the blame for his question. Knowing that he was interviewing a leading Indian social activist, he might have spent a little more time researching the issues she has been writing about. He could have done little better than reading his own paper. In 2006, its correspondent spent several days travelling with the Maoists for a lengthy feature, while more recently, the paper has reported from the insurgent heartlands of West Bengal.

Perhaps the truth is that we’re all just too busy, or too lazy, to keep up with the news of any particular place, unless we make a conscious effort to do so. I chuckle, thinking that before moving to India four years ago, I had never heard of Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan (left). It now seems inconceivable that the man whose beaming face and bouffant hair greet me every day, from the Page 3 gossip stories to virtually every other television advert, was ever off the map.


Since writing this, I’ve been contacted by a colleague who said they cannot interest their “editors in anything but stories of shiny new India”. When this person “pitches stories on issues of poverty, development, or those being left out of the Great Indian Miracle”, they are told it’s “old news”. The appetite of their desk is entirely for stories of growth and positive change.

This journalist says they did not speak to Ms Roy. Furthermore, this journalist said they had been told by a colleague who works for another international publication of an “identical problem”. The correspondent said their colleague was told by their desk: “Report the news. It is not news that there are poor people in India.”

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