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Wresting the press from pampered hacks

by Kevin Rafferty

HONG KONG — Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was adamant that a free press is the most precious of all freedoms because it opens up or expands other freedoms. He famously wrote that given the choice of a government without a free press or a free press without a government, he would unhesitatingly prefer press freedom.

Yet, today the free press is in danger from many directions — under attack not merely from repressive governments that fear for their future that Jefferson was right, but also from the erratic cult of the Internet, ubiquitous public relations consultants, proprietors and journalists themselves.

It’s particularly worrying that press freedom has suffered significant rebuffs recently in the world’s two biggest democracies, the U.S. and India.

The biggest was by President Barack Obama at a faux press conference with China’s President Hu Jintao. Statements were read before the leaders shuffled offstage. Was this a “nice guy” step on Obama’s part, or did it reflect his belief that the press is a nuisance?

Reporters on the trip complained about the president’s lack of communication. Press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a written statement in response: “President Obama’s visit to China has demonstrated the depth and breadth of the global and other challenges where U.S.-China cooperation is critical.”

As Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post, Gibbs’ statement was “worthy of the Politburo Standing Committee.”

For Hong Kong, Obama’s abject performance was a disheartening lesson that the Chinese government cleverly suppresses questioning to the extent that even the U.S. president bows before it.

Equally worrying is what’s happening in India, where the press has long been the heartbeat of the country’s flourishing democracy. Ram Nath Goenka founded the Indian Express to offer India’s own perspective on its freedom struggle against the British Raj. During the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed to protect herself from being ousted by the courts for corruption, Goenka persuaded Prabhash Joshi to come back from doing Gandhian good works to start a weekly paper that threw shafts of light on government censorship.

Joshi later started and edited new regional editions of the Indian Express, then founded a Hindi daily Jansatta, a refreshing new window on the world to millions of Indians because it reported and commented in the straightforward language of ordinary Hindi-speakers, not the stilted prose of established newspapers. From the high drama of cricket to the low machinations of politics, Joshi wrote with vision and with courage.

He was one journalist who, his colleagues testified, could not be bought — not by money, or fame or fortune or awards or honors. In the last months of his life, tragically ended this month by a heart attack, Prabhash had begun to campaign against what he saw as the growing internal threat to Indian press freedom. (Here I must declare my own interest: Prabhash Joshi was my oldest and best friend for over 40 years, and we were planning a book together about how 21st-century India could meet the aspirations of its people without destroying the planet.)

He was alarmed by two cancerous trends. One was the increasingly cozy relations between press and government. He claimed that, “Media has shaken hands with the government, and the journalism of courage has lost its edge.”

He was even more worried by the growing influence of money. The Times of India, he noted, had placed its corporate name of Bennett, Coleman and Company, above the paper’s masthead, a sacrilege to him who believed that “News is not just business; news is beyond business.”

Worse followed. In the recent elections, he discovered, candidates were paying to get coverage, and some journalists were saying no money, no reporting. He also discovered that in some cases the editorial staffs had become pawns in the money game. He cited a Hindi paper where the marketing manager took the money, prepared the page and put it in the paper, completely bypassing the editor and his team.

Over the past 25 years the Indian press has changed from being boringly gray and obsessed with politics to glamorous and glitzy and almost part of showbiz. The English-language newspapers have been transformed by the use of color but, with the notable exception of The Hindu, have sacrificed their critical edge.

The booming business press, with five dailies, also remains much in thrall to big business. Neither the regular nor the business press, Prabhash lamented, send their reporters to explore and report back on the real India of hungry villages and polluted suburbs, which means that India’s press is unable to fulfill another of Jefferson’s claims for the press as the warning bell of the nation.

“How can newspapers talk of press freedom when their reporters do not go out to see the real world, their editors are supping with the government and their managers see news just as another commodity that is sold only to make profits?” Prabhash asked.

Meanwhile, in another Asian democracy, the government has been intervening to remove restrictions on press freedom imposed by journalists themselves. The Japanese administration of Yukio Hatoyama promised to pry open the pernicious cartel of kisha press clubs in which mainstream Japanese dailies and television channels post their reporters inside government offices while closing press conference doors to outsiders — news magazines, online reporters or foreign newspapers.

News of the government intervention went unnoticed in the mainstream press, but was reported by Reuters and the New York Times. The establishment press is fighting to retain the cartel.

When Shizuka Kamei, the minister of Japan’s Financial Services Agency, said he was opening his twice-weekly news conferences to journalists who were not members of the press club, the privileged reporters barred entry of the intruders and forced the minister to hold a separate press conference in another room, even though all the rooms belong to the government. The kisha conference was held behind closed doors; the open one was broadcast live over a Web site in a small blow for press freedom.

Kevin Rafferty was former executive editor of The Indian Express Group.