India Mulls End to Press Isolation

Calls for liberalization and cultural purity collide in debate over Western access to the Indian media

INDIA may allow foreign newspapers and magazines to start printing within its borders after a 38-year ban. But the issue has generated plenty of controversy, demonstrating that each step of the country's ongoing economic liberalization is difficult.

Two former justices of the Indian Supreme Court and a former prime minister have warned of dire consequences if foreign publications are invited in. In February, three separate Indian courts gave temporary orders forbidding the government from registering them. Academics, lawyers, editorialists - and not a few local newspaper and magazine owners - are warning of an imminent cultural invasion. ``I feel it's a disaster in the making,'' says Richard Crasta, a novelist. ``It's a complete, spineless cave-in to the West.''

On the other side are people like Aveek Sarkar, a prominent Calcutta-based publisher who wants to start a financial newspaper in partnership with the Financial Times of London. Mr. Sarkar says the naysayers are people who simply refuse to catch up with the times. ``If you did a survey five years back, all Indians would have said the earth is flat. If you took a survey now, a whole lot of people would still say the earth was flat. India is a Rip van Winkle society.''

At issue is a national media policy made in 1955 and 1956 that prohibits foreign publications from operating in India and foreign news agencies from selling their reports directly to Indian subscribers. The policy had the dual goal of shielding domestic news organizations from foreign competition and guarding the newly independent nation from Western biases in news coverage. In 1956 and again in 1960, the government amended an 1867 press law to give itself the power to regulate who could print in India and who could not.

Today, the government is being asked to loosen those rules. At least three foreign publications have formally requested permission to start joint ventures with Indian partners. The Financial Times wants to publish a financial newspaper with Sarkar's Ananda Bazar Patrika group; Time-Warner Inc. has proposed a joint venture with Living Media India Ltd., the publishers of India Today magazine, which would print Time Magazine locally; and Cable News Network is seeking a deal with Indian state TV.

In addition, two foreign news agencies have requested permission to distribute their services directly.

The decision rests with the government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, which since 1991 has done more to liberalize the Indian economy than any previous government. But the decision has been slow in coming - Time applied for its joint- venture registration in 1991 - and there are mixed signals as to how it will go. Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, the prime force behind the liberalization drive, is said to be in favor. But in late February, the government filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court saying it stood by the former policy barring the foreign media.

The decision has become a kind of touchstone for India's liberalization program: Is it a mere retinkering with the rules? Or will liberalization lead India, after more than four decades of economic and cultural isolation, to integrate with an outside world it has kept at a firm and wary distance?

Ironically, India has long been open to media from abroad. Imports of foreign books, magazines and newspapers are virtually free, in sharp contrast to other economically isolated countries of the globe. ``We're already a free country,'' says Deepak Shourie, general manager of Living Media India, which distributes Time. ``We can bring in any magazine we like.''

At one level, the debate is whether magazines like Time and Newsweek will merely be able to expand their business by printing locally and, therefore, more cheaply. Local journalists have pointed out that more magazines will mean more jobs and better training.

Technology has brought more freedom: over the past four years, millions of Indian households have been hooked up to satellite dishes receiving television broadcasts from Hong Kong, Atlanta, and London. The government's television monopoly is effectively broken and, unlike those of Singapore and China, India's government has decided to allow the dishes to usher the country into the modern age.

Four years ago, an evening in front of the television was a parade of documentaries on such topics as birth control and agricultural techniques. Today the most popular television show in India is the American soap opera ``Santa Barbara.''

In this light, the vociferous arguments against the foreign media coming to India are hard to understand. But Indians have been taught for decades that the British (and other colonial powers) first came to India for business - after which they conquered and colonized the land. Many Indians see all foreign investors as potential East India Companies and, to date, liberalization hasn't attempted to change those deep-seated attitudes.

That is how an issue like the foreign media has become a kind of Rorschach test for a public taught to eschew the outside world - and a people worried about the changes that modernization and internationalization have already started to bring.

``Why are we so insecure in our culture?'' asks Shobha De, a bestselling novelist and popular newspaper columnist. ``Why are we worried that by watching `Santa Barbara' we will forget the Kama Sutra? The two can coexist.''

But not all Indians are so open. At a recent forum on the foreign-media issue, a local publisher commented that foreign publications would bring greater competition and an improvement in the domestic industry. A response came from former prime minister Chandra Shekhar.

``The very basis of Indian culture is its deep-rooted element of compassion,'' he said. ``And compassion and competition cannot go side by side.... Do not get involved in competition. Do not imitate. It will lead nowhere.'' He urged Indians to refute a life of competition and to ``preserve our cultural heritage.''

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