Gandhi attacks India's press but journalists talk back

The Indian press appears under siege, as a result of a vigorous attack by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Mrs. Gandhi has accused the press of bias. She has charged that the mood of the press is out of step with national needs.

''For a country which is trying to pick itself up from such a tremendous trauma of having undergone colonial rule,'' she says, ''cynicism and pessimism is very close to crime. The press does not admit that anything good has happened.''

Mrs. Gandhi rarely calls a press conference in New Delhi, unlike her father Jawaharlal Nehru or even Morarji Desai, the Janata prime minister, who had fairly regular meetings with the press.

Some journalists argue this approach is part of a deliberate strategy. Mrs. Gandhi meets the press in out-of-the-way towns and in cities like Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. She also seeks TV coverage to enhance her image.

Major New Delhi newspapers have begun to fight back. In one editorial, the Daily Statesman wrote, ''One might suspect that our prime minister's only constituency was abroad.''

The newspaper was referring to Mrs. Gandhi's comment to Swedish Television, ''The press is the opposition in India. . . . It is not just reporting.''

The Statesman strongly criticized Mrs. Gandhi's habit of expressing her views only to foreign newspapers.

Other Indian newspapers have reacted similarly. They have pointed out that Mrs. Gandhi's views on crucial questions are relayed to the Indian public through European and US newspapers and television.

Some say Mrs. Gandhi appears to think the foreign press is superior to the average Indian writer or reporter.

In a country that boasts more than 10,000 newspapers, surviving the competition is tough. The government has raised the import duty on newsprint and denied advertisements to hostile newspapers.

In India's vast provinces scores of journalists have been assaulted and beaten up by assailants suspected of working for the ruling party. Some journalists have been arrested on questionable charges.

Given all this, it is not surprising that the British daily, The Guardian, has strongly hinted the Indian government may soon crack down on Indian newspapers for taking too much liberty with news.

Even newspapers that normally back Mrs. Gandhi have criticized her for her harsh criticism of the press.

The Hindustan Times, for example, declared, ''To tar the entire press community of thousands of newspapers and periodicals with the same brush is wholly unwarranted. The free press in a democracy does have an inherently adversary watchdog role vis-a-vis the government of the day.''

But officials in New Delhi say the Indian press still has a good deal of freedom.

''The Indian press continues to remain one of the freest in the world,'' a senior Asian ambassador points out. ''In India one finds a national debate, sharply criticizing the prime minister and even condemning members of her family. In some countries they would be in jail if they did any of these things.''

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