India's investigative reporters find it hard to keep a job

Arun Shourie, an editor of the Indian Express newspaper, was forced to resign after felling the chief minister of Maharashtra state in a biting corruption expose. The chief minister was a favorite of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

* Prabah Dutt of the Hindustan Times exposed a scheme through which cooking oil was laced with beef tallow - Hinduism prevents consumption of any byproducts of the sacred cow. She was told that her future writing would carry no byline. This, combined with uninspiring assignments, led Ms. Dutt to resign.

* Kuldip Nayar, former editor of the Indian Express News Service was passed over for promotion following award-winning articles on Mrs. Gandhi's excesses during the 1975-1977 emergency rule. Pressure and harassment led Mr. Nayar to resign.

The press is free in India - the world's largest democracy - but there are many nuances involved. A combination of pressures have in large measure impeded original reporting here.

To say that investigative journalism is thriving here would be an injustice to all concerned. Indeed, it is a short role of honor in a nation of 700 million.

Two out of three Indians are unable to read or write, and their primary channel of information is a village reader of the daily press, or radio and television, which are both firmly in government hands.

Press barons, the government, and industrialists and advertisers - they are often one-and-the-same. It is a small, intimate elite that rules India, and that rules its press, despite Jawaharlal Nehru's warning 30 years ago: ''I would rather have a completely free press, with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed and regulated press.''

With occasional exceptions, the nine somnolent English-language dailies of the capital, are as predictable as the summer heat.

According to Arun Shourie, the problem remains the same: ''Traditionally, the principal subject of Indian journalism has been the government. The principal source of information has been the government. And the principal audience has been the government, or an individual minister concerned.''

Today he looks at the front pages of the capital's dailies with little less than scorn. They are indeed an astonishing chronicle of mayhem and violence, confusion, and unending, indecipherable government reports.

Three die in police firing in the Punjab, recent headlines say. Students riot over examinations. Police kill dacoits. Police attacked by monkeys. Journalists assaulted by police. In-laws burn 18-year-old bride. Man sues over kidney operation, during which doctors removed his eye. ''Foreign threats'' to the country rears its head again. Mrs. Gandhi appeals for national unity.

While the headlines can be sensational, there is complacency beneath the speculation and theorizing endemic to the English-language press. And although the English press has vastly lower circulations than the local language press, they have far greater impact in a nation where English is the language of the ruling class.

Of 17,000 publications registered in India, 3,085 are English-language newspapers and magazines. More than 100 are dailies. Yet, nearly all of the best reading originates outside of New Delhi - Bombay's Sunday Observer, Madras's Hindu and Calcutta's Telegraph. Among the magazines, Sunday is the Telegraph's sister publication. In the capital, only the fortnightly India Today magazine stands as an outstanding example of imagination, investigation, and editorial free-play.

''When we started (in 1975), no one took us seriously,'' said India Today's senior editor Venkat Narayan. ''We recruited a lot of young fellows for whom nothing was sacrosanct. They were willing to call a spade a spade . . . and, if they document their articles well, the owner permits them to write whatever they want. He's not worried about losing a government license or advertisement. He's not in journalism to please or displease anyone.''

Aroon Purie, the 38-year-old editor and owner, an accountant with no previous journalistic experience when he set up India Today, has defied all pundits. At 50 cents a copy, his is the most expensive publication in the country, yet it has the largest circulation - nearly 300,000 including 15,000 subscribers of its overseas edition.

If there's a simple answer, it is that readers expect credibility from India Today.

It and Sunday have been in the forefront of new magazines whose reporting, and committment to clean journalism, were mostly galvanized by Mrs. Gandhi's 1975-1977 emergency rule. During that time, press censorship was clamped on the country, shocking a traditional, lethargic press which had long been dominated symbolically by the towering skyscrapers of five press barons.

Sunday has been instrumental in exposing corruption in state government; the blinding of prisoners by police officers in the jails of Bihar; devious investment by non-resident Indians, aimed at the takeover of three of the country's blue-ribbon industrial concerns.

But, both the Telegraph and Sunday, perhaps because of their very independent stance, have virtually no advertisements and have operated in the red since their inception - despite Sunday's 200,000 circulation.

With India's economy tightly controlled by government (but recently moving toward greater free enterprise), nearly 50 percent of all advertising is controlled by the central government, state-supported lotteries, and public sector concerns. The government also controls the levers on the import of newsprint and, in the past, has on more than one occassion withheld the privilege from those editors or owners considered particularly errant.

Says Sunday's editor M. J. Akbar, ''we speak in conspiratorial voices about the 'military-industrial complex' in the United States. But here we have a political-industrial complex. . . . Business interests, industrial interests, and political interests protect the whole financial community. And they in turn protect the government . . . and when the tenacles of any investigation extend close to the top, then, through politics and economics, the investigation is cut-off.''

Arun Shourie is now embittered, after his perfunctory dismissal as executive editor of Indian Express last year. A solitary crusader, soft-spoken, a former economist at the World Bank, he had had no journalistic experience - much like his brother-in-law Aroon Purie of India Today - when he received the Express's editorial offer in 1979. For three-and-a-half years, at the helm of the paper's investigative unit, he galvanized young reporters, left no stone unturned, and became - anathema to his modesty - the best known journalist in Indian history.

How much press freedom does India have?

''As much as is allowed by the editor; and he, along with the proprietor, are the biggest constraints. The job of the editor is to confront the changing political whims of the proprietor, and to give backing to his staff . . . not to write those fool 300-word editorials which nobody ever reads,'' said Mr. Shourie.

Mr. Shourie faults Mrs. Gandhi for much of the inaccuracy, sensationalism, and what he terms ''mediocrity'' in the capital's press. Her ''feudal ruling habits'' have infected those in town who seek ''power, privilege, and recognition in the ivory tower of government.''

He cites the daily Statesman as one of the national papers attempting to be bold, yet always looking over its shoulder to see if ''Madame'' is concerned.

But, it reported a story on Mrs. Gandhi's yogi, running a gun manufacturing factory in northern Kashmir - ''an excellent story,'' says Mr. Shourie - but it appeared the day after parliament closed.

There have been other erradic instances of investigative reporting by the Statesman - members of the premier's staff allegedly smuggling in consumer items after attending UN sessions in New York - but, as so often happens in the columns of India's national press, one is titillated. One waits. And there is never a follow-up.

''These stories are being suppressed by every paper,'' Mr. Shourie adds. ''Not actively suppressed by the government, but suppressed nonetheless, based on what is presumed to be the preference of the government. The Indian press barons are absolutely committed to doing nothing to offend.''

During the three-and-a-half years that Mr. Shourie was at the Indian Express, 13 editors resigned, mostly under pressure, though Express proprietor Ram Nath Goenka has always been known as a fighter for press freedom. Mr. Shourie is now writing a second volume of a five-volume series on religion, and has no desire to return to the journalistic world.

''But, for others?'' he asks. ''The secret of investigative journalism in India is that all institutions are so weak that you can't make a dent yourself. Therefore, you must cooperate with other institutions - lawyers, supreme court justices, members of parliament. Otherwise, as a man you're an island . . . .

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