Dispatch

Press Ganged

India -- the promised land of journalism -- is reeling from scandal, corruption, and sleaze.

MUMBAI — A few years ago, editor Tina Brown -- still fresh from the launch of her then-new venture, the Daily Beast -- came bearing advice for the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2009. American journalism was suffering an "earthquake," she told the students in New York -- but those sitting before her didn't necessarily have to feel its tremors.

There was still a promised land of journalism out there, Brown told them, but to find it they'd have to head east -- to India, where literally tens of thousands of newspapers were scrapping for new readers; where reporters from the 400-plus news channels jostled one another for the best shots; where the disruptions of the Internet publishing were still in the future.

Yes, Brown said, if she were a young, aspiring journalist, she would pack her bags and head for India. "There's tons of highbrow newspapers in India, terrific magazines," she said. It's a place to "learn about other societies and other ways of doing journalism."

Had these students taken Brown up on her advice, and actually come to India, they might have found the picture a sight less rosy than she had promised.

These earnest American J-school grads would have witnessed the time an industrialist-lawmaker sent representatives with a hidden camera to record extortionate business reporters demanding money in exchange for not carrying critical stories. Or the night one television reporter in Guwahati asked a crowd assaulting a woman to move to a well-lit area because his camera crew had just arrived. The class of 2009 would have learned, as many news networks did this fall, that a seemingly benign comparison between the current prime minister's speech and one by a prime ministerial candidate violated Rule 6 of the Cable Television Networks Rules, according to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. (The ministry issued an ominous advisory reminding networks they were duty bound to not offend good taste.)

The news business in India may be buzzing with life, but a number of recent high-profile, ugly affairs among its supposedly leading lights have shown, once again, that its soul is in crisis.The news business in India may be buzzing with life, but a number of recent high-profile, ugly affairs have shown that its soul is in crisis.

The case that most recently dominated headlines across India was the arrest of the charismatic Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka, one the country's top investigative magazines, on charges of raping a colleague. The feisty magazine has been sent reeling -- six journalists, including the managing editor, have resigned in the wake of the accusations -- and now, with its biggest investor threatening to pull out, Tehelka faces an uncertain future.

But, incendiary though it may be, the Tehelka case may say less about the state of Indian journalism than the recent eviction of Siddharth Varadarajan from his position as editor-in-chief at the Hindu, one of India's leading English-language dailies, based in Chennai. The family behind the paper, the Kasturis, who have a penchant for nasty internal rifts, recently put their differences behind them in order to oust Varadarajan, the first "professional" editor in the venerable newspaper's 135-year history. He lasted for little more than two years.

"Professional," a reporter at the Hindu told me, meant "editorial distance from the owners. 'Professional' was supposed to be someone finally putting space between the family and the newspaper's actual output." Before Varadarajan was appointed in 2011, "the actual ability of editors had never been tested," she said. "Editorship was simply inherited."

Professionalism, as the world generally knows it, remains something of a rarity in Indian media. By and large, India's bustling newsrooms are populated with young practitioners who've learned the trade on the fly. J-schools exist, but they "have faculty that probably hasn't stepped foot into a newsroom in years, if not decades," said Raju Narisetti, a vice president of strategy at News Corp. who founded Mint, an Indian business newspaper. They will find employment, but little further training on the job. "I do remember from personal experience an age when editors and senior journalists were willing to spend the time and effort to teach, to mentor, to push, to work with young journalists and help them develop their skills," Prem Panicker, the managing editor of Yahoo India, told me. "I don't know of an editor -- any editor -- today who can be bothered."

Out of this not particularly promising soil, a few good reporters do grow, but a large number of them wind up working for media organizations that aren't exactly committed to rigorous journalism. The proprietor of the Times of India, the country's largest English-language paper (also family run), for instance, told the New Yorker last year, "We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business." He continued, "If you are editorially minded, you will make all the wrong decisions."

Before Varadarajan was named editor of the Hindu, he'd spent time as its associate editor. He had once taught economics at New York University, but at the newspaper Varadarajan had a broad mandate -- he wrote about business regulation, national and strategic affairs. (He has something of a pedigree: his brother, Tunku, is also a journalist, and was once the editor of Newsweek Global.) In 2011, his ascension to the top of the paper's hierarchy was endorsed by a majority of the board of directors. "What we wanted to do is to professionalise (sic) and contemporise the daily," said N. Ram, then editor-in-chief, in making way for Varadarajan. Observers, at the time, however noted that the appointment may have been driven less by such seemingly pure motives, and more by inter-family squabbling, as one family branch maneuvered to block another faction.

By any reasonable account, the Hindu under Varadarajan began to invest in deep investigative reporting; its correspondents unearthed suspicious transactions between a large real estate company and Sonia Gandhi's son in law, and filed detailed accounts of India's Central Monitoring System, a comprehensive surveillance tool, that, as the Hindu  correspondents explained, has no clear legal limitations. Varadarajan's Hindu had a sharp front page that eschewed fluff, and made exciting young hires, including those focused on data journalism (this move, in particular, was seismic for a newspaper that once believed in putting kids at a science fair on the front page).Ram -- who has penned lengthy essays on the need for improved standards in Indian media -- put his daughter, a mint-fresh J-school grad, on the Hindu's front page.

Those who worked at the paper under Varadarajan say they found an editor who was open to ideas, responsive to criticism, and less likely than his predecessors to make befuddling news choices, including many inclined toward self-promotion. Under Ram, the Hindu published a story in February 2009 about Tibet's rapid development, which, in the first paragraph quoted a "prominent Indian journalist" who rejected "Tibetan independence propaganda." The second paragraph revealed that the prominent journalist was Ram himself (who is an unabashed supporter of China's rise). Even more infamously, some years before Varadarajan's appointment, Ram -- who has penned lengthy essays on the need for improved standards in Indian media -- put his daughter, a mint-fresh J-school grad, on the Hindu's front page for her achievements: "Vidya Ram, 27, from Chennai was designated the top student in the Class of 2007 of the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, New York." No word on what the well-educated Vidya might have made of her father's decision.

At last count, there were more than 80,000 registered newspapers and about 400 regional and national news channels across India. But with this proliferation has come concerns about the quality of the journalism being produced. Developing a professional Indian Fourth Estate -- one with editorial independence, one that adheres to widely accepted ethical and editorial standards -- still faces an abundance of hurdles.

The Indian media landscape is a tangle of conflicting interests. Media outlets, such as the sprawling Network18 -- which runs CNBC and CNN-IBN in India -- and NewsX, are financed by big corporations with other pressing interests, such as telecommunications and petrochemicals; a large number of news organizations, including News 24 and the Sun Group, have close links with powerful political players. Western media, too, may see conflicts of interest at times, but in India, the best practices in ethical standards seen in the international journalism are unevenly applied.

Journalists have few protections from corporate and advertising pressures: "Corporate ownership makes you constrained in writing about owners and their interests, and maybe their friends as well," said Govindraj Ethiraj, the former editor-in-chief of a locally-run Bloomberg News channel in India, who later left to found an independent, donor-funded journalism site. "Perhaps you'll get one critical article in, and then the message will come from above," said Ethiraj. Then there's pressure from political quarters to change news headlines and hold back inconvenient stories, according to news correspondents who spoke with me on condition of anonymity. Politicians may have close connections with media owners (or may own media themselves), threaten to scuttle business contracts, or even dangle the tempting carrot of state-sponsored advertising (state governments altogether spend around $300 million on advertising annually). Employees at one of India's largest news channels told me about instances when the editor took calls from a top government official in private, and returned to the news pit to suggest new, less incendiary, headlines. This was a frequent occurrence, they said.

There are casualties. In November, political duress led to the noisy departure of a high-profile editor: Hartosh Singh Bal, who led the politics desk at Open, a newsweekly, was fired at the behest of the magazine's owner, according to its editor, Manu Joseph. In an interview with The Hoot, a media website, Joseph said that his boss -- Sanjiv Goenka, whose businesses include energy and retail -- complained, "because of [Hartosh] I am making a lot of enemies ... political enemies."

Occasionally, some publications decide to raise the bar. When Narisetti of News Corp. founded Mint, a financial newspaper with headquarters in New Delhi, in 2006 (full disclosure: I worked there for a year until August 2007), he introduced a number of journalistic best practices, including requiring that stories from anonymous sources had to be confirmed by at least two other sources if the account was to pass muster. He put in place a code of conduct -- a curiosity in Indian media at the time -- that included, among other things, rules on dealing with public relations executives and accepting gifts and junkets. One of the first dismissals for violations of the code occurred before the first issue was even printed, which is to say, the code was taken seriously. But while Narisetti lay down internal standards, he said he found the constant external pressures exerted on journalists and editors sapping. (After leaving Mint in 2008, he spoke to the New York Times, which reported this about their conversation: "He said he left earlier than he expected because of a 'troubling nexus' of business, politics and publishing that he called 'draining on body and soul.'")

In an interview over email, Narisetti told me that the coopting of journalists by the business side in Indian newspapers was unparalleled. "There are problems everywhere, but most such issues tend to be exceptions, sporadic and often fixed, unlike what I encountered in India," he said, calling it "a culture that is perpetuated and reinforced when industry leaders embrace policies that destroy even rudimentary church and state guideposts."

At the Hindu, these lines were blurred to the point of abstraction. The former editor, N. Ram, had ascended to become the Hindu's group chairman, and justified the move to remove Varadarajan in a letter to five directors, advocating greater involvement by the family: "The 'Hands off management' approach had denied the company the benefit of the rich experience and talent on the Board," it said. It was "out of line with the editorial and business values that the 135-year-old institution had always stood for ... the course we had embarked on was proving to be disastrous."

But outside the Hindu -- including among high-profile Western journalists -- Varadarajan's departure was viewed as a loss for the paper. "The Hindu was a far better paper under [Varadarajan]. It is a great loss for readers," tweeted Lydia Polgreen, a New York Times editor and former India correspondent. "The family wins but Indian journalism loses," wrote the New Yorker's Jonathan Shainin (a former editor of mine at the Caravan).  Senior television correspondent Rahul Dev told the cable news show The Big Picture that the dismissal "gives us a clear signal that the owner families in Indian media ... they are still uncomfortable with professional leadership -- independent professional leadership of their family-owned properties."

"We saw it as a progression toward professionalization of family-owned media businesses," he said. "This is a step back."

Bal's firing at Open, which came soon after Varadarajan's sacking, led to an immediate outpouring of angst about the worrisome direction India's media had taken. Sreenivasan Jain, a managing editor at the news channel NDTV, tweeted, "What on earth is going on with the media?!" A former editor of Forbes India, Indrajit Gupta, surmised on Twitter, "It is perhaps more to do with the lack of values and the inability to handle political pressure."

The Kasturis, meanwhile, maintain that Varadarajan's exit doesn't mean an end to quality journalism at the Hindu. "I would argue that the present Editor-in-Chief and Editor are as professional, that is, as schooled in journalism, its professional values, methods, and techniques, and as experienced as they come," Ram told Tehelka, in the days before the magazine wound up in the throes of its own crisis.

Since Varadarajan's departure, however, the Hindu seems to have returned to its old ways, judging by the glowing coverage it gave to a speech by Ram at Mahatma Gandhi University. "Referring to Mr. Ram," the piece read, "the [University] Chancellor said he embodied all that was expected of a true journalist as he epitomised the qualities of a journalist."

But Varadarajan's departure, Hartosh's sacking, and the troubles at Tehelka all come at a delicate time. The forthcoming elections -- featuring the authoritarian Narendra Modi on one side, and Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a dynasty perceived as remarkably corrupt, on the other -- have polarized public discourse. The effects of these elections, seen as pivotal for the direction India takes, have been felt within media organizations and without. Every editorial statement, and every journalist, is under scrutiny for any political leanings. Established journalists are routinely described as "paid media" -- a phrase that somehow packs in leaning, bearing, and blunt insult. In effect, readers have formed their own narratives, especially online, where the media are viewed as susceptible to sway. Bal himself recently told the New York Times that "The ability to influence media, the attempt to do so -- that is changing rapidly. I think it is worse now."

Today, the Hindu, one of this country's most esteemed papers, faces the 2014 elections without its finest editor in recent memory. Open is without a straight-shooting political editor who kept the right and left satisfied with his balanced assaults on both sides. And who knows how damaged Tehelka is by its editor's assertion that the allegations against him are a political conspiracy?

So yes, come to India, Tina Brown -- now that you have some free time. It would be an eye opener, for you or any young journalist.

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Fight for the Maidan

How long can Ukraine's protesters hold out against Yanukovych's thugs?

KIEV, Ukraine — By any measure, the anti-government demonstration in the center of Ukraine's capital, Kiev, is remarkable. According to the opposition, the protests have brought nearly a million people out onto the streets, all determined to take on the government forces that tried, and failed, to crush the protests early on the morning of Dec. 11.

I, like tens of thousands of others, arrived Sunday morning (Dec. 8) by subway to the Independence Square ("Maidan Nezalezhnosty" in Ukrainian) metro station. Three of the station's four escalators were packed with demonstrators of all ages, ranging from students, to couples with small children, to pensioners. Most had Ukrainian flags wrapped around their shoulders or ribbons in blue and yellow, the national colors. As the escalators carried them up towards the Maidan, they looked at each other with a visible pride, smiling at their compatriots and knowing they were not just demonstrating, but embarking on an adventure that may determine how they and their children live in the future.

The square, affectionately dubbed "the Maidan" has been the focus of the huge demonstrations that erupted at the end of November, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged at the last moment from signing a deal with the European Union. The agreement would have brought Ukraine closer to Europe than ever before. Since then, diplomats have reported that Yanukovych still intends to sign the deal, even as he reportedly holds secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many still believe that when Yanukovych flies to Russia on Dec. 17, Ukraine will be brought into the Kremlin-led Customs Union, or will commit to join it down the road.

In the meantime, Yanukovych has cracked down on the Maidan's protests with a brutality unseen since Ukraine won independence in 1991. Though he swore off police raids after the Dec. 11 attack and has agreed to grant amnesty to the protesters who were detained that morning, the Maidan's demonstrators continue to rebuild barricades and prepare for another confrontation. They are still suspicious, which is unsurprising given Yanukovych's spotty record on fulfilling promises.

The majority of Ukrainians have come to see the deal as not only an opportunity to rebuild, through free trade accords, their shattered economy, but to defend their country's fragile standards on democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press, which have all diminished under Yanukovych's increasingly authoritarian and brutal rule. On Dec. 8, the opposition compiled a joint list of demands that prioritizes the resignation of Yanukovych and his government, the release of the jailed activists, and the prosecution of those who ordered the attack against the peaceful demonstrators. The opposition also wants a new Ukrainian government to sign the EU agreement.

Despite their determination, the protesters are well aware of the consequences their actions might have. Speaking to the Maidan on Dec. 8, the three leaders of the opposition parties -- Arseniy Yatseniuk, Oleh Tyahnebok, and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klytchko -- emphasized that if the demonstrators were unsuccessful and the government remained in place, they could all expect nasty repercussions from the authorities, including beatings and jail. Another speaker, Yuri Lutsenko (a former minister of the interior who was jailed by the Yanukovych regime), said that Yanukovych had crossed a line. He said: "We only have two options: either we win or we go to jail."

Indeed, the weeks-long demonstration has been characterized by persistent conflict between protesters and members of the Ukrainian police. On the night of Nov. 29-30, Yanukovych's paramilitary police units raided a peaceful demonstration, and more than 150 of the injured needed hospital treatment. The opposition says that more than 14 demonstrators have vanished without trace. Most recently, the opposition reported that the police raid on Dec. 11 left around 100 protesters badly injured, though there is no way to verify the specific numbers.

Yanukovych deployed the formidable "Berkut" paramilitary unit to police government buildings ahead of Dec. 8's protest. Blocking off the streets with commandeered buses, the paramilitaries stood in ranks to hold off protesters, carrying large metal shields, uniformed in superhero-style body armor and helmets with visors and gas masks. Their truncheons and gas sprays were visible and pistols, sheathed under bulletproof vests, were standard. The Berkut presented an aggressive sight, while ordinary cops, wearing much inferior helmets and bulletproof vests, and stationed in less sensitive sites around the capital, looked sheepish and embarrassed when confronted by protestors.

Police block off a street during the Dec. 11 raid.

Ex-military protesters and women's groups have taken to standing between the protesters and police as "human shields" to stave off conflict. One woman told a policeman in his early twenties: "I've come here because I don't want a repeat of last week, when the blood of innocent people was shed. I'm old enough to be your own mother, and I don't want to see you hurt. Are you going to beat me and the others here?" The young man just looked downwards without saying anything, but it was clear there were a million places he would rather have been.

Undaunted by the police presence, the protesters quickly constructed fortified camps and continue to occupy government buildings. With the help of ex-military demonstrators, the activists erected efficient, well-structured camps around the square. Electric saws and six-inch nails saw timber turned into impressive barricades, with the camps ringed by barbed wire.

A middle-aged man, Igor, and his 16-year-old son, Oleksandr, watched their fellow activists build the camp. He explained: "I have lived most of my life in Kiev, but I am in fact Russian.... This is my home.... I want my children to grow up in a democratic country where they can feel safe and have their voices heard and know they are part of Europe not the sort of Asiatic despotism Putin is trying to impose on Russia and extend here." Pointing to his son, Igor said: "We are staying here all night to show our support."

Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Kiev residents have joined Igor and Oleksandr in showing support by delivering food, hot drinks, clothing, and donating cash to carefully-monitored pay points in order to feed demonstrators and keep them warm.

A volunteer distributes hot food to protesters on the Maidan.

The Euromaidan protests are not only targeting Yanukovych, but are also kindling anti-Russian sentiment as the protesters strive to move away from their colonial past and toward a European future. That evening, news rippled through the crowd that a group of young protesters had toppled and destroyed the capital's last remaining statue of Lenin -- something that for years had been a hated symbol of not only the former communist authorities, but of the influence of pro-Russian groups who insisted on keeping the statue in place, describing it as a "cultural monument." In truth, for the few remaining pro-Russian supporters in Kiev, the red marble monument had become an important connection to the former colonial master in the Kremlin of whose return they still dreamed.

One of the demonstrators, Svyatoslav, a Kiev academic, watched as activists shattered the remains of the Lenin monument, and commented, "We have to press home our advantage quickly. We cannot string this out, but must keep up the momentum while there are a million people prepared to come out on the streets. If the Maidan dwindles to 50,000, we are finished. This time it won't be like after the Orange Revolution of 2004. This time if Yanukovych and his criminals remain in power, they will be ruthless. There will be arrests and killings, no doubt."

The protesters delivered a large chunk to be displayed on the stage on the Maidan. The sight was greeted with what have now become a few of the routine slogans and responses used among protesters: "Glory to Ukraine!" answered with a deafening "Glory to heroes!" Another slogan that has caught on in the past weeks and reflects the protesters' hardening attitude is "Death to our enemy."

I have been reporting on Ukraine for more than two decades, and during the almost constant political turmoil, few voices have spoken for the use of violence. Political leaders and activists alone have always repeated, mantra-like, "Anything but violence. We must not do anything that leads to bloodshed." In light of Ukraine's bloody 20th century history -- which includes the deaths of 5 million in a forced famine, 7 million during World War II at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, and a few hundred thousand in mass executions during the communist period -- the Ukrainians' shying away from violence becomes understandable.

Ukrainians are also aware that any conflict with the authorities might lead to a wider civil conflict involving the east of their country and Crimea, where ethnic Russians and pro-Moscow sentiment is prevalent. In Crimea, ethnic Russians outnumber the Ukrainians, and the region houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its considerable maritime and infantry forces. Many observers believe Moscow would seize any pretext to initiate a seizure of the peninsula using the pretext of protecting Russians, as they did several years ago in the breakaway Georgian province of Ossetia.

But even knowing this, I have been told by many ordinary protesters -- and in private by some with positions of influence in the opposition -- that there is no way out except to counter force with force, though that practically guarantees bloodshed. The protesters say that they are willing to challenge any forces that might be sent against them. As one of the opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatseniuk, said: "We are ready to defend the Maidan."

And when around 2,000 police and special troops, clad in body armor and wielding truncheons, stormed the Maidan early on Wednesday morning, the protesters stepped up to the task. The troops managed to destroy many of the camps and seemed poised to retake control of the Maidan -- but demonstrators rallied around the stage and stood their ground, as thousands of supporters streamed in from all directions to encircle the troops and halt the takeover. Since then, there has been an uneasy standoff between protesters and police, and tensions are high in anticipation of the next government raid. Regardless of Yanukovych's promises, some still expect police to raid this weekend to disrupt the protests scheduled ahead of Yanukovych's Dec. 17 trip to Russia.

The Maidan has become a warzone, as the demonstrators begin strategizing for their next battle. Andrey Parubiy, an opposition member of parliament who has been in charge of the camp for more than three weeks, said that because of the Wednesday attack, 4,000 volunteers -- including many military veterans and former members of the police and special troops -- will be assigned to units to defend the encampment. On Wednesday, many of these volunteers helped beat back the security forces that attempted to reclaim the Kiev Town Hall, which remains in protesters' hands. Parubiy's men also used timber, scaffolding, rubbish dumpsters, barbed wire, and snow-filled bags to fortify the camp after the attack.

Parubiy's volunteers pose in front of a reinforced barricade.

"If the security forces attack again they will find that people are not as willing to put their heads under truncheons, and we may not show the restraint we used before," Parubiy said. "These volunteers are very capable in defending and, if necessary, to go on the offense. The security forces will be surprised by some of the plans we have drawn up, which include a novel type of water bomb."

One demonstrator and former soldier, Mikhail, noted that government snipers had been spotted on rooftops ahead of the attack. "We don't know what they were up there for. The authorities would claim it was a routine precaution -- but it isn't. They know protesters have never used weapons," Mikhail explained. "Many of us think the snipers might be used to shoot one of their own security forces to give a pretext for using violence against protesters. Or they might simply shoot at protesters to terrorize them. We know they have people who would be prepared to kill innocents."

Mikhail said that many want to take a more aggressive stance towards the authorities but that "so far, wiser heads have prevailed in calming anger." But he warned that keeping the relative peace might be impossible if the government steps up the violence.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Askold Krushelnycky