“The media has used words such as censorship and fatwa. What will the media do as time progresses? Don’t cry wolf so soon, or you will get gobbled up in the end.” The warning by the Chief Minister of West Bengal to the media of an ignominious end is ominous. Mamata Banerjee was speaking at the launch of a language daily in Kolkata on April 5. But her reference to the media using terms such as “censorship” and “fatwa” were related to the snowballing controversy of the last few days that followed a State government circular.
The circular in question was issued with the intention of promoting free thinking. On March 14, a West Bengal government circular to the public libraries in the State said: "In public interest, the government will not buy newspapers published or purported to be published by any political party, either national or regional, as a measure to develop free thinking among the readers.” But when a government takes upon itself to decide in “public interest” what should be read by the people in order to advocate “free thinking”, it is time to view such involvement with caution. Following the public uproar over this circular, the original list of eight newspapers to be procured by State libraries was upgraded to thirteen.
In the first round, the eight newspapers recommended for the government libraries were Bengali dailies: Sambad Pratidin,Ekdin; Dainik Statesman; Khabor 365 Din; Sakalbela; Sanmarg, a Hindi paper; and two Urdu newspapers, Azad Hind and Akbar-e-Mashriq. This, according to the circular, was in order to “develop the learning of language and free thinking among masses.” This meant, in effect, that the largest circulated Bengali daily, Ananada Bazar, and Bartamaan, the popular mass daily that broke the news of the government’s preferred reading list, and both known as not to be published by any political party, were excluded; while English dailies such as The Times of India and The Telegraph did not qualify on the language criteria. The other noticeable absence was newspapers that catered to the large Nepali and tribal readership in the State. However, following a public hue and cry, the list was expanded overnight to include five more newspapers and periodicals. These were The Times of India; Aajkal, a Bengali daily; the Santhali language paper Sarsogaon; and the Nepali language paper Himalaya Darpan; and Kolom that was launched only on April 5.
Nevertheless the criticism against the State government refuses to die down, even from supporters who had strongly backed Mamata Banerjee’s move for paribartan or change to oust the Left Front government. Said the writer and novelist, Mahesweta Devi: “How can a Chief Minister decide who will read which newspaper? This does not make sense.” She was speaking at a convention to condemn the anti-democratic move of the State government, organised by 21 rights-based groups, led by the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights in the city. Popular author Samaresh Majumder, who was also part of the pro-paribartan lobby, was spotted among members of Sanskriti Samannoy, a network of artists, singers, writers, and actors protesting in the streets of Kolkata on April 5. The author told the media that though he was not the kind to participate in an anti-Trinamul movement, “I cannot agree with the government’s decision to rank and segregate newspapers.” The artists carried big placards that read: “Autocrats are happiest when people are silenced”. Said an agitated Krishna Bandapadhyay, editor of Khoj, a Bengali periodical on women’s issues, “In the name of free thinking, the State government is curtailing our right to know, to be informed.” The secretary of All Bengal Editors and Journalist Association, Subrata Adhikari, said the association had issued a protest letter to the government against the “move to dictate to readers what they should read.”
A matter of concern is the huge readership in 12 government libraries and 2,482 State-supported libraries across West Bengal, many of which have already put up the notice. Despite the fresh list of newspapers and Mamata Banerjee’s explanation that a section of the media with “vested interests” was playing up the issue to “mislead” the people, the controversy refuses to die down. There have been efforts by the government to distance itself from the circular of the Mass Education and Library Services Department, but observers note that no important decision is taken without the Chief Minster’s approval. “The decision is that of the Mass Education and Library Services Department and not of the Chief Minister’s office or of the Information and Cultural Affairs Department,” said Umapada Chatterjee, Director, Information. The fact remains, however, that the Chief Minister also holds the portfolio of the Ministry of Information and Cultural Affairs.
While the original government notification listed the spread of “free thinking” and prevention of government expenditure on dailies published or purported to be published by any political party as the noble objectives behind the selection, the Minister of Mass Education and Library Services, Abdul Karim, added other reasons for the government policy: to promote local and small newspapers, and also to promote those newspapers that have either been launched recently or have low circulation.
Let’s take a close look at the recent state policy on the media, the ground reality, and the curious choice of certain newspapers. For some inscrutable reason, contrary to its policy, the government has included some newspapers whose owners or editors/senior journalists are members of Parliament and linked to politics. The owner of Sangbad Pratidin, Srinjoy Bose, is a Trinamul Congress (TMC) Rajya Sabha member; the editor Kunal Ghosh is also in Rajya Sabha with TMC support. The director of Sanmarg, Vivek Gupta, and a senior journalist of Akbar-e-Masriq, Nadimul Haq, both have been elected to Rajya Sabha on TMC ticket. While the State government was consistent with its policy when it kept out party-run papers lsuch as Ganasakti (CPM), Kalantar (CPI), and Jago Bangla (TMC), strangely Aajkal, the Bengali daily that is said to be a front for CPM politics, has been included. Moreover, while big media houses certainly do not require financial support from the government, the inclusion of The Times of India in the second list is a mystery; it is neither a recent entry in the State, nor would it be comfortable being labeled a local daily with low circulation. On the other hand, Kolom apparently deserves kudos, since it was included in the hallowed government list even before it came out with its first publication on April 5!
But few newspapers and periodicals today can claim to have the luck of Kolom as a new entrant or a small local paper with humble budget and low circulation. Thousands of small newspapers, periodicals, and magazines that are dependent on government aid have not received any funding or advertisement support since the Assembly elections were declared. “This has been a major blow to small papers, however small the amount. Some receive a princely sum of Rs. 8,000 or less a year. This can have a catastrophic effect and many papers could be forced out of business,” said Sandip Datta, secretary, Kolkata Little Magazine Library.
The policy of government aid to small and medium publications goes back to the 1980s when the Left Front, led by the CPM, had set up the Sasanka Sekhar Sanyal six-member committee. The 44 recommendations made by the Committee were accepted by a Cabinet decision (Memo 3140 (16) dated 29.3.82). Publications that were published regularly, had a minimum of five pages, a circulation of not less than 500 copies, and did not have a communal stance were supported by the government either through advertisements, newsprint, or funds. Now, a government circular has overnight decided their fate and overturned a long legacy of government support.
The Chief Minister declared at a recent media meet of selected news channels that though the government had not yet declared which papers should be read, it would do so in the future. “Given the way lies are being spread and slander and malicious campaigning is going on, I will have to do this in future,” she said. Dipankar Chakravarty, the respected editor of Aneek, a well-acclaimed periodical, warned: “The signals are clear. And they echo the pre-Emergency days of the 1970s.”
However, many small papers have declared a war. They continue to survive and thrive, refusing to be silenced; there are also those newspapers which on principle have refused to accept government support over the past decades. The people of a State that prides itself on its free liberal thinking and passion for literary and cultural freedom are not going to be dictated to about what to read or to write. The obsession with the literary word runs so deep here that there are more than 1,000 registered small newspapers, magazines, and periodicals (and many more unregistered), apart from the mainstream dailies and magazines published especially from the districts. The small publications are usually run by a handful of people, on a shoestring budget with their own meagre contribution. Print-runs range from a few hundreds to about two thousand. Aneek, for example, has been in circulation since 1964 with personal donations and has an annual budget of Rs.2.5 lakh, prints about 2,200 copies per issue, and “survives on committed subscribers and readers,” said editor Dipankar Chakravarty, former professor of a college in Murshidabad district. Pranab Hazra, editor of Shaal Piyal, a tabloid from Bankura district, is a librarian and runs the paper with his salary and credit support from the local printer. “He loves his paper more than his child,” says Shyamolie, his wife and publisher. And that is the spirit that keeps the passion for the written word alive in West Bengal.