President of Indian Newspapers Society (INS) Pratap Pawar asserted that a "majority" of its 700 odd members were opposed to any FDI in the print media, and argued "it does not matter whether the permission is for 26 per cent or 74 per cent. The foreign investor can always control policies and content....we strongly oppose this decision".
Considering the fact that the Somnath Chatterjee Committee, appointed by the government to look into the aspect of FDI, had expressed strong reservations on the idea of FDI, he said it is a "matter of surprise and consternation that government has overlooked its recommendations" and threatened to "try to campaign and canvass against this decision. It is not a decision in good spirit".
He argued that in view of the "controversies surrounding the issue" the views of member publications of INS had recently been obtained and that "a majority of members who responded were against though some members were also in favour".
"It would sound the death knell for small and medium newspapers besides badly affecting country's large newspapers", he said and called the move "an open attack on India's sovereignty as now the multinationals would start dictating what should go into the newspapers. It gives them (foreign investors) enough powers to control the content and policies."
His argument is that India's multi-ethnic and multi-cultural fabric would be jeopardised by the capital participation of foreigners. "If England could rule India through ICS officers then one can only imagine how the multinationals would control the contents in the print media in India. If a foreign print media could cast so much aspersions on India's Prime Minister, then one can only imagine what will happen if they are given a free hand in India," he added, darkly, if a bit too histrionically.
"The argument often cited by proponents of allowing entry of FDI that Indian publications do not have access to adequate finances and therefore need the inflow of foreign capital does not bear scrutiny when we have witnessed, over the years, the remarkable growth of the English and the vernacular press,"
The Chairman of the Mathrubumi group of newspapers and Vice-President of the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) M P Veerendra Kumar agreed, saying India was selling "a part of its sovereignty" and that the Vajpayee government had succumbed to American pressure in taking this "disastrous and ill-advised decision" which was a "dangerous and catastrophic move"
"Foreign investors will not care what we hold dear. They will be driven only by commercial considerations. They will never have a national perspective. The decision will also affect national security. The next thing could be a 26 per cent investment in Defence and reservation of 26 per cent seats in Parliament for Americans."
He recalled that INS as well as the Parliamentary Standing Committee had both opposed the move."All those who believe in the sovereignty of the country must continue to oppose the decision," he added.
On the other hand, supporters of the decision call it a logical extension of liberalisation in other sectors. In a joint statement, Arun Purie of India Today, Shekhar Gupta of Indian Express, Narendra Mohan of Dainik Jagran, T.N. Ninan of Business Standard and Chandan Mitra of The Pioneer have said that the decision gives the print media a more level playing field than before.
"The print media has been losing out in growth and reach, as well as in advertising, to the television industry, which has had no restriction on foreign ownership. The government's decision gives the print media a more level playing field than before", the statement said.
One of the strongest votaries of foreign capital in print media and a member of the Parliamentary Committee, Narendra Mohan of Dainik Jagran group, said new avenues will open up for the industry, especially for the language press. Mohan, who had also given a note of dissent in the Parliamentary Committee, said this step would strengthen Indian newspapers and added, "though it may hamper the monopoly of some big English newspapers, democracy would be certainly benefitted."
Noted Editor M J Akbar argues that readers will be in an advantageous position as they could avail of a wide range of periodicals from the world over.
Akbar said the Board of "Asian Age" would discuss the possibility of foreign investments in the newspaper after which a proposal for this purpose would be considered.
T N Ninan of the Business Standard welcomed the decision and indicated that the London-based Financial Times may acquire equity in his newspaper.
Prabhu Chawla of the India Today group said any opposition to the Government decision had political motives and wondered what was wrong when the country had opened up several sectors including defence.
Pioneer's Chandan Mitra said the decision to allow FDI will help improve prospects of Indian journalists, adding his paper was interested in offloading equity to foreign strategic partners and was talking to several media houses as well as venture capitalists.
Indian Express Editor Shekhar Gupta termed the government's decision as "logical" and said the sector should have been opened up long time back.