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  Asia-Pacific
History Repeats in Struggle for Free Press
India’s 1st Paper Faced Same Challenges as Today
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor

Recently, when the chief minister of a southern Indian State took to court the editor and publisher of a renowned newspaper on a charge of having printed falsehood, it only seemed like history repeating itself some 225 years later.

Although comparisons are undesirable and even odious, there are some features that appear strikingly similar between India's first newspaper, which hit the stands on January 29, 1780, in Calcutta, then under the yoke of the English East India Company, and the present generation Press.

Hicky's "Bengal Gazette" or the "Calcutta General Advertiser," as the paper was also known, was published every Saturday, much to the dread of the then Company administration. Today, the Press professes to do much the same in India, serving as a public watchdog against government mismanagement and lapses as well as corruption in society as a whole.

Media protest in India

The Gazette was conceptualized, written, edited, and printed by James Augustus Hicky, a surgeon by occupation, who took upon himself to bring out "a weekly political and commercial newspaper open to all parties but influenced by none." Often, Hicky was criticized for his coarse language — a feature that the modern-day Indian Press does not stoop to — but he was ruthlessly fearless and carried on a well-intentioned tirade against the Company rule for almost 26 months before a diktat from Calcutta's Fort William, the administration's headquarters, brought him down.

The then governor-general, Warren Hastings, who headed the East India Company in India, said in a notification of November 14, 1780: Public notice is hereby given that the Bengal Gazette has lately been found to contain several improper paragraphs tending to vilify private characters and to disturb the peace of the English settlement. It is no longer permitted to be circulated through the channel of the General Post Office.

In a private letter to a friend in Britain a little later, Hastings wrote that he wanted none to oppose his authority, "to discourage his designs, to encourage disobedience and foment popular odium against me. In a word, I shall have power, and I will employ it."

A news room of newspaper in India

Many, many rulers in India have thought the same, but not many journalists have had Hicky's guts. He wrote in third person after Hastings' decree: Before he will bow, cringe or fawn to any of his oppressors … he would compose ballads and sell them through the streets of Calcutta as Homer did.

He has now but three things to lose: his honor in the support of his paper, his liberty, and his life: the two latter he will hazard in defense of the former, for he is determined to make it a scourge of all schemers and leading tyrants…Shall I tamely submit to the yoke of slavery and wanton oppression. No!

Hicky's resolve became more determined. His criticism of Hastings and the chief justice, Elijah Impey, got harsher. There was an attempt to kill Hicky. In June 1781, he was jailed, something that the chief minister of the Southern Indian State tried when she was infuriated by the Indian newspaper some months ago.

However, Hicky was made up of stern stuff: he continued to publish his Gazette even when he was in jail. His attacks on Hastings and Impey grew more pointed, and they not only imposed a crippling fine on him, but also seized his printing machines and types. Hicky's Bengal Gazette died in March 1782.

Various writers of Indian history have hailed Hicky's courage, and one would like to point out here that, by and large, Indian media, both the printed and the visual, appear to have lost the verve and the enthusiasm to do a Hicky. Often commerce rules over ethics. A bold new film from India's Bollywood, "Page Three," (often the celebrity watch page of the country's newspapers, certainly the English-language ones,), narrates in a fictionalized form how a newspaper baron overrules his editor's wish to publish a story on child abuse by a leading industrialist saying that the newspaper depends on the business house for advertising revenue!

This is unfortunately the general scene in India where journalistic principles and morals are forgotten and ignored, because money cannot be made by displeasing those in power (in India, governments place a lot of advertisements in the media) and those running huge commercial empires.

Hicky cared little for authority, and he dared to lose. He languished in prison for 19 months, while his wife and children starved — all for the cause of press freedom.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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