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EDITORIALS

Belated, but right
Fielding Tytler, Sajjan was in itself flawed
A
fter a nationwide hue and cry, the Congress has had a delayed mind-change on the advisability of giving the party ticket to 1984 riots-tainted Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. The cold reality is that the announcement that they are withdrawing from the fray is only a fig leaf to hide the party’s acute embarrassment.

Maya vs EC
A Chief Minister can’t have the last word
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s attack on the Election Commission for its apt decision to shift the state Principal Secretary (Home) is unwarranted. Her criticism of Kunwar Fateh Bahadur’s transfer and imputing political bias on the commission is unbecoming of her. It amounts to questioning the authority of the commission.



EARLIER STORIES

Fighting Taliban
April
10, 2009
Abuse of language
April
9, 2009
ULFA at it again
April
8, 2009
Only votes matter
April
7, 2009
Back to Hindutva, softly
April
6, 2009
State has to protect its police
April
5, 2009
A trillion is not enough
April
4, 2009
Cash for votes
April
3, 2009
Fear of truth
April
2, 2009
Munnabhai is not Gandhi
April
1, 2009


The battle in Andhra
Congress faces a tough challenge
The Opposition challenge to the Congress party in the Andhra Lok Sabha and Assembly elections hangs by a thread. Earlier this year, the Congress seemed to be sitting pretty with the Opposition in disarray. The Grand Alliance forged by the Telugu Desam, the Telengana Rashtra Samithi, the CPI and the CPM has, however, forced it on the backfoot.

ARTICLE

Cause of clean politics
Ban corporate funding for parties
by Rajindar Sachar
R
ecently there has been a heated public debate on the TV about donations being made by the corporate sector to various political parties for elections, mainly to the Congress, the BJP and some others — depending on which area a particular company has more stake. Previously, there used to be some hesitancy in admitting the corporate-political monetary axis.

MIDDLE

A matter of choice
by J.L. Gupta
A
s he raised his glass to say cheers, his face fell. Why? My guess was right. His eyes had fallen on the television screen. The party president was announcing the election manifesto. He was livid with anger and said loudly: “Again we have this tamasha of elections. A nauseating cocktail of petty politics, blame game and mudslinging. Each party shall put up big billboards.

OPED

Black money and NPAs
It is time to look beyond Swiss banks
by Sarbjit Dhaliwal
B
ritish art critic and social thinker John Ruskin has said that great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. The world has started believing that India is fast moving to be one of the great nations.

Iran issues nuclear rebuff to US
by Rupert Cornwell
T
he Obama administration’s latest diplomatic overtures to Iran have suffered an initial rebuff, as Tehran on Thursday announced advances in its controversial nuclear programme and confirmed that a detained American journalist would be charged with spying.

Bail out journalism
by Rosa Brooks
T
his will be my last column for the Los Angeles Times. I’ll soon be starting a stint at the Pentagon as an adviser to the undersecretary of Defense for policy.


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EDITORIALS

Belated, but right
Fielding Tytler, Sajjan was in itself flawed

After a nationwide hue and cry, the Congress has had a delayed mind-change on the advisability of giving the party ticket to 1984 riots-tainted Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. The cold reality is that the announcement that they are withdrawing from the fray is only a fig leaf to hide the party’s acute embarrassment. The party was rattled no end after the widespread protests that broke out in Punjab after the CBI gave a clean chit to Tytler. It may be hoping that the ghosts of 1984 that were set to haunt it would now be exorcised, but that cannot be a certainty. “Better late than never” may not find many takers this time, given the manner in which the whole controversy has unfolded. In any case, the ticket denial is not punishment enough.

Giving them the party ticket was unwarranted in the first place. The CBI granting them a clean chit made it worse. So strong was the feeling of hurt and indignation generated by these ill-advised moves that even as unacceptable an act as the throwing of a shoe at the Home Minister by a journalist did not generate the kind of revulsion that it would have in normal course. In fact, since the shoe proved to be the last straw, it rather generated the impression that the party wakes up only when treated this shabbily.

Ultimately, it is the fear of losing seats in Punjab that made the Congress High Command undo its decision to retain them as candidates. While 25 years have gone by since 1984, not many people have been punished. Ironically, similar callousness has taken place in the case of Gujarat riots also. Except for Dr Maya Kodnani, Gujarat Minister of State for Women and Child Development, who was sent to jail only last week, no high-profile person has been punished for nearly a thousand killings in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Irrespective of who is in power — the Congress, the BJP or any other party — it is the duty of the State to protect the lives of the people. The 1984 riots and Gujarat riots should teach the lesson to all those who come to power that they have to exercise authority in favour of every citizen irrespective of his caste, region or religion.

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Maya vs EC
A Chief Minister can’t have the last word

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s attack on the Election Commission for its apt decision to shift the state Principal Secretary (Home) is unwarranted. Her criticism of Kunwar Fateh Bahadur’s transfer and imputing political bias on the commission is unbecoming of her. It amounts to questioning the authority of the commission. The Election Commission was forced to direct the officer’s transfer following complaints from both the Samajwadi Party and the BJP that he was getting their party workers arrested in old cases during pre-election swoops. There were also complaints that the officer was trying to promote the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party’s interests in the elections. Against this background, the commission rightly thought it fit to shift him so that the conduct of the elections is free and fair and appears to be so.

If chief ministers question the Election Commission’s impartiality and fairness, its task will become more difficult. There is an imperative need for giving unfettered freedom to the commission in the exercise of its powers so that it can take whatever steps that need to be taken for holding the elections. Ms Mayawati’s argument that the commission would be held responsible in case of any law and order problem is atrocious and does not stand the test of legal scrutiny.

The Election Commission has to do what it thinks best in the interest of the smooth conduct of elections and chief ministers and all political parties should abide by its decisions. The commission has shifted the Directors-General of Police of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Mr Viswaranjan and Mr S.S.P. Yadav respectively, following complaints against them. Both governments replaced them promptly with persons selected out of a panel approved by the commission. In Punjab, Patiala DIG S.K. Asthana has been shifted following complaints that he was helping SAD candidate Prem Singh Chandumajra. In Haryana, Panchkula DC R.K. Kataria has also been transferred. The commission has rightly disapproved of Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav’s conduct in threatening Mainpuri District Magistrate Ministhy Dileep for cancelling gun licences of many people in his constituency. The election authorities appointed by the commission in the states deserve all respect and cooperation of the political parties in their task. They have also to ensure that they are not open to either persuasion or pressures.

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The battle in Andhra
Congress faces a tough challenge

The Opposition challenge to the Congress party in the Andhra Lok Sabha and Assembly elections hangs by a thread. Earlier this year, the Congress seemed to be sitting pretty with the Opposition in disarray. The Grand Alliance forged by the Telugu Desam, the Telengana Rashtra Samithi, the CPI and the CPM has, however, forced it on the backfoot. The manifest popularity of actor Chiranjeevi, whose Praja Rajyam Party has decided to go it alone, has introduced a new element in the elections. Even as nominations closed for the first phase, there was palpable tension between the TDP and the TRS, with the former putting up candidates in the constituencies allotted to the TRS. Whether these nominees would ultimately withdraw or the alliance would snap is anybody’s guess, but there can be little doubt that this would be a vital element influencing the ultimate result.

The outcome in Telangana (119 Assembly and 17 Lok Sabha seats) may well be the clincher this time around. The Grand Alliance constitutes a formidable force in this region as the combined vote-share of its constituents is more than that of the Congress in 2004. Added to that is the anti-incumbency factor against the Congress and the Opposition campaign against corruption under its rule. In the last elections, the Congress and the TRS benefited mutually by forging an alliance leaving the TDP way behind with just 11 Assembly seats from the region. Now, the Congress is on slippery ground because of its ambivalence on Telangana.

Caste polarisation is not new to the State electoral politics, but this time it will be more distinct. The Congress leadership is dominated by Reddys just as the TDP’s is made up of Kammas. Apart from his film glamour, Chiranjeevi, with his mantra of social justice and change, has drawn a big chunk of Kapu leaders, a powerful community in coastal Andhra (124 Assembly seats). Kapu leaders have traditionally been with the Congress. The Congress is strong in the Rayalaseema region, but this time around it would predictably be no cakewalk for it in the Lok Sabha as well as the Assembly elections.

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Thought for the Day

You can’t shoot an idea. — Thomas E. Dewey

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ARTICLE

Cause of clean politics
Ban corporate funding for parties
by Rajindar Sachar

Recently there has been a heated public debate on the TV about donations being made by the corporate sector to various political parties for elections, mainly to the Congress, the BJP and some others — depending on which area a particular company has more stake. Previously, there used to be some hesitancy in admitting the corporate-political monetary axis. But no longer, one industrialist unashamedly boasting that he gave donations to both parties but of an equal amount. Another donor was more cautious but complained that it should not be disclosed publicly — clever thinking because of the uncertainty about which party may come to power. Such cynicism of money power playing a dominant role in the elections and the people accepting it as a normal feature is a matter of grave concern for clean politics.

It is unfortunate that there is almost no public debate on corporate money power muddying the political process in the country. In the Companies Act 1913, there was no statutory provision banning a donation being made to political parties. The high courts thus had no option but to hold that donations to political parties could be made, but if felt uncomfortable and warned of the dangers involved. C.J. Chagla of the Bombay High Court warned, “it is our duty to draw the attention of Parliament to the great danger inherent in permitting companies to make contribution to the funds of political parties. It is a danger which may grow apace and which may ultimately overwhelm and even throttle democracy in this country.”

Similarly, Calcutta High Court warned, “Its dangers are manifold. In the bid for political favouritism by the bait of money the company which will be the highest bidder may secure the most unfair advantage over the rival trader companies. Thirdly, it will mark the advent and entry of the voice of the big business in polities and in the political life of the country.”

Regrettably, Parliament ignored this warning and added in 1960 Sec. 293A to the Companies Act permitting them to contribute to political parties 5 per cent of their net profits. The danger signs were visible immediately and the Santhanan Committee Report, 1962, recommended a total ban on all donations by companies to political parties because of the public belief in the prevalence of corruption at high political levels strengthened by the manner in which funds are collected by political parties, especially at the time of elections.

However, no action was taken till Parliament became a more diverse body till 1969 and then it was forced to impose a total ban on the contribution by companies to political parties. Madhu Limaye, the Socialist MP, was the dominant voice for banning corporate funding. The statement and objects of this amendment were given as follows:

“A view has been expressed that such contributions have a tendency to corrupt political life and to adversely affect healthy growth of democracy in the country, and it has been gaining ground with the passage of time. It is, therefore, proposed to ban such contributions.” An attempt was made in 1976 to modify the law but failed.

In 1978, the government of India constituted a high-powered expert committee to review the Companies Act, 1956, and the Monopolies Act. It was presided over by a judge of the Delhi High Court. Among its members were some of the top lawyers, industrial houses, trade union leaders, and accountants. It unanimously recommended that the ban on donations by companies to political parties should continue. The report warned, once this is permitted, the danger to democracy can be well visualised; namely, politics being dictated by the interests of large companies which,by the very nature of it, would be able to contribute more funds as compared to the smaller companies.”

Notwithstanding the warning, Section 293A was amended in 1985 and the Board of Directors was authorised to make donation to political parties. That law still continues. It is unfortunate that while other democracies recognise the danger of money power playing an unhealthy part in elections, we are still continuing with it. Thus, in the US under the Federal Election Campaign Act, 1971, it is unlawful for any corporation to make or for any candidate for President, Vice-President and Senator and for Congress to receive any contribution is prohibited, and it is unlawful for any company to make any contribution to political parties.

It is beyond doubt that contributions by companies are given not because of any ideological reason but as a device to be in the good books of the ruling party. Thus, between 1966 and 1969, as many as 75 companies paid down Rs 1.87 crore out of which Rs 144 lakh was given to the ruling party. The ruling Congress party in 1967 alone received Rs 87 lakh.

Perception and reality have not changed. Thus we find that in 2003-2004 the BJP got Rs 90 crore as against the Congress’s Rs 65 crore. The peak of the BJP was Rs 155 crore in 2004-05, down to Rs 137 crore in 2007-08. The rise in the share of the Congress during this period was phenomenal, starting from 2002-03 at Rs 53 crore, upswinging to Rs 265 crore in 2007-08. More significant, the corporate-political nexus is illustrated by corporate donation to the BSP of Ms Mayawati rising in 2002-03 from Rs 10.9 crore to Rs 55.6 crore in 2007-08. Does one need more proof of invidious entry of the corporate sector in our body-politic and of the dangerous consequences.

Another infirmity is the vesting in the Board of Directors the power to choose a political party for giving contributions. Why, it is legitimately asked, the decision to utilise corporate funds should be determined by a coterie of 10 or 15 directors of a company rather than that of thousands of shareholders, who are the real owners.

A further question relates to the legitimate demands of the workers in the company to have a say for the distribution of corporate funds (the Supreme Court has recognised their right in the funds of their company).

All these problems are bound to become more controversial as actual working or utilisation of these funds becomes public. A straightforward, honest, equitable solution is to ban the corporate funding of political parties, as in the US and the UK. Clean politics mandates this as a minimum prerequisite for all political parties. Let the electorate demand that the manifestos of the parties include such a provision. Let them give a straight answer immediately.n

The writer is a retired Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi.

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MIDDLE

A matter of choice
by J.L. Gupta

As he raised his glass to say cheers, his face fell. Why? My guess was right. His eyes had fallen on the television screen. The party president was announcing the election manifesto. He was livid with anger and said loudly: “Again we have this tamasha of elections. A nauseating cocktail of petty politics, blame game and mudslinging. Each party shall put up big billboards. Larger-than-life posters. Take out processions. Hold public rallies. Deface walls. Disturb normal life. A colossal waste of men, money and materials! We are a poor nation. How can we afford such unproductive expenditure?”

I tried to tell him that we are the world’s largest democracy. It is government by the people, of the people and for the people. It is the best form of government. It gives equal rights to all – the poor and the rich. To vote and elect our representatives. They deliberate, discuss and decide. They work for our good. To ensure that we may have peace and prosperity. Be safe and secure. At the end of the term, we assess their performance and determine as to who should lead the country. It is necessary for the candidates to reach out to the people. Hence, the hangama.

I got a mouthful. “More than six decades have passed since we got rid of the foreign rulers. What have we got? Not even freedom from want and hunger. Or from illiteracy and poverty. At the time of election, the politicians present economic, political and social agendas. Promise ‘rotti, kapda aur makaan.’ Raise slogans – ‘Humko lao, garibi hatao’. The promises are never fulfilled. After election, they work only for their own good. And the facts speak. At the end of each term only the politicians are found to have prospered. The poor have only got poorer. Unless we change radically, there appears to be no chance of end to their poverty or problems.”

I tried to tell him that it is because of the sacrifices of our leaders that we are a free country. Some were just shot. Some had willingly gone to the gallows. Some had spent years in prison when they could have lived in palaces. They had made supreme sacrifices so that we could live. A free India was their dream. After attaining the objective, they had opted for a democratic form of government. For people’s progress. And we have progressed.

He looked at me as if I had committed a sacrilege. And after a pause, he asked: “What progress? Have you any idea about the number of people living below the poverty line today? Has their number increased or decreased during the last decade? Have you seen the slums?”

While I was trying to cool him down, he added: “I have not seen the leaders of yesteryear. They may have spent years in prisons. But I am sure that there are many amongst us today who are living in palaces while they should actually be in prisons. Some may have made sacrifices. However, the leaders of today need to be sacrificed. I see no other choice”.

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OPED

Black money and NPAs
It is time to look beyond Swiss banks
by Sarbjit Dhaliwal

British art critic and social thinker John Ruskin has said that great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. The world has started believing that India is fast moving to be one of the great nations.

Unfortunately, when we will begin to write the book of our deeds that will be more about our black deeds and less about white ones. The book regarding our words will be more about what we say, actually we do not mean that and the book on our art will be more about the way we look at our art through a prism of caste, colour and creed.

One of the black deeds which have been rankling the nation for the past several years is with regard to the black money deposited by some corrupt Indians, believed to be politicians, bureaucrats and high-profile middlemen, in Swiss banks. BJP prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi have been trying hard to push the Swiss black money issue to the political centrestage at this crucial juncture of the Lok Sabha elections. “With that money schools can be built, lakhs of Indians can be given employment, debt of poor people can be waived, houses can be provided to poor people and much more can be done”, Modi has been quoted as saying.

Modi has said that the names of all those government officials as well as ministers who have visited Switzerland during the last 25 years should be made public and the purpose of their visits should also be disclosed. Whether they have submitted reports regarding their visits to Switzerland to the government or not should also be made public. The money of Indians in Swiss bank is said to be in the range of Rs 75 lakh crore.

No one should be in disagreement with Advani and Modi on this issue. Black money, that is believed to be corruption money amassed by some politicians and bureaucrats and stashed away in Swiss banks, should be brought back to India and all those holding accounts in such banks should be exposed.

However, Switzerland is not the only country where such money is kept in safe custody. There are several other countries, more known as tax heavens, which provide facility to deposit black money and never reveal the identity of account holders. Pressure should be built to bring money back from all tax haven countries.

For about six years from March 1998 to May 2004, Advani remained the country’s Home Minister and also Deputy Prime Minister for about two years in the Vajpayee Government. Why was he unable to bring black money from Swiss banks then? He should explain to the people.

What do they (Advani and co) have to say about black money in India? Who will dig it out? Most of the black money has been gathered through tax evasion and other foul means by industrialists, traders and businessmen and through wholesale corruption by politicians, bureaucrats and other government functionaries. What measures would Advani and co, if voted to power, take to flush out black money? People should be told about that.

Interestingly, Advani and Modi are also silent about investments made by many Indians in countries where real estate was a hot property about one or two years ago. A year ago, Dubai was one of the most sought after destinations for investment. There are reports that money minted though corrupt means by powerful people has been invested in properties in Dubai and some other places.

Why not concerned to conduct an inquiry to find that how many people have made such investment without following legal channels? Money invested in real estate in some hot destinations is as black as the money deposited in Swiss banks.

An equally important issue over which the BJP leadership, that is pushing the Congress to the wall on the Swiss black money issue, has not opened its mouth is of crores of rupees taken as loans from Indian Banks but have not been returned by most Indian industrialists and business houses.

In fact that is not black money but white money taken from banks through proper channels. In technical or bank parlance the loans that have not been repaid to banks are called non-performing assets (NPA). Some reputed international agencies have pegged NPAs at Rs 1,30,000 lakh crore. However, the RBI has claimed that the amount is Rs 70,903 crore.

In fact, the top brass of most of the banks has been playing mischief for the past several years in revealing the real figure of NPAs in banks. By using various window-dressing measures, banks show far less than the actual NPAs. Banks keep restructuring and rescheduling the loan recoveries to keep NPAs on the lower side.

Several thousand crores of rupees that were to be recovered from industrialists, business houses and other influential persons, have been either written off or adjusted by inventing one-time settlement schemes by banks. Obviously, it was also public money that was advanced by banks to industrialists but was never returned.

What do , Advani and Modi have to say in this regard? It will be interesting to know. Should not defaulting industrialists be made to return all loans to banks? With that white money also lakhs of people can be given employment, thousands houses can be built for the poor and much more can be done for the disadvantaged people of the country.

There are industrialists, who have not returned money for installing “ A” unit, but were advanced more money by banks to install “ B” and even “ C” units with the same board of directors that had installed “A” unit.

Advani and Modi should also speak about “benami” prosperities worth several lakhs crores held by corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and other influential persons. Every property in the country be identified and its title should be put on the government website. And the government, after issuing a due public notice, should take possession of the prosperities not claimed by any one.

Advani and Modi are well aware that as part of its stimulus to revive industrial growth, the Union Government is now pressing banks to advance money to industrialists by lowering bank interest rates on money to be advanced to businessmen, traders and industrialists.

To make more money available to banks, the RBI has brought down the CRR to 5 per cent, which was earlier raised to 10 per cent to tighten the flow of money in the market.

Banks, on the other hand, have slashed interest on deposits. About 60-70 per cent money is deposited by ordinary people, especially retirees and salaried groups. For benefiting industrialists, ordinary people have been made to suffer a loss.

No one should expect any response from the Manmohan Singh government on these issues because “ corruption is a world phenomenon” and it has remained a part of the political philosophy of the governments led by the Congress over a period of time.

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Iran issues nuclear rebuff to US
by Rupert Cornwell

The Obama administration’s latest diplomatic overtures to Iran have suffered an initial rebuff, as Tehran on Thursday announced advances in its controversial nuclear programme and confirmed that a detained American journalist would be charged with spying.

Just 24 hours after Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, declared the US would take part directly in talks to persuade Iran to drop its suspected plan to develop a nuclear weapon, Iran responded by claiming the number of centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility had risen from 6,000 to 7,000 – an increase that many Western analysts and Israel fear brings closer the day when Tehran will have enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb.

At the same time, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad formally opened Iran’s first nuclear fuel product plant in Isfahan, ostensibly to produce uranium oxide for a heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak, 160 miles south-west of Tehran, when it is finished in the next three or four years.

However, some experts believe the facility could be part of a parallel weapons programme that would allow Iran to produce plutonium for two nuclear weapons a year, should it decide to separate the plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel.

In his speech, Mr Ahmedinejad said Tehran was ready to take part in talks over its nuclear programme, but only if the negotiations were based on “justice and respecting rights”. That last condition is a reiteration of Iran’s longstanding position that, while it denies seeking nuclear weapons, it has every right as a signatory of the nuclear non- proliferation treaty to pursue its own peaceful nuclear programme.

Mrs Clinton’s declaration that Washington would “from now on” take part fully in the nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, marks a sharp break with the Bush administration, which had virtually no truck with Iran after it labelled it a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002.

Mrs Clinton said the US believed that “very careful engagement” with Iran “on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world” made sense. Nothing was more important than persuading Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon, she added.

But at the very least, Mr Ahmedinejad is playing hard to get. Thursday’s speech may have been part of a diplomatic minuet influenced by the upcoming presidential elections in Iran and the fact that it was delivered on his country’s official Nuclear Day.

But it sent little signal of a shift in policy, which has seen Tehran turn down offers of incentives to stop reprocessing and enriching uranium, continuing regardless, despite three rounds of UN sanctions.

In another sign that Iran will not back down lightly, the authorities have said that Roxana Saberi will go on trial next week charged with espionage.

Ms Saberi, a journalist with dual American and Iranian citizenship who has reported for several news organisations including the BBC and National Public Radio, was arrested two months ago. Both she and the US government flatly deny the charges that she is a spy working for the US.

Nonetheless, any trial will only complicate Washington’s efforts to engage Iran seriously for the first time since it broke off diplomatic relations after militants took 66 Americans hostage at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Some contact between the two countries has taken place over Afghanistan, most recently at last month’s international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague, attended by Mrs Clinton and Iranian representatives.

But President Obama, has served notice he wants to go much further. In March he sent a personal video address to the Iranian people, referring to the country as “The Islamic Republic” and offering an end to years of stand-off if Iran softened the bellicose rhetoric for which Mr Ahmedinejad is notorious.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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Bail out journalism
by Rosa Brooks

This will be my last column for the Los Angeles Times. I’ll soon be starting a stint at the Pentagon as an adviser to the undersecretary of Defense for policy.

Some might say I have a “new job,” but because I’ll be escaping a dying industry — and your tax dollars will shortly be paying my salary — I prefer to think of it as my personal government bailout.

Like everyone else whose livelihood is linked to the newspaper industry, I’ve been watching, appalled, as newspapers continue their death spiral, with dwindling circulations and thousands of layoffs. Here at the Times, the editorial staff is down to almost half the size it was in 2000. Often, as I’ve watched talented colleagues get the ax, I’ve suspected that I’ve only lasted this long because as a freelancer — with no benefits and minimal pay — I’m just too cheap to be worth firing.

Still, I knew it was time to pray for a government bailout in December, when my editor explained that because the paper’s parent company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, I might not get paid for my recent columns. From a legal perspective, he told me, I wasn’t a columnist — I was an “unsecured creditor” of Tribune Co. (Along with other freelancers, I got paid in the end, but if I ever do this again, I’ll be sure to ask CEO Sam Zell for some collateral first — the title to his house, maybe.)

Of course, I’m not taking a government job only because I feel lucky to parachute out before some cost-cutter eliminates every last column. At this moment in history, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than being part of the new team that’s shaping U.S. policy.

But as I say goodbye to my wonderful Times colleagues, I also can’t imagine anything more dangerous than a society in which the news industry has more or less collapsed.

If newspapers become mostly infotainment Web sites — if the number of well-trained investigative journalists dwindles still further — and if we’re soon left with nothing but the yapping heads who dominate cable “news” and talk radio, how will we recognize, or hope to forestall, impending national and global crises? How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes, as even the best will sometimes do? How will we know if government officials have told us terrible lies, as the worst have sometimes done? A decimated, demoralized and under-resourced press corps hardly questioned President George W. Bush’s administration’s flimsy case for war in Iraq — and the price for that failure will be paid for generations.

It’s time for a government bailout of journalism.

If we’re willing to use taxpayer money to build roads, pay teachers and maintain a military; if we’re willing to bail out banks and insurance companies and failing automakers, we should be willing to part with some public funds to keep journalism alive, too. In an article in the April 6 issue of Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney offer some ideas on how to bail out the news industry. They suggest, for instance, eliminating postal rates for periodicals that get less than 20 percent of their revenue from advertising, a tax credit for the first $200 taxpayers spend on newspaper subscriptions and a substantial expansion of funding for public broadcasting. At the same time, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., has introduced legislation to allow many existing newspapers to restructure as tax-exempt nonprofit educational institutions. And these ideas are just a start.

If the thought of government subsidization of journalism seems novel, it shouldn’t. Most other democracies provide far more direct government support for public media than the United States does (Canada spends 16 times as much per capita; Britain spends 60 times as much). And as Nichols and McChesney point out, our government already “doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect (media) subsidies,” including free broadcast, cable and satellite privileges.

The problem is that many of these subsidies currently are structured in ways that have actually contributed to the decline of high-quality journalism by enabling monopolies, freezing out smaller and locally controlled media outlets and encouraging large corporations to treat the news as just another product, no different from video games or sports teams.

Years of foolish policies have left us with a choice: We can bail out journalism, using tax dollars and granting licenses in ways that encourage robust and independent reporting and commentary, or we can watch, wringing our hands, as more and more top journalists are laid off or jump ship, leaving us with nothing in our newspapers but ads, entertainment features and crossword puzzles.

Don’t let it happen.

— By arrangement withLA Times-Washington Post

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