New Delhi: In an article, titled “Asleep at The Wheel?”, the Time magazine in  June 2002, while doing a commentary on the then Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wrote: “India’s leader (Vajpayee) takes painkillers for his knees (which were replaced due to arthritis), has trouble with his bladder, liver and his one remaining kidney, takes a three-hour snooze every afternoon on doctor’s orders and is given to interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings.”

Less than 15 days after the publication of this article, the Vajpayee government, taking everyone by surprise, announced that it was allowing the foreign investment in print media, reversing a decision that was taken way back in 1955.

When asked by journalists, the then Information and Broadcasting minister, Sushma Swaraj, on the sidelines of a press conference at the PIB hall, where she announced this decision, said that pieces like something that appeared in the Time magazine, just days before the government’s decision to go for FDI in print were “too small a thing” to influence the government’s long-term vision and the Vajpayee government believed that FDI in print was needed to make India a knowledge superpower.

According to a veteran journalist, the BJP-led NDA government was facing stiff opposition from the Congress and the Left parties not to allow FDI in print media on the ground that foreign owners of newspapers will “poison” and “negatively impact” the mind of the readers and more importantly will not “listen” to them. The “big” media houses, too, had mounted an extensive campaign to stop the foreign media from entering into India, the journalist told The Sunday Guardian.

The critical piece on Vajpayee carried by the Time magazine, according to this journalist, was in all probability, a last-minute attempt by “vested” interests which included “top media houses” to stop the BJP government from allowing FDI in print media. It became evident after editors of some of the top media houses came out in strong criticism of a “foreign magazine” which had “dared” to criticize the Indian Prime Minister.

More than 18 years later, the FDI in print media is still at the same level at which it was during the Vajpayee government: 26%.

As per the “Consolidated FDI Policy (effective from 15 October 2020)”, that was released by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, the FDI allowed in print media lies at the extreme bottom, along with FDI in PSU banks, where there is cap of 20%.

To put the fear of the bureaucrats, who decide how much FDI should be allowed in print media, in context, the FDI that is allowed in strategic sectors like defence and airports is 100%. To put it illustratively, a foreign company can make guns and explosives in India, but it cannot fund a newspaper or a news magazine.

According to official sources, the present BJP government had started an internal discussion in the initial period of 2018 to increase the FDI in print from the existing 26% to 49%. However, the plan was shelved after “print media giants” mounted an aggressive fight back and forced the executive to impress upon the legislature the “disadvantages” of increasing FDI in print media. As per government figures, between April 2000 to December 2019, the total FDI inflow was Rs 2,636,361.99 crore. The share of the media in it (including electronic media) was Rs 51,829.62 crore or 1.91% of the total FDI that came to India in the period.

A former secretary level officer of government of India, who was a mid-level officer when FDI was allowed in print media in 2002, said that enough safeguards were put in place to ensure that the newspaper or magazine that gets the FDI does not become a platform for overly anti-India pieces.

“The officials who come at the position of decision making, due to vast years of experience, start practicing the policy of going with the status quo and are afraid to take any new step. The same trait was there at that time too. So, a lot of homework was done and ‘safeguards’ inserted while allowing FDI in print and ensuring that the management and the editorial content is decided by people sitting in India. Severe restrictions were placed on changing the shareholding pattern, ¾ of the Directors were to be Indians, all key editorial staff were reserved for Indian nationals and so on. The long-term vision at that time was to allow 100% FDI in media in the coming years. However, with a change in the government, that goal got lost,” he recalled.

Official sources privy to the matter stated that multiple media outlets, including some US based ones, have shown their inclination to start an Indian edition of their publications, but are worried about the “license Raj” outlook of the government when it comes to print media.