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India ahead of China in liberty, will soon overtake in prosperity, observes German media doyen

By Syed Nazakat

A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, remarked American playwright Arthur Miller in 1961. Newspapers, historically, have ensured flow of news, information and debates which eventually have generated ideas, free space and freedom. With the emergence of the new media, the debate is whether newspapers will survive in the shifting media landscape. In Europe and elsewhere, they are now an endangered species. German media doyen and editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, Theo Sommer, points to a grim future for newspapers in Europe.

Circulation has been falling for years in Europe; the web has hastened its decline in recent years. “Germans are spending less time reading national newspapers since they started using the web,” said Sommer. “The trend is similar across Europe.” In the UK, the circulation of newspapers declined 21 per cent and in Switzerland and the Netherlands newspapers have lost half their classified advertising to the internet. Since 2009, the US has seen a number of major dailies either closing down or going for drastic job cuts. Newsweek has closed its print edition and TIME is facing an uncertain future. 

The European media market is pervaded by the phrase: Stick to ink, and sink.

So what is the future of print media? “[In the days ahead] the focus would be on news rather than paper,” said Sommer, who was in Delhi on the invitation of the Editors Guild of India to deliver a lecture in memory of another doyen of journalism, Rajendra Mathur. His topic was: ‘The rise of Chindia—the decline of the west, in particular the demise of Europe’. Sommer offered hope: despite the market’s pulls and pressures, good journalism will survive.

Sommer, who analysed the biggest international stories of the past five decades in the lecture, shared his take on how India and China were taking different paths on press freedom. India, he believed, has been a market with a special affection for newspapers for local communities thanks to freedom of expression enjoyed by the citizens. China’s case is different.

“Like many westerners I’m fascinated by the question, who will make it first to affluence and freedom, India or China? Today I think India is way ahead when it comes to liberty, the freedom granted to its citizens by the democratic system. While China is way ahead with respect to the economic betterment of its people and providing society with a modern infrastructure,” Sommer said. He shared several scenarios ranging from the end of dominance of the west, the end of predominance of the US to alternative scenarios where India and China continue to be developing countries for a longer period. “As a historian I would say that history never holds only one future in store for us. There is always a plethora of possible futures,” he said. “There will be surprises in the future.” 

He spoke of how the two countries are bursting with self-confidence and the future scenarios for the two. To what degree will India and China be prepared to take on global responsibilities? Will growing resource-rivalry increase tensions between the two Asian giants, as well as between Asia and the west? Can both cope with their domestic troubles, their social deficiencies and their ethnic problems? And, by the way, which of the two will win the race for prosperity and liberty? “Today, China is ahead in the race for prosperity; India leads in the freedom race,” said Sommer. “By mid-century, the elephant may well leave the dragon behind on both counts.”

THE WEEK, March 20, 2013

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