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Muslim-owned media in India takes bold strides

Mar 13, 2009

In southern Indian state of Kerala, Muslim-owned Malayalam newspaper Madhyamam is thriving. Other media houses can learn an important lesson from the success of this daily on how to be broad-based in appeal and approach, says columnist Yoginder Sikand.

Kerala’s Muslims, who form roughly a quarter of the state’s population, are among the most literate Muslim communities in India. A major reason for, as well as a consequence of, the community’s high literacy rate is the thriving Muslim-owned Malayalam press.

Today, literally hundreds of magazines, journals and newspapers are brought out by various Kerala Muslim organisations. These publications have played a crucial role in promoting social and political awareness among Kerala’s Muslims and in getting Muslim views and concerns across to fellow Malayali non-Muslims and to the state authorities. These have also promoted closer interaction between the various communities in Kerala.

A success story

Madhyamam is regarded as the most successful Muslim-owned daily newspaper in Kerala. It was set up in 1987 by the Ideal Publications Trust, most of whose members are affiliated with the Kerala unit of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

It boasts the third highest circulation among all Malayalam daily newspapers in the state. Its chief editor O. Abdur Rahman stresses that it is not a specifically Muslim or an Islamic paper.

It boasts the third highest circulation among all Malayalam daily newspapers in the state

The paper is targeted to all Malayalam readers and takes up general issues, while focusing in particular on those related to marginalised and minority communities, including dalits, adivasis and backward castes. “We see it as the voice of the voiceless,” he states.

Madhyamam has consistently maintained an anti-imperialist stance and has remained supportive of a range of liberation movements. It has bitterly critiqued fascistic and extremist tendencies.

Rahman describes Madhyamam as “a value-based paper” in contrast to commercial papers, whose sole motive is profit-making.

Madhyamam’s editorial offices are located in Calicut, the major intellectual centre for Muslims in Kerala. Currently, it brings out separate editions from six cities in Kerala – Cochin, Thiruvananthapuram, Cannanore, Mallapuram, Kottayam and Calicut – and two in Karnataka – Bangalore and Mangalore.

Separate Gulf editions, catering to the half-a-million-odd Malayalis living in Arab countries, come out from Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, Doha, Dammam, Riyadh and Jeddah, making it the largest-circulated Malayalam newspaper in the region.

In addition, the Madhyamam Weekly magazine has a circulation of some 25,000. Currently, the group has some 1,200 staff on its rolls, including around 500 full-time journalists.

Lessons to be learnt

What lessons does the successful Madhyamam experiment provide for Muslim-owned media houses in India? How is it that Madhyamam has taken such bold strides, in contrast to many Muslim-run papers in other parts of the country?

Abdur Rahman insists that for a Muslim-owned newspaper in India to be effective, it must be broad-based in its appeal and approach, and not limited just to Muslims.

Abdur Rahman insists that for a Muslim-owned newspaper in India to be effective, it must be broad-based in its appeal and approach, and not limited just to Muslims

“It’s only through a secular approach that we can present our views and problems to the wider society. Otherwise, others will not take us seriously and we won’t be able to have any impact outside a narrow Muslim circle. The example of ghettoized north Indian Urdu papers well illustrates this argument. Because of our approach, many of our readers are non-Muslims,” he elaborated.

At the same time, Abdur Rahman continues, this does not mean that a Muslim daily newspaper should ignore Muslim concerns. Muslim perspectives on various developments can be articulated. Muslim papers must abstain from engaging in a monologue.

Challenges

A major challenge that Madhyamam has had to contend with is lack of sufficient advertisement revenue. Newspapers survive on money from advertisements, but from the very beginning it had decided, as a matter of policy, to be very selective about the advertisements to be published.

“This is why we had to suffer major losses, and even now just manage to break even,” he said. A major portion of the profits that the paper generates is diverted to the Madhyamam Health Care Programme, which provides free medical facilities to poor people. In the last six years, some 3,000 patients have benefited from the programme at a cost of Rs 30 million.

Another major problem that Muslim-run papers face, Abdur Rahman explains, is the lack of professionally-qualified journalists. To address this concern, an institute of journalism was launched last year.

Another major problem that Muslim-run papers face, Abdur Rahman explains, is the lack of professionally-qualified journalists. To address this concern, an institute of journalism was launched last year

Currently located in the paper’s Calicut office, the institute offers a one-year diploma in journalism. Presently, it has fourteen students on its rolls. The course fee is Rs 20,000. “This is the only Muslim-run institution of its kind in Kerala,” says Abdur Rahman.

Free working environment

A number of leading non-Muslim intellectuals and social activists write for Madhyamam. To make for a healthy work environment, he also suggests that Muslim-owned papers employ non-Muslim professionals too.

“In Madhyamam some 40% of our journalists are non-Muslims – Christians, Hindus, Marxists and atheists. They have their own political leanings and affiliations. Some are pro-Muslim League, others are with the Congress, and yet others are with the Communists, but that does not matter as long as they work in a professional manner,” he quips.

Madhyamam has ambitious plans for the future. These include a daily English newspaper, with simultaneous editions from Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, a regular television channel (that would follow the same media policy as of Madhyamam), as well as new editions from some other locations in Kerala.

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