Special editions and rubber plantations

How the Malayalam press reported the war in Iraq.

The state of Kerala, a lightning streak on the map between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, is home to 32 million people, most of whom speak Malayalam, a Dravidian language. The Malayalam press has a rich heritage dating back to the colonial era, boasting such prominent figures as the late journalist 'Swadeshabhimani' Ramakrishna Pillai, whom the British exiled from Kerala because of his much-publicised opposition to colonial rule. Another old-time Malayali press icon is Muhammad Abdurahman Sahib, the late publisher of Kozhikode's Al Ameen, who according to local lore was offered valuable jewellery by one his anonymous admirers on the street to restart the paper after it closed. (Sahib declined.)

One of the most vibrant regional language presses in India, the Malayalam press is heavily influenced by European thought and, despite having a middling readership by Indian standards, exerts an influence beyond the confines of Kerala. The older generation colours its conversations with quotes from Marx, Fannon and Sartre; for young people, Derrida, Chomsky and Che Guevera hold sway. The Malayali may have to depend on imports from neighbouring states for staples like rice and vegetables, but not in the case of periodicals – Malayalam newspapers are available in many newsstands across India, and some even publish editions outside the state.

In part because of a Malayali disapora dotting the Indian Ocean rim and populating many major Western cities, it has a worldview that mixes local tradition with a strong sense of global events. With a sea-faring connection to West Asia going back centuries, it is hardly surprising that Malayalis and the Malayalam press took a strong interest in the war in Iraq.

Generally speaking, Malayalam newspapers adopted an anti-invasion stance during the United States-led war. But there were variations in war coverage, owing partly to the orientation of newspapers and their controlling interests. The mainstream Malayalam daily papers Mathrubhoomi, Malayala Manorama and Madhyamam covered the war independently, though each tailored coverage to the perceptions of their audiences. Taken as a whole, the Malayalam press' coverage of war was on par with that provided by the English-language papers in Kerala, and in some cases better.

The standard-bearer
In the familial universe of Malayalam journalism, Mathrubhoomi (Motherland) is the grandparent who avoids extreme stances, forever trying to please all who matter. A Gandhian, KP Kesava Menon, founded the paper during the independence struggle, after the success of which Mathrubhoomi fell into the hands of business interests who subverted many of its earlier ideals, at times even turning it into a soft communal tool. Thanks to the efforts of liberal staff members, the paper retains a secular tone, and today Mathrubhoomi is the standard-bearer of the 'middle elite'.

During the 'war month', measured here as 19 March-19 April, the paper, as expected, provided extensive coverage of the hostilities, even producing extra sheets devoted wholly to the happenings in Iraq. Mathrubhoomi published eight standard-sized anti-war editorials during the month, at times with a doomsday tone; usually these focussed on war-related problems faced by Indians, in particular Gulf Malayalis. Of the 55 op-ed pieces published by the paper during this period, 37 were war-related, mostly in the oil politics vein, though the paper's managing editor, MP Virendra Kumar, was acerbic in his lambasting of American motives. A consistent theme of Mathrubhoomi's coverage involved the concern that the war would spur terrorist responses, in particular those of the Islamist variety. The paper's coverage, as a whole, was not particularly unique or incisive.

During the war month, Mathrubhoomi, which has a claimed circulation of 700,000, carried an average of four-and-a-half pages of daily war coverage. In most instances, the anchor stories were war-related, though the paper, which had sent a reporter to cover the cricket World Cup in South Africa, did not send a correspondent to Iraq, instead relying on news and features from wire agencies. Judging that the popular Malayali sentiment was against the war, the paper translated the columns of the well-known war correspondent and Pentagon critic Robert Fisk. At the war's conclusion, after the fall of Baghdad, Mathrubhoomi changed its tack slightly, moving from its earlier usage of 'war' to describe the conflict to a more qualified 'attack'.

Soft-pulp Malayalam
Malayala Manorama, often referred to as just Manorama, is a market-focussed newspaper now in its 115th year of publication. It epitomises the tension between run-away commerce and principled stands. Often, the paper shocks its readers by following a quaint editorial policy. For instance, it is still remembered that on 7 December 1992, a day after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the paper's editorial was concerned with a fall in the price of rubber. Most people attribute that particular editorial and the paper's more general journalistic style to its owners, who also run the Manorama Rubber Factory, one of Asia's leading producers of the substance. The more conspiracy-minded of Manorama's critics claim that the paper is on the payroll of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency (the supposed evidence being the presence of the paper's managing director, Mammen Mathew, as the lone Indian representative at a Tel Aviv media conference). The biggest contribution made by Manorama to Malayalam journalism is the professionalism it has introduced to the industry. For many Malayalis, 'newspaper' is still synonymous with Malayala Manorama.

Manorama covered the war against Iraq in truly market-obsessed fashion – in fact, hours before the US and Britain even fired their first missiles into Iraq, the paper published an edition announcing that the war had begun. During the war month, Manorama published two daily editions, the second being a war supplement under the paper's standard masthead. Including reports and photo features, there were four pages of war coverage on average. The paper's 22 editorials during this period were not completely anti-war, but were instead attempts at striking a balance between the pro- and anti-war positions. Photographs played a major role in Manorama's coverage, very effectively helping to convey the pathos of the Iraqi situation. The paper gave much space to rumours surrounding Saddam Hussein and mysterious stories about the Republican Guards. The paper's reports, at one level, were a Malayalified version of 'embedded' journalism, though the paper did not send a correspondent to West Asia, a break with its usual practice of often sending a Manorama reporter as Kerala's sole media representative to outside venues. In total, the paper's war coverage can be characterised as soft-pulp excitement.

The anti-warrior
Madhyamam is a struggling competitor of Mathrubhoomi and Manorama. Run by a Muslim reformist organisation, the paper, despite its limited resources, sent a correspondent, MCA Nazir, to Iraq. The paper was careful to avoid prejudiced reportage from American and British wire services, and focused in great measure on the condition of the besieged Iraqis. As an editorial policy, Madhyamam refrained from using the term 'coalition forces', instead employing 'American-British forces'. The paper did not, however, increase its page length to accommodate war news.

During the war month, Madhyamam carried 16 anti-war editorials under such titles as "Boycott US, UK Products", "Not War, but Barbarism" and "The UN is Dead". The day after Baghdad fell, the title of the paper's editorial was "Not Victors, but Exploiters". Between 19 March and 19 April, the 12-page paper gave an average of five-and-half pages to war coverage, and its Sunday supplement was full of horror stories from the conflict. Madhyamam published 64 op-ed pieces during this period, many of them translations of hard-hitting pieces from internationally known writers. Taking the Malayalam press as a whole, Madhyamam clearly stood at the forefront of the peace movement in Kerala, calling on its readers to protest in the streets against the invasion. Before the war even started, Madhyamam was carrying the translated columns of Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky on the dangers of American global ambitions. Fisk, and later the Australia-based freelance writer John Pilger, received prominent placement in the paper during the war, and continued to do so even at the end of April. Madhyamam made ample use of the resources at its disposal to offer a distinctive viewpoint on the war.

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