Journalism in the Gulf is losing its appeal
Indian journalists have long formed the backbone of the media in the Gulf but it’s a decreasingly rewarding career move
Recently a friend of mine who wanted to start a magazine in a Gulf country asked a prominent journalist in India to look for an editor to work with him. My friend wanted someone with modest experience and the salary offered was decent. After two months came the reply: the search in India had turned up nothing and, more surprisingly, many young journalists who were contacted didn’t even bother to get the details of the offer.
This is not unusual. Across the Gulf, an increasing number of newspapers and other publications are finding it difficult to recruit journalists from India, and some have to contend with a depleting staff. Also, many Indians who joined the Gulf media recently have returned home.
This development marks a seismic change in the short history of English journalism in the Gulf. For decades, Indians have formed the backbone of the region’s English-language press and currently constitute around 70% of its journalists.
So why is the Gulf losing its allure for Indian journalists? First, India is witnessing a media boom, which has resulted in an unprecedented surge in salaries. Television channels are proliferating, newspapers are on an expansion spree and new players are entering the market – all of which have opened up an Eldorado of opportunities for local journalists. At the same time in the Gulf, salaries haven’t kept pace with galloping inflation due to the availability of cheap labour from a number of countries.
Secondly, journalism in the Gulf is not held in high esteem by media professionals in India, and Gulf experience adds no value to one’s CV. Those who have had a long stint in the region admit it has been a drain on their creativity and a corrosive influence. There is no professional growth for a large majority, no freedom of expression and no competition, and journalism practised there is, at best, the PR variety.
Investigation into sensitive issues is unheard of. The Gulf governments tend to have an aversion to public exposure of anything negative and detest controversies. Even the local population doesn’t expect foreigners to dig up anything murky, as it is seen as an intrusion. The lines are clearly drawn and foreign journalists should not cross them – unless they are prepared for a one-way ticket home.
In the Gulf, it’s not governments alone that influence news. Commenting on an article I wrote in Cif recently about migration to the Gulf from the Indian state of Kerala, a reader said Indian journalists in the Gulf should highlight the exploitation of workers by companies, especially those managed by Indians.
He was perhaps alluding to the failure of Indian journalists to expose the violations committed by their own countrymen. This failure is a fact and is a rank example of both the helplessness and degeneration of Indian media workers. Businessmen are the biggest dispensers of gifts and favours to journalists, and the latter wouldn’t do anything to invite their displeasure. Even if a few want to expose their misdeeds, they may not succeed because businessmen, as advertisers, have immense influence over media owners. This doesn’t mean they routinely flout the laws, but that free and fair reporting is very tough.
Indian journalists working in the Gulf miss the influence and social status they enjoy back home. India has a free media and journalists have easy access to all centres of power. Politicians, bureaucrats and celebrities court them, and vice versa. Steady, stunning exposés of corruption in high places, controversies involving celebrities, and a stream of sensational stories make their career exciting.
For those who are used to such heady stuff, reporting on the routine activities of expatriate organisations and the inauguration of neighbourhood supermarkets in a Gulf country will appear not only utterly stupefying, but even outright trash.
The English-language media in this region will continue to be dominated by foreigners, Indians or others, for a long time. Gulf citizens are a rare sight in the newsrooms. Despite the vigorous nationalisation of jobs being undertaken by governments, there is no talk of representation of Gulf nationals in the English-language media. The reason: this is a creative profession that requires both skills and experience to excel, and Gulf citizens who enter the field don’t have the patience to acquire both – at least, not for the salaries they are paid.
The new trend doesn’t mean that Indians will soon empty out of the newsrooms. India has a huge reservoir of manpower; so replacement will not be a problem. But quality will certainly be a casualty if managements don’t take corrective steps to retain and attract talent.
While I was writing this, my mobile phone rang. I answered the call and my colleague broke the news: he has submitted his resignation.