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The United News of India (UNI) press agency is better known in Delhi journalistic circles for its open-air canteen,which has had even industrialists like Dhirubhai Ambani among its fans...

Written by Seema Chishti |
February 1, 2009 3:14:49 am

With their aim to ‘explain,understand and report for the Urdu-speaking world in India’,the UNI’s Urdu News Service is in focus now

The United News of India (UNI) press agency is better known in Delhi journalistic circles for its open-air canteen,which has had even industrialists like Dhirubhai Ambani among its fans,and the regular demonstrations outside its gates.

But away from the canteen and the protests,in two small rooms inside the sun-filled UNI building,are 18 journalists of UNI’s Urdu news service. With their aim being to “explain,understand and report for the Urdu-speaking world in India”,their work is the focus of all kinds of attention now.

It was UNI Urdu that first broke the story of a Baskin Robbins employee living opposite Nariman House,Hanif Sheikh,who had gone in with NSG commandos at the time of the November 26 Mumbai terror attack,and assisted them with the layout inside,for eight hours.

After UNI Urdu released it,several channels picked up the news,including BBC Urdu. In the difficult hours after the Mumbai attack,the story was like a salve on the city’s wounds.

At a time when media ethics and organisations are under review for their role in difficult times,and questions are being raised about how much freedom media organisations can handle,UNI’s Urdu news service has stood out with insightful stories,going beyond sensationalism and the race to “scoop” news.

Says UNI Urdu chief Sheikh Manzoor Ahmed: “We were conceived of at a time when Muslims in north India were going through a very troubled period,the Shah Bano case and the Babri Masjid movement had created an upheaval which was very difficult to assess,never mind report. And for Urdu papers especially there was a risk that they would spiral off course completely. Our job was to ferret out stories of people not reported by mainstream news agencies,and in a way that shed light on them,and not just cater to sensational stereotypes. Do you know that after UNI Urdu has started,no Urdu newspaper has been dragged to court for anaap shanaap coverage?”

UNI Urdu caters to more than half of the 150 Urdu newspapers seen as mainstream and “financially viable” in the country. Sometimes,90 per cent of what these papers report,is picked up from UNI Urdu. The coverage is consciously balanced between national issues,culture and international issues,and is directed at making coverage more relevant for readers. Its readership is estimated at about 75 lakh per day,typically Muslim,in small and medium towns and city pockets,who don’t have much access to other mainstream print media.

News Editor Anees Jami cites many stories the agency has to its credit: “We hunted out Pervez Musharraf’s house in Delhi; the recent vote of confidence,we had relayed it to early-to-bed Urdu newspapers first; after Benazir’s death and the confusion created by TV,we provided our subscribers with accurate coverage. Even the 2006 Mecca stampede,that our readers were concerned about,was broken by us first. I was there.”

Says Shakeel Akhtar,who started out as part of the first team of journalists employed by UNI Urdu and is now the Head of BBC Urdu here: “It was started to draw the Urdu press into mainstream reportage. Several dailies survived because of it. But even now,several in the Urdu press remain cynical. A lot more is required to bridge the gap.”

In today’s times though,that process may have got speeded up. German TV and VOA Urdu approached UNI Urdu recently with offers of a tie-up. They give Reuters an average of 30 items daily and Iranian IRNA,Xinhua and Kuwaiti KUNA are among UNI Urdu’s clients.

“The way the English or Hindi media see Urdu speakers,it has meant reporting on the Urdu-speaking world with a slant or only about fatwas or trouble,” notes Sheikh Manzoor Ahmed. “We understand their needs and desire to get specialised but comprehensive news,in a troubled atmosphere or even at peaceful times.”

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