Indian Premier League April 16, 2008

Crass discrimination

The IPL's severe restrictions on Cricinfo will not prevent the website from covering the tournament to the best of its ability
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The IPL's outrageous regulations are a brazen assault on the concept of freedom of the press by a sports body apparently drunk on its sense of power © AFP
 

Our worst fears have come to pass. Cricinfo, and all other cricket websites, who serve millions of cricket fans, have been subjected to a crassly discriminatory set of regulations by the Indian Premier League that seek to severely undermine our ability to cover the event. Cricinfo's journalists have been barred from entering the press box, and it has been made clear that agencies will not be able to sell us match pictures.

It is not merely a denial of our basic rights as a media organisation and with nearly ten million readers, we can lay claim to be the world's largest cricket media organisation. It is a denial of the rights of every cricket fan, each one of you who follows cricket on Cricinfo. It is also a brazen assault on the concept of freedom of the press by a sports body apparently drunk on its sense of power.

The IPL's attitude towards the media has been insolent from the outset. They began with the premise that they owned every photograph taken by press photographers and agencies at their matches, and by demanding that news organisations hand such photographs over to the IPL for perpetual use, free of cost. They also decreed how photographs ought to be used, how many could be used, and who could use them.

Inevitably, their bluff was called. Faced with a media boycott, the IPL was forced into withdrawing, one by one, its obnoxious clauses. Lalit Modi, to whom must go the credit of conceiving the IPL, and with it these outrageous regulations, had apparently not reckoned with the clout of newspapers. But websites remain a soft target. There are only a few of us dedicated to cricket, and we don't feature on the political map.

The reason advanced to keep us out couldn't be more spurious - and potentially more dangerous. It has been argued that "standalone cricket portals" will not be entertained at the ground and be allowed to use agency pictures because the IPL has sold its web rights. What next? Newspaper rights? News agency rights? Photo rights? Surely, freedom of the press can't be a partial and expedient device. Speciously, websites run by newspapers, and general-interest websites have been exempted. Only we, the ones who spend all their energy and resources in covering cricket, have been isolated and targeted.

 
 
Our commitment to cover cricket is absolute, as is our obligation to you. We will try to bring you every game with the same rigour and depth you have come to expect from us
 

It has been argued that what we do conflict with the IPL's commercial interests. In other words, as long as we are around, as long as cricket fans see us as the most comprehensive and credible source for news, views and scores for cricket, the BCCI's ambitions for its own website are unlikely to be fulfilled. They are missing something important here: Independence and credibility are vital ingredients for any media organisation. A cricket board can not be expected to rise above its own interests.

Of course, we have commercial interests. We provide a free service to cricket fans, but like all media organisations we accept advertisements. However, covering cricket is more than just a business proposition for us. Cricinfo was founded on passion and that spirit remains untouched. To us, covering cricket is much more than a business, it's an obligation to the game and to the millions of readers who rely on us. We cover cricket in Kenya and Bermuda; and in India, we go considerable lengths to cover domestic cricket, that impoverished and uncared-for cousin, with no expectation of returns other than the satisfaction of having served cricket. This, of course, might be beyond the comprehension of those who cannot see the game beyond the rights it offers.

Sport and the media have always enjoyed a mutually profitable relationship. Media promotes sport, sport helps sell papers, boost viewership and page-views. Neither can prosper in denial. The IPL's misbegotten agenda of restricting the rights of the media was born out of short-sightedness and arrogance. It is a relief that wiser counsel has prevailed in most matters.

We will live with the restrictions. You may keep us out of cricket grounds, but you can't take cricket out of us. Boycotting the IPL is not an option for us. Our commitment to cover cricket is absolute, as is our obligation to you. We are not blind to the significance of the IPL, which could be a seminal event in cricket, for better or worse. We will try to bring you every game with the same rigour and depth you have come to expect from us. Please bear with us if some matters like photographs are beyond us.

No one is bigger than the game. Administrators will come and go, but as long as cricket is around, Cricinfo will be here to cover it. That's a promise.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo