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Friday, June 18, 2021

Whither freedom?


Tags : Naveen Jindal | Congress | Karnataka | media |

The credibility of the mass media in India took a big battering in the course of 2012 on account of a series of incidents – including the allegation that two senior editors-cum-business managers of the Zee television network sought to blackmail and intimidate the associates of Congress MP Naveen Jindal, the  broadcast of the molestation of a woman on the streets of Guwahati in Assam and the filming of an attack by Hindu fundamentalist hooligans on a group of young women and men in the outskirts of Mangalore in Karnataka, to name just three.

There must be serious introspection on whether self-regulation is good enough to curb the excesses of rogue elements in the journalist fraternity and among owners of media organisations or if an independent regulatory authority is required. The debate on this issue has so far been rather desultory and confined largely to the media. Different sections of society need to get actively engaged in the discussion. Freedom of expression and the independence of  media are topics that are too important to be left to the media alone.

To be fair, the debate on excesses committed by the media is not confined to India alone. The publication of the November 2012 report of the Justice Leveson committee of inquiry, which looked into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following a scandal relating to illegal interception of phone messages of Milly Dowler, a young girl who was murdered, by journalists of the now-closed News of the World publication controlled by the world’s most powerful media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, has sparked off a fresh debate on media ethics. The Leveson committee has recommended that a new independent authority be set up to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission of the United Kingdom.

Murdoch and his son were grilled by a committee of MPs. In India, the head of the Zee group Subhash Chandra had to appear before the police and agreed to take a lie detector test. Even as these prominent people hog the headlines, the bigger issue of the kind of regulation that the media requires remains unresolved. There are some who believe the existing laws of the land are adequate to check journalists who transgress limits. After all, journalists are like any other citizen in the country. Thus, what is required are better forms of self-regulation, it is argued.

Self-regulation would indeed be the best form of regulation if we lived in an ideal world. But we don’t. Take the case of the News Broadcasters’ Association and its associate ethics panel, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority headed by the former Chief Justice of India JS Verma. The NBSA has the power to levy fines and undertake suo motu or ex parte inquiries against specific television channels that are constituents of the NBA. The problem simply is that there are many more television news broadcasters who are not members of the NBA than there are members. The writ of the NBSA does not apply to non-members. Moreover, even existing members can threaten to quit the self-regulatory organisation when they wish to – as India TV headed by Rajat Sharma once did after the Farzana Ali episode in which a Pakistani analyst’s comments were misrepresented and taken out of context.

As far as the print medium is concerned, the Press Council of India is a quasi-judicial body set up by an act of Parliament that has always been headed by a former judge of the Supreme Court (never by a senior journalist) whose domain does not extend to the electronic media. The simple problem with the PCI is that it has no punitive powers. It can, at best, admonish or pass strictures against someone or the other, not levy a fine on the offender leave alone put him behind bars. It cannot even ensure that a wing of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity or DAVP – denies advertising support to an errant publication.  The fact is that the Council is a toothless tiger that cannot even growl.

So what’s the way forward? One way would be to institute an adequately-empowered Constitutional authority that can be funded by the government but would remain independent of both the media and the government, somewhat like the Election Commission of India, the Comptroller and  Auditor General of India or, for that matter, the Supreme Court. Once such a body is set up, one can debate who should head it and what should be the kind of powers it should be endowed with, that is, whether regulation would be heavy-handed or with a light touch.

Will this happen in the foreseeable future, say, by the end of 2013? Probably not. Even if some journalists have a perpetual love-hate relationship with politicians, more often than not, the media-politics nexus is rather close and cozy. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if sections of the media continue to blatantly violate ethical norms in the year ahead.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017