No Government control, only a statutory
self-regulating authority for media
Dynasty out to control media by exploiting public anger against Press
Extremely upset and angry with mainstream and critical of media for their role in exposing mega-financial scandals and failure of the Congress-led Government on all fronts, particularly price rise and Maoist insurgency, the dynasty appears to have made up its mind to gag the Press. While pretending that the Government was for a free Press, several Union Ministers go round expressing their displeasure over the irresponsible conduct of media. Telecom Minister has gone further by throwing broad hints about the desirability of putting in place laws and regulations to ensure that media, including social media, behaves. Meenakshi Natrajan, a grassroots member of Team Rahul, let the cat out of the bag by trying, though unsuccessfully , to move a private member’s Bill in the Lok Saha to regulate media that provides for a regulator with draconian powers like banning or suspending the coverage of an event or an incident that may pose a “threat to national security”. The proposed authority would have the power to search and seize documents and to suspend the operations of media houses.
It is a danger signal in view of the Congress Government’s track record. It had imposed censorship on the Press during the hated Emergency during which the Press was completely gagged. This Government has been abusing public funds by discriminating in allocation of advertisements to media. It rewards the loyalists by giving them liberal doses of advertisements and punishes critical newspapers by denying them their due. They even deny accreditation to inconvenient journalists and pack accreditation committees with ‘yes’ men. It uses billion of rupees on advertisement remembering (only) former Prime Ministers belonging to the dynasty to mark their birthdays and death anniversaries
The Government is trying to exploit the public anger over media’s failures. It thinks there may not be much public reaction if it acts against the media ostensibly to curb its unprofessional conduct. All authoritarian regimes resort to such tricks. Indira Gandhi enacted MISA to curb drug smuggling but used it against political opponents and inconvenient social workers and journalists. It is high time the media recognises the danger lurking in the dark. Unfortunately, sections of mainstream media are guilty of countless sins. The entire media, nay the nation, may have to pay a heavy price for their sensationalism, frivolous and biased reporting. Editorialising news is the order of the day. Distorting news to serve narrow political and financial interests is one of the more serious ailments from which large sections of media suffer. Many newspapers and channels telecast and print sexually explicit images and dish out sleaze under the garb of entertainment. Paid news syndrome and Radiia tapes severely diminished the credibility of media. Big guns in media – print as well as electronic – stand exposed as agents of corporate houses. They behaved like middlemen, power brokers and worse. Corporatisation of media has brought in numerous distortions. Cross media ownership is pushing small and idealist newspapers to margins. Minting money through means fair and foul is the highest priority for the corporates. They have given a go by to media’s social responsibility, ethics and professionalism.
No one is seriously concerned with the need to halt the decline in professional standards can deny the need to regulate the media. A section of political class and bureaucracy who are unhappy with media for exposing their misdeeds are out to curb media’s independence and freedom. They want a law to control the media. PCI Chairman, whose statutory duty is to defend and protect the freedom of the Press, is also arguing for guidelines framed by the Supreme Court. Already there are too many laws to punish those who commit contempt, publish news that endanger peace and national security, violate official secrets act or norms laid down for running TV channels and publish newspapers. Then there is the Working Journalists Act. Some of these laws need to be drastically amended to make them more effective. Media is not a profession like law, accountancy or medicine. Press freedom is fundamental to our democratic polity. Its regulation can’t be left to the whims of the Government of the day. Some media houses, however, are opposed to any regulation. They think they are free to exploit their employees, get concessions from Government and mint money by hook or crook. Further, there are owners/publishers and editors who set up their own bodies and claim they are self-regulating and should be left alone. How effective they are was shown by the experience of NBA. One of its founder members declined to accept a fine imposed on it by NBA and resigned. The channel was persuaded to return to the Association with assurances that no action would be taken against it. This kind of self-regulation may be good but not enough.
India needs a statutory body to regulate all forms of media – print, electronic and social. Before enacting a law to empower the Press Council to deal with the entire media or to set up a Media Council – that Indian Media Centre has been agitating for since its inception and has now been strongly endorsed by the PCI Chairman – in consultation with professional bodies of media persons, media houses, civil society and political parties. Such an effective and credible self-regulatory body needs to be assigned the task of not only regulating media but also protecting it from threats to its freedom and independence from Governments and other powerful elements. It must also ensure that media employees are paid as per the law of the land and no Government tries to misuse public funds by discriminating in allocation of Government advertisements to media houses.
The proposed Media Council shouldn’t be yet another court of law with attendant delays and prolonged litigation. It must lay down normative guidelines for media persons to follow but may be given some authority to penalise habitual violators of laws and norms. It must also look at the media ownership pattern and impact of cross media ownership on the plurality of media. Even an effective self regulatory mechanism can’t deal with all the ills media suffers from. What the country needs is nationalist press conscious of its social responsibilities and committed to professionalism and ethics.