On October 16, 2006, The Times of India published a very revealing article on the Indian media. The article by Dhananjay Mahapatra said India is ahead of the United Kingdom in press freedom. Mahapatra quoted a recent ruling by the highest court in the United Kingdom that said that journalists have freedom to publish allegations about public figures without being able to prove them. This, wrote Mahapatra ?will take sting out of a large number of defamation suits filed by celebrities against media publications?.
But their are some important riders attached to this freedom, namely, that the media must not abuse the privilege of free expression, that it must only publish allegations in the public interest and furthermore that the facts must be ascertained through neutral reporting. So, wrote Mahapatra, ?as long as there is a controversy, and the media has scrupulously followed the ethics of journalism, there is little to fear in publishing it.? It sounds wonderful.
Mahapatra even quoted Jawaharlal Nehru as once saying that he would rather have a completely free press with all dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press. Nehru gave a warning also. ?If there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually withers away. This is true of a nations? freedom and it applies as much to the press as to any other group, organisation or individual.? Sounds great.
But consider what the Chief Justice of India, Shri Y.K.Sabharwal said the other day in Bangalore as quoted by Deccan Herald (November 5) Justice Sabharwal is quoted as saying: ?Trial by media would prove destructive to society in the long-run and the media should think about the fate of the person?either a victim or an accused?to whom injustice may be caused in this process, even if it was proved otherwise in a court law.? The Chief Justice was addressing the valedictory function of the Karnataka High Court'sgolden jubilee celebrations.
According to Justice Sabharwal, the ?public perception? projected in the media may be that the accused in a particular case is ?guilty?. However, on record, the judges may find insufficient evidence to convict the accused. Justice Sabharwal said the situation certainly would create a dilemma in the minds of some judges, if not all, as they would be worried about their reputation being sullied because of ?public perception? encouraged by the media. ?It is the evidence on record that should be considered in deciding the cases and nothing else? announced the Chief Justice, making it clear that ?there cannot be trial by media?. And it is about time that a Supreme Court Chief Justice took the media on.
Interestingly the media has come under attack by a senior media person, Prem Shankar Jha, writing in Outlook (November 6). Condemning a segment of the media, Jha writes: ?The media'srole post-Havana was anything but constructive. Reporters who head Dr Manmohan Singh on his return journey interpreted every sign of caution or reticence as a lack of enthusiasm for the agreement he had just signed. Television adopted a different technique: Ask a loaded question to force a partial concession, then report out of context. Typical of this was an interview with the National Security Advisor?.? One suspects that the television media is a greater culprit than the print media. It is time the media did some quiet inward-looking. A good example is the manner in which an attempt was recently made to throw mud at George Fernandes over the procurement of the Barak missile defence system form Israel. A general impression was sought to be conveyed that Fernandes was corrupt.
Now, in a long article in The New Sunday Express (November 5) former press advisor to Shri L.K.Advani has effectively nailed the lie. Kulkarni writes: ?Our growing compromise with corruption in India'sdefence establishments is deeply disturbing. But what if, in the name of fighting corruption in defence deals, those wielding power misuse the institutions of governance to vengefully target their political opponents? Such mala fide acts are worse than the criminality involved in corruption.? Kulkarni'sarticle covering one full page deserves to be carefully read. His point is that ?The UPA government has misused the CBI in slapping a baseless case of corruption against former defence minister George Fernandes in the purchase of the Israeli made Barak anti-missile system.?
What is interesting is that in an unprecedented expression of disapproval of the government'saction, the entire naval establishment has risen in defiant defense of its former chief. His successor has publicly defended the decision to buy Barak, based on its proven merit and superiority, thus knocking the bottom of the CBI'sallegation that Fernandes and Sushil Kumar wrongly favoured Barak over DRDO'sIndigenous Trishul System. All lovers of truth should read this article.
The perennial problem is how a correspondent attached to a government organisation should handle material given to him. Some play it safe by quoting officials. Reporters cannot afford to be defiant, lest they are marginalised. Getting ?embedded? with the government is an easy way out for a reporter to survive in a competitive field. And that could be one reason why the media sounds so over-bearing.
Or take the case of Sanjay Dutt. He has been very much in the news these days. But Vision India, a national self-reliant peoples? organisation has announced its decision to award the prestigious ?Bharat Vibhushan 2006? award to Sanjay Dutt for his lead role in Lage Raho Munnabhai. Are there two Bharat Vibhushans? Hitavada (November 2) quotes the organisation'snational convenor, one Dr Sushrut Martins as saying that Sanjay Dutt'sportrayal of Munnabhai is the ?climax of his genius which should be recognised unconditionally, burying in the backyard all that he would have done in the past?. The judgment over the Mumbai explosion case has yet to be pronounced but what if the judgment turns out to be against Dutt? Incidentally, the UNI story has not seen the light of day in many papers. Why, may one ask? But the larger question of trial by media remains unresolved.
For a newspaper to gain credibility, its reporting must be totally fair and objective. On this there can be no two views. But there are grey areas as any reporter can tell, that call for coverage. It is a dilemma that many reporters face almost daily. If anybody thinks that a reporter'slife is easy, the person has another guess coming. But one would advise all reporters?and editors?to heed the advice of the Chief Justice. It is well given.