Comprehensive coverage of 26/11 done with rare passion and commitment by large sections of media, particularly by the print media, could have earned a lot of respect for the media but it was undone by sections of electronic channels that indulged in sensationalism and insensitive comments on what was indeed a war-like situation. At the end of the day, media tarnished its image and undermined its credibility. Television channels have come in for severe criticism for telecasting unverified information and sensitive footage that jeopardised security forces? operations. There are countless incidents that underline the fault lines in the functioning of the electronic media. Telecasting live images of commandos being air-dropped, quoting a highly exaggerated figure of casualties in Hotel Taj from a ?highly reliable source in the security set up? by none else than a veteran TV personality, telecasting without verifying the rumour about another attack on CST and telecasting ?live? operational details are some of the glaring instances of blunders committed by countless channels.
Security forces are aggrieved that terrorists were getting inputs about operational details from their handlers in Pakistan from the live television coverage of the operational details and exact location of hostages hiding in the buildings under attack. It is now well known that terrorists went to the Chambers in Hotel Taj to fire at guests who had taken shelter there after the information was telecast by a reckless reporter. Broadcasting that 100 or so hostages were stranded in Hotel Oberio Trident is another case in point. A senior military officer had tried to obfuscate by claiming there were no hostages in Trident but a reporter got him contradicted by a top executive of the hotel within minutes. Didn'tthe contradiction endanger the lives of persons trapped in the hotel? The same channel telecasted the information about the number of the room in which a senior journalist was trapped in Hotel Taj. Unfortunately, the senior journalist never came out alive. No one can say whether or not she was killed on the basis of the information the TV channel supplied to the terrorists with the help of their handlers. Yet another channel interviewed a terrorist, even as the operations were underway. It is the same channel that had on an earlier occasion provided a terrorist wanted for his crimes committed in J&K its platform to plead his innocence even before he was questioned by the police.
Although it is no justification for media'sgross indiscretions, the government and the official agencies must also share the blame for many of the blunders committed by the media. The ?brilliant? Home Minister chose to blurt out before cameras sensitive information about 200 commandos being flown to Mumbai to deal with the terrorists. And, for God'ssake, why didn'tthe authorities cordon off areas where security forces were battling with terrorists? Why did the police allow mediapersons to operate from so close a range that they became privy to operational details? I&B Ministry woke up to the need of issuing advisories to the media about delaying telecasting of operations by 20 minutes or so rather late in the day. Further, telecasting of unverified news by information-hungry channels and the unseemly war of words on cameras by various agencies to grab credit for their role in the operations could have been avoided if the I&B Ministry and other agencies had arranged for frequent official briefings of the latest developments.
It is not for the first time that media have failed the nation. Sensationalism and trivialisation of news have been the bane of media for quite some time. Sections of it have been promoting violence, vulgarity, crime and sex to increase circulation and attract more eyeballs. Credibility of sting operations?a powerful tool to expose misdeeds of the corrupt and criminals?has been severely undermined by the channels that acted irresponsibly or allowed themselves to be manipulated by vested interests, including politicians. Equally devastating was the insensitive coverage of Arushi murder case. Credibility was lost by editorialising news and selling editorial space for advertisements under the garb of news. Several newspapers with mass circulations brought shame to the profession by charging money from candidates for favourable reports about their chances of success in assembly elections in Punjab, UP and Uttarakhand. TRP wars among channels are nothing less than a racket. Some regulation of the TRP system to make it credible and accountable is the need of the hour.
All said and done, the grave lapses committed by sections of the media in the coverage of 26/11 has created a situation in which the informed sections of the civil society?that had always stood for freedom and independence of the media?are now demanding regulation of the media by the government (!). It is an alarming situation. A Parliamentary Committee has come up with welcome suggestions. It has asked the government to put in place an effective regulatory mechanism for the media for covering sensitive security developments. Pointing out that self-regulation by the media has proved ineffective; the Committee has called for statutory regulation of both print and electronic media on the model of the Press Council of India with the proviso that the proposed regulatory authority must be vested with more powers. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) is resisting the move on the ground that they have already put in place a self-regulatory ?emergency protocol? for covering riots, terror attacks, hijacking and hostage situations. The protocol, that is in sync with those in place in several western countries, debars channels from live phone-ins with terrorists and hostages, live broadcasting of sensitive situations and broadcasting information that may jeopardise security operations.
The News Broadcasting Standards Disputes Redressal Authority headed by former Chief Justice J S Verma, set up by the NBA, is empowered to admonish, warn, censure, express disapproval and/or impose a fine of up to Rs one lakh and even recommend suspension or revocation of the licence of the channel found guilty of violating these norms. It is fine as for as it goes. But it suffers from two infirmities. First, the NBA that constituted the Authority represents only 14 broadcasters running 22 news channels. What about the remaining 100-odd channels? Will there be no regulation for them? Secondly, it only deals with emergency situations. What about the sleeze under the garb of entertainment served round the clock by countless channels? Finally, the country needs one authority to regulate content in all types of media?electronic, print and Internet, for an even-handed self-regulation of media and to protect it from invasions on its independence and freedom from governments and other agencies.
Freedom and independence of media is non-negotiable. Any form of government control over media is totally unacceptable. Self-regulation is an ideal situation. The tragedy, however, is that self-regulation, as it exists today, has proved ineffective in this era of stiff competition and lure for money. Commerce rather than professionalism and social responsibility has emerged as the dominant motivation of those who own and work in media. Model code of conduct and emergency protocol evolved by statutory or voluntary bodies have failed to prevent large sections of media from going astray. Under the circumstances, the government will have to act as a facilitator for self-regulation. Press Council of India was set up by an act of Parliament for self-regulation of print media. It did serve the purpose to a point. Eventually, it proved rather ineffective for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is toothless and can'tpunish those who persistently violate ethics and code of conduct laid down by it. Further, powerful sections of print media, proprietors as well as editors, disowned the institution and went all out to undermine its authority and credibility. Governments were not far behind. There is the infamous case of Haryana Chief Minister Bansi Lal openly defying the pronouncements of the Council defeating the very purpose for which it was set up. In due course, the Council was manipulated from within. Certain self-styled journalists have manipulated the system to become its members to sit in judgment of others while they are the ones who should be in the dock for violating media ethics and norms.
Before setting up a statutory regulatory mechanism for media, the government and the Parliament must study the infirmities from which the Press Council of India suffers and take appropriate steps to steer clear of these. The government needs to hold wide ranging consultations with the political parties and professional bodies of media to evolve a broad consensus for setting up a more effective and credible regulatory authority for the entire media?print, electronic and Internet. The regulatory authority needs to be empowered to punish those who violate media ethics and norms or abuse their power to suppress and deny freedom and independence to the media. Abundant care will have to be taken to ensure that the authority doesn'tbecome another court of law with attendant delays and prolonged litigation. Equally important is the complex task of ensuring that the Authority should comprise of persons that enjoy the confidence of the media and have high credibility among the people.