Press Council of India chairman Justice Markandeya Katju is again in the news, one for a good reason and another for a questionable one. The good news is that in a recent letter addressed to the Union Cabinet and the Union Home Secretary, to all Chief Ministers and State Home Secretaries he has said bluntly that he is “not going to accept violence on journalists by the police or paramilitary forces”. The letter, in effect, said that “the paramilitary forces and police in all States/Union territories must be instructed not to commit any violence on media persons, otherwise they will face criminal proceedings which the Press Council will launch against them”. Mr Katju reportedly was incensed to learn that three journalists, allegedly beaten by CRPF personnel while covering protests in Srinagar on November 25.
In his letter to Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, Katju said “it is the duty of the Press Council, under Section 13 of the Press Council Act to uphold the freedom of the press”, that “a journalist while covering an incident is only doing his job” and that “just as a lawyer cannot be equated with a client, so also a journalist cannot be equated with the crowd”. To that, Abdullah’s reply was that journalists themselves were not taking steps to protect themselves. According to available information, since 1992 as many as forty seven journalists have been killed in India. Omar Abdullah’s suggestion is that journalists who wish to plunge into crowds to get appropriate photographs “should wear brightly-coloured jackets with the word PRESS displayed on them, so they can be identified easily by the law-enforcing agencies.
One does not know what response Katju has received from the other Chief Ministers. Karnataka Chief Minister DV Sadananda Gowda spoke the other day at a function to present Media Academy Awards held in Bangalore. He spoke only of the need for a debate on Media Regulations, whether it should be Self-Regulatory or legally enforceable. As he put it: “Reportage needs to be healthy. Breaking News can break man”. Gowda emphasized the need for “constructive criticism from the media” with sensitive issues being reported “with care and caution” – standard advice given to journalistic rookies. Katju calls himself a “votary of liberty” and his criticism of the media “is aimed at making them better”. The Hindu (November 16) carried a full page interview with him in which he defended his demand for getting “more teeth to the Press Council” – a reasonable demand in the context of current events. As he said often enough, he also wants the broadcast media to be regulated. He told the interviewer: “if the broadcast media insists on self-regulation, then, by the same logic, politicians, bureaucrats and so on must also be granted the right of self-regulation, instead of being placed under the Lokpal. Or do the Broadcast Media regard themselves so holy that nobody should regulate them except themselves? In that case, what is Paid News, the Radia Tapes etc? Is that the work of saints?” Everybody is accountable to the people in a democracy – and so are the media”. Interestingly, Katju has the support of Vice President Hamid Ansari who has come out in favour of a media regulation framework, agreeing with Katju that self-regulation has failed. Speaking at a function in New Delhi to observe National Press Day, Vice President Ansari said “collective self-regulation has yet to succeed in substantial measure because it is neither universal nor enforceable. Individual self-regulation has also failed due to personal predilection and the prevailing of personal interest over the public interest”. And he wondered whether the freedom enjoyed by the broadcast media was being manipulated by media companies for their own purpose” (The Hindu, November 17). Incidentally, The Press Council of India has recommended making Paid News a punishable offence both for the media organization and those paying money for the purpose. Deccan Herald (November 17) reported BJP leader Prakash Javadekar, also a member of the PCI as saying that “we have asked government to amend the Representation of the People Act to make it (Paid News) punishable offence and electoral corrupt practice”. Which is all very well, but as Sashi Kumar, chairman of the Media Development Foundation, based in Chennai says in The Hindu (November 22) while in a democracy, the first three pillars “the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are constitutionally accountable to the people… it is only the fourth pillar of democracy or the Fourth Estate, which is not institutionally or constitutionally accountable, and indeed, that is the way it should be”. Sashi Kumar’s point is that—and Justice Katju and Shri Ansari might wish to remember it – “if the Fourth Pillar were to be so accountable, it would lend itself to the systemic oversight of one or more of the other pillars and would therefore cease to be a free press in the true sense of the term”.
But to switch to another issue, namely Katju’s objections to the prominence given by the media to actor Dev Anand’s death. The Hindu (December 7) reported Katju as saying that putting the news of an actor’s death on the front page, only showed “a lack of sense of priority” in the media. Katju’s point was: “The country is facing problems like poverty, price rise and incidents like farmers’ suicides. Wasn’t all that more important?” Interesting question. What he said merely shows the essential difference between two Js: Judges and Journalists. Katju must take a course in journalism at some of our leading Communication Schools. He has still a good deal to learn about the role and function of the media. May be he may even benefit from a talk with Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook who has just published his memoirs and has hints to give about a journalist’s duties.