Ram Bahadur Rai
Journalism today represents a sort of anarchy. In the absence of an institution called editor, there is grave danger to the tradition of journalism, its rules and regulations and samskars. Journalism has a glorious tradition of 250 years. There was a tradition of sacrificing for the sake of truth. This is now-a-days replaced by sacrifice for power.
The first reason of anarchy in journalism is absence of leadership. The other one is, the institutes that were set up to guide the course of journalism post Independence became irrelevant today. For example, take Press Council. It was set up to safeguard the interests of the readers. If the readers were disturbed by the wrong information presented in the media he had the right to approach the Press Council. The decisions of the PC were acceptable to all newspapers. Though the PC has no legal rights, it has a moral authority. A tradition came into existence where all the newspapers would accept and implement the decisions of Press Council. But in case of H K Dua the Times of India refused in plain words that it would not obey the verdict of the Press Council, come what may.
Thus, the largest media group of the country challenged the power and authority of the Press Council. It was necessary then for the government to take this challenge seriously and give some legal authority to the Press Council so that it could initiate some punitive action against such violators. But that did not happen. On the contrary Press Council was rendered weaker instead of strengthening it.
Today Press Council has no locus standi. This is mainly because it has its authority over the print media only. Today three-fourth of media is out of the reach of Press Council. Justice P B Sawant was the chairman of Press Council 15 years ago. He was aware of the weakening of Press Council then. In view of this he suggested to set up a media council replacing the Press Council. He prepared a legal document for this purpose. He invited me to his office in Faridkot House and discussed the provisions of the document. Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister then and Sushma Swaraj was I & B Minister. One day I and Justice Sawant went to her and presented the draft to her. She read it and gave a patient hearing to our proposals. She even assured us that she would act on it and set up a media council soon. But, alas, the media council still remains a mirage.
Came 2009 elections and media were face to face with ‘paid news’ cases. Big newspapers and channels were also involved in this business. There were discussions on this issue on various fora including the Parliament. During one such debate in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley had said “Press Council is a toothless tiger”. His views evoked wide responses then. Now he is I & B Minister too. This is a good omen for journalism today. Let us hope that Arun Jaitley would convert the Press Council into a Media Council during his tenure.
But when I talk about anarchy in journalism, I mean the people in the government developed a viewpoint that when we are talking of free economy, any attempt to regulate media would go against that very principle of free market economy. This began in 1991 with the regime of free market economy and it was not important who were in the government then. What is important is they had developed this mindset against regulating the media. But democracy means power of the law and all are equal before the law of the land. And if any laws are made for media how that could be considered as regulating the media? But the people in government have accepted that media has become so strong that it refused to be bound by any law. That is it is more at ease with this anarchy.
On the one hand the government is giving free hand to media barons, allowing them to have their own way and not holding them responsible for anything, on the hand, it is making laws to regulate the freedom of press and media. Since Independence as many as 19 laws have been made to regulate journalism. Journalists have to cross over 19 hurdles before they start working. This leads to a couple of questions—One, What should be the nature of media ownership? And Two, should the media be run on foreign capital? These questions are significant today because in the present journalism the freedom of journalists is associated with these two questions. Once we find answers to them, journalism will blossom, otherwise, the whims of the owners will rule the roost. And that would mean cut in the rights of common readers and viewers at the cost of government and capital.
Let us come to the first question. Should the media be allowed to accept any capital? There are over a lakh journals and magazines registered in our country. The government has given license to 900 television channels. There is no control over the social media. In spite of this the overall image of journalism is not good. They are not strengthening the voice of the common people. Just 14 houses are controlling the entire media with monopoly houses emerging. Democracy and monopoly does not go together. The monopoly of media houses has threatened the democracy. People’s rights are ignored. They are not interested in lending a strong voice to people. They show or print that material which they feel would benefit them. They have nothing to do with the people and their problems.
Media houses run by foreign capital also pose threat to democracy. During Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure permission was granted to allow foreign investment in media at the behest of five media houses on June 25, 2002. There was countrywide debate on this issue and public opinion was against foreign investment in the media. Ignoring this permission was granted of 26 per cent FDI in print and 100 per cent FDI in entertainment media. This led to supremacy of foreign investment in Indian media. No country in the world allows foreign investment in its media. We need to learn from them.
Arun Jaitley had said in a programme organised in memory of Justice Jagadish Sharan Verma in January 2015 that he is not in favour of any regulation on media but there is a need to discuss and debate over their ownership rights. His suggestion deserves better treatment. That alone would make the journalism healthy and clean.
(The writer is senior journalist and Editor of Yathawat magazine)