Has The Time Come To Rewrite Media Laws?
The government seems to be in a mood to regulate media. Apex court of the country has reserved a judgement on media-reporting. Films and TV shows have started portraying media men as mere imbecile jokers and reporting is perceived to be a funny thing to do. All viewed in a single frame, is it high time for the industry to go for introspection?
On the eventful day of 26/11, hotel Taj Palace in Mumbai was on fire. Terrorists were having a field day killing innocents and hope, too, had stopped hoping. Amidst all this, National Security Guards had initiated a rescue mission, and like the true warriors, they descended from helicopters, encircling the building under attack. Our media had a good fodder to boost their TRPs. While these men risked their lives, media was showing live footage of the operations.
Allegedly, some guards got killed while negotiating the building’s heights; not because they found it difficult to maneuver their way, but because thousands of miles away in Karachi, the masterminds of the terrorist attack were viewing the live telecast, too, and through satellite phone, instructing their stooges to go for a kill. No wonder, Justice Katju always talks of restraining media’s maniacal ways.
Cut to the outcome of Press Freedom Index, an international survey gauging the neutrality of media across the globe showed India ranking at a lowly 131, better than obviously autocratic regimes like China, but worse off than Scandinavian countries, the US, and hold your breath, even Bangladesh. At one hand, we have the obviously unrestrained show by the Indian media, and on the other, such benchmarks.
While one can always question the credibility of such surveys, one intuitive way to solve the paradox is to look at the ranking methodology. It reveals that while there is not undue pressure on the Indian media by the government to hide/publish specific material, the media itself is going to the dogs. Paid news items are common, and it’s also common for the media to receive kickbacks to circulate propagandas. One may not go too far; Nira Radia tape controversy gave us a feeling of what all goes on in power circles.
(Global Press Freedom Index: Lighter the colour, more free a country's press is)
Media stalwarts of the country recently gathered under the aegis of the Editor’s Guild of India to discuss the challenges that the Indian media is facing today. Setting a critical eye on its current style of projecting ‘news’, issues such as invasion of people’s privacy, indecent portrayal of women and children, defamation, sensationalisation, misuse of power and many more were discussed at length. The gathering included the bigwigs of newspaper/magazine and television industry – from editor-in-chief of the India Today group, Aroon Purie, to editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, Rajdeep Sardesai, and eminent journalist Kuldip Nayyar, among many others.
The theme of the gala churning was, “Is it time to rewrite media laws? Does media need a legal framework to regularise itself?”
Present on the occasion, the former law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad pressed upon the need for rewriting some outdated media laws. Also, he highlighted that there wasn’t much law formulated for the electronic media.
“This mad quest for gaining TRPs is driving the content today. To grab every eyeball, many media houses are ready to do just almost anything. This is why we need a proper statutory legal framework for the management of TRPs in the country,” said Prasad.
While Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid, also present on the occasion, didn’t favour curbing the power of media, he said self-regularisation at the end of the industry was not happening either. Reiterating that great power came with greater responsibility, he said, “Media ought to be accountable for its freedom.”
Media Trial Influencing Court Trials?
Of late, it has been observed that media reporting and editorial trials are influencing the proceedings of the judiciary. Intellectuals call it media pressure on judges hearing various cases.
Talking about the Supreme Court’s proposal on setting guidelines for court reporting, Khurshid suggested that court proceedings should be telecast online to avoid probability of any misreporting.
“Media ought to practise some restraint. Sometimes, judiciary gets influenced by media reports and exonerates somebody as per media trials,” said the law minister.
The former editor of The Hindu, N Ravi, disagreed. Constraints in India, especially contempt of court, were more stringent than in other liberal democracies, he claimed. On statutory changes, he said “The legal system is the wrong place to look for a remedy to bad journalism,” and added, on court reporting guidelines, that what court proceedings needed was more openness, not less. Khurshid went to the extent of saying that the judges considering the media “should have a few guidelines for themselves”.
The BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad cited problems such as retired judges appearing on TV to justify their decisions. While it is common in the US, stringent measures are enforced in the UK, the country that we borrow the maximum from, as far as the legal provisions are concerned. Just after the 2G-case verdict, its judge retired and appeared in media on how he was correct in his decisions. There is a reason the law is portrayed blind and with a balance in her hands; judges, too, are supposed to maintain the dignity of their posts, and the best way to ensure neutrality is to stay away from the lure of being a public figure.
Regulator Vs Self Regularization
Media houses appear to have much reservation against laying down of laws for media. Majority are of the view that more than any statutory body, it is the Fourth Estate itself that ought to self-regularise.
“For if we don’t understand where we are wrong and where we must correct ourselves, no one else can help us understand,” said former editor of The Hindu, N Ravi.
Of course, such things read fancy. Raghav Bahl, founder and editor of Network18 Group also said that media’s excesses need to be viewed in the larger context of what has been happening in society, and should not be judged in isolation.
“The good thing is that plurality and competition in the Indian media gives it a much-needed balance. However, we should do some course correction in the manner of our reporting, especially regarding the government.”
“We don’t know how to deal with our freedom,” commented senior journalist and editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta. His vehement comments, flavoured with a dash of witty humour, on the electronic media for running news without checking facts, and for print media on doing biased, misleading stories, were unanimously acknowledged by all those present.
“Why do we have to behave like those dogs, who, if not put on leash, won’t know what to do? We are our best judge; we must take corrective measures finally,” he added. He pressed upon the need for more up-to-date and informed news anchors for airing the ‘right’ news, and sagacious editors who can select news that’s ‘news-worthy’.
Censoring Social Media?
Putting rumours to rest, Salman Khurshid assured that the government is not trying to screen or sensor social media and internet. Instead, he advocated the use of online media and claimed that it is a powerful means and must be made good use of. His remarks gave the online publishing industry a bit of relief. On the issue of social media’s freedom, even the leader from opposition party – Ravi Shankar Prasad – volubly advocated ‘no censorship’.
Also present for discussion was Dr SY Qureshi, former Election Commissioner of India. He raised concern over the growing trend of running paid news. He brought to the fore some blatant insight and shared some shocking statistics in regards to the growing trend of twisting facts for money. Usually, paid-news is telecast in a make-believe way; one might recall how TV channels went berserk airing Mayawati’s achievements before the recent UP Assembly elections.
With all those challenges from legislature, executive and judiciary together facing the media and fingers raised on its integrity and credibility, surely it’s time for some serious introspection for the Fourth Estate.
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