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11 December, 2012

Towards media accountability

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Leveson report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom provoked a discussion in India but with media professionals divided and the government indecisive there has been no progress towards ensuring media accountability.

The Indian media presents a complex picture. The print media has a regulatory mechanism that is ineffectual. The electronic media has a self-regulatory mechanism which is even more ineffectual. The provisions of the Information Technology Act put the new media at the mercy of the police.

The constitution is silent on freedom of the press but the state acknowledges it inheres in the freedom of speech and expression, which is guaranteed. In the early years of freedom, newspapers exercised excessive restraint under editors who had experience of war-time censorship and were alive to the grave internal situation caused by post-partition violence. 

The Press Council, set up in compliance with the recommendations of a commission in the 1950s, is headed by a retired Supreme Court judge and includes representatives of newspaper owners as well as journalists, Members of Parliament and eminent persons drawn from different fields. It has no power to punish the wrongdoer. All it can do is to ask the erring newspaper to publish its adverse finding.

During the emergency, when censorship was in force, the government scrapped the council but the next government revived it. The experience of that period brought home to the journalists and the public the importance of press freedom. Their combined opposition forced Rajiv Gandhi to abandon a move to bring in a law to regulate the press.

The Press Council can claim credit for drawing up a code of ethics but over the years it lost such moral authority as it possessed. It remained a mute witness when the Times of India group entered into “private treaty” relationships with corporate entities. It investigated the “paid news” phenomenon but could take no action against the erring newspapers.

Television channels did not exist when the Press Council came into existence and are outside its purview. Five years ago, as the public reacted angrily to a channel’s fake sting operation against a school, the government considered legislation to bring the electronic media within its ambit or set up a separate regulatory mechanism for it. Channel owners immediately announced a code of ethics and set up their own regulatory mechanism styled as News Broadcasting Standards Authority, headed by a retired chief justice of India. The NBSA has eight members, four drawn from within the electronic media and four from outside. 

There are a few hundred news channels in the country but only 40 run by companies owned by the association which set up NBSA come under its jurisdiction. In one of the few cases of successful intervention, NBSA imposed a fine of Rs100,000 on a channel holding it guilty of intruding into the privacy of individuals in a report on homosexuality in Hyderabad.

In a complaint to the police, Navin Jindal, a Congress MP and industrialist, recently alleged that the Zee TV network attempted to extort Rs1 billion from his companies over a five-year period by way of advertisement charges. The network counter-charged that Jindal had offered it advertisement contracts to stop airing adverse reports.The police arrested two senior editors of the network. At the time of writing, several weeks later, they are still in jail without bail. The police summoned the owner of the channel and his son for interrogation.

A secretly taped video released by Jindal clearly shows that the channel editors compromised their journalistic position by entering into negotiations for a long-term advertisement contract. At the same time the editors’ prolonged detention strengthens the network’s charge of political motivation.

The basic issue is one of the media’s accountability to the society it seeks to serve. While the law can step in to deal with criminal conduct, there is a vast area beyond the reach of the law where accepted professional values must be the determining factor. It is here that the regulatory mechanism must play its part.

The concept of press freedom demands the government’s exclusion from the process of regulation. Justice Markandeya Katju, the Chairman of the Press Council, advocates the creation of a statutorily backed professional body for mediapersons similar to those already in existence for doctors and advocates. It is a pity the media fights shy of this eminently practical solution. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, Devember 12, 2012..

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