G R O U N D   Z E R O

Should Indian media be restrained?
raj chengappa

The Indian media not just imparts news but these days also seems to be making news, albeit for the wrong reasons. Naveen Jindal, industrialist and a Member of Parliament, has accused Zee News editors of resorting to blackmail regarding coverage over allegations of improper allocation of coal fields to his company.

Recently, I had occasion to address some of the concerns about the role of the media when I was invited to deliver the 3rd Sat Paul Sahni Memorial Lecture in Jammu. My topic was “Media and Governance”, but I was bombarded with a barrage of questions by the audience on how to get the media to behave with greater restraint and responsibility.

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Paraphrasing Charles Dickens, I informed them that in my view it is the best of times for Indian media and it is also the worst of times. It is the best of times because today there are an estimated 146 million television households viewing over 623 channels, 82,000 newspapers with a readership of 182 million and over 130 million Internet users.

Never in the past has the mass media in India had such reach and access as it does now, making it an extraordinarily powerful tool of communication. There is what Nandan Nilekani termed as the “death of distance” with the coming of the new media, including the smartphones that give you instant access to information anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

All these developments have heralded unprecedented changes in the way we keep ourselves informed. Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal successfully harnessed the media to spread their anti-corruption message. Individuals have bypassed traditional media to reach out directly across audiences — witness how Kolaveri Di and the Gangnam dance became viral across Indian nets. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah now uses twitter to directly communicate his thoughts to the people.

Yet it is also the worst of times for media across the world, including India. The coming of the Internet revolution has seen the print medium under severe pressure in the US and Europe. Major newspapers have gone into the red as they lost readership and revenue with most consumers unwilling to pay for information on the Net and wanting everything for free.

There are other ominous portents that we have to look out for. Media experts have pointed out that we are also transiting from an era of traditional, responsible journalism to one being determined by blogs and tweets. As traditional checks and balances break down, the quality and reliability of information becomes the first casualty. The concept of accuracy, fairness and balance — the cornerstone of good journalism — is increasingly under threat. Like instant coffee, there are now snap judgements being made about people and events, particularly by TV news channels, in the race for breaking news.

There are now serious allegations being levelled against the media. Internationally, Britain has been rocked over the scandal of phone tapping of individuals by journalists that saw the closure of a major newspaper. A media commission headed by a former judge has called for the evolution of an independent mechanism to regulate media excesses.

Even in India there has been a growing demand for bringing some sort of control over the media. The Supreme Court recently had wanted to bring in restrictions over reporting court cases as there were complaints of “trial by media”. The court restrained itself by giving the right to the individual concerned to appeal to a higher court to block coverage till the trial was over. But one could reasonably ask whether Jessica Lal’s killers would have been brought to book if the media had not exposed the massive cover-up?

I would advocate that if there is any regulation it should come from within — that is, from the media itself — rather than without, which usually means the government. No other pillar of democracy, whether the legislature, executive or judiciary, faces the intense daily scrutiny that the media is subjected too. Readers and viewers are usually the best judge about the media's fairness and relevance. They have the unrestrained power of refusing to buy a newspaper or turning off a news channel they think is biased.

All editors are liable under law and can face both civil and criminal charges for defamation or unethical reporting. Moreover, curbing the media would mean restraining your right to be informed about events around you. At the end, it is not just the media that would be under threat but your individual right to free speech guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Media has always been on the forefront of bringing out inconvenient truths.

Jawaharlal Nehru said in a speech at a newspaper editors' conference in January 1950: “I have no doubt that even if the government dislikes the liberties taken by the Press and considers them dangerous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the Press. By imposing restrictions you do not change anything; you merely suppress the public manifestation of certain things, thereby causing the ideas and thought underlying them to spread further. Therefore, I would rather have a completely free Press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated Press.” That philosophy I believe holds good to this day.





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