Is the Indian media misusing its freedom?
July 17, 2013 in Uncategorized
“No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no one ever will.”
“The smarter the journalists are, the better off society is. For to a degree, people read the press to inform themselves – and the better the teacher, the better the student body”
Immortal words spoken by two of the most influential architects of modern world’s right to a free and fair media. Words that have inspired so many of us by bringing to light the seemingly endless instances of injustice, criminal negligence, corruption, hatred, racism and communalism in our great nation. Numerous are the instances where the brave advances of our media has brought to attention several scams (the most recent and notable being the CWG scam, the Coal scam, the list goes on), the indifference and negligence of our government (witness the Uttarakhand tragedy) and worse, criminal activities attempted to be hushed up by the powers that be (Jessica lal murder case).
So much so that the makers of our Constitution thought it prudent to include it as a Fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (a), a right which the Supreme Court of India has upheld time and again. But even they included a safeguard against unfettered and unacceptable use of this power in Article 19 (2) permitting the state to impose restrictions upon it in order to safeguard the sovereignty, security and integrity of the nation and also public order, decency, contempt of courts and morality among others, a proviso that has also met the approval of the Supreme Court.
It was by further developing the right to freedom of speech that the right to know about the activities of the state, its instrumentalities, departments and agencies came to be in the form of the Right to Information act. It has now become a settled principle that the right to freedom of speech is based on the right of freedom to know, even here it has been provided that the right is not absolute.
Thus the importance of a free, fair and independent media cannot be overstated in a Democracy, especially one as complicated and vast as ours. At the same time it must be understood that independent media performs a constructive role only so long as it is free from vested commercial interests, or conflict of interests. The world over media outlets are self regulated and are bound by their own special ethical and moral code. Although this prevents the state from interfering or abusing the media by misusing its powers it also seems to have led to random spin doctoring, blatant privacy violations and in some cases even doctoring of the truth.
With the present barrage of international privately owned media outlets taking over prime time, the words “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money” seem more true than ever. Many national and international observers (including several former journalists) are of the opinion say that media now emphasis more on ‘breaking the news even without verifying the facts’ and in the process, seriously mislead the public. The media seems to delight in creating an atmosphere of gloom and doom cast in the sinister light of a vast conspiracy designed to deprive our citizens of life and liberty. They seem to be investing themselves in a sort of cynicism. It comes out better for them if they can predict hard times, bogging down, sniping, attrition. News simply wouldn’t sell and TRP’s wouldn’t fly if all they reported was well and good.
Televised political debates seem to have gone completely topsy turvy. Several times in the history of the world politicians have seized absolute power and muzzled the press, but thanks to the ever present electronic media for the first time ever it is the press that has seized absolute power and muzzled the politicians. Hosts like Arnab Goswami and Karan Thapar stop just short of calling politicians names and jump at every opportunity to misrepresent statements, facts and figures. The recent outrage concerning the Time of India headline “Modi does Rambo Act. Rescues 15,000 survivors” is a deplorable example of the same. The Times of India printed the aforementioned article as the headline on the first page but on realising their mistake published a clarification wherein they stated that BJP officials had only stated that Modi’s efforts had helped 15,000 people one way or another and that they were mortified by the controversy surrounding the issue. Not once did they apologise for casting a shadow on Narendra Modi, even worse when confronted by Smriti Irani with the same on the Times now debate Arnab Goswami, all the while avoiding her question, shamelessly called Smriti Irani petty. It seems that those who write the editorials and those who write the columns, they simply are unaccountable. They’re free to impose their cultural politics in the name of freedom of the press.
Every law and order failure elicits a flurry of debates with catch phrases more designed to catch the headlines rather than watertight suggestions designed to catch the guilty. The media goads our youngsters, sparks their imagination and outrages their very being by making ridicoulous statements designed to inflame and anger. Those who closely followed coverage of the recent unfortunate incident of the Delhi gang rape case can attest to this. Each and every media outlet tried to capitalise on the same and went on to urge people to come out of their homes and join protest rallies at serious high security risk areas like India gate without even remotely taking into account the kind of law and order nightmare that followed. It is undeniable that to a very large extent the media’s angry and rhetorical verbal diahorrea was to a very large extent responsible for the altercation between the youth and the police. The police had permitted the protestors alternate sites where they could have protested and they were bound to do so because of security guidelines and a Supreme Court order that prohibits protests within a specified area of the parliament and the north and south block. Can ever pitting our citizens against our law enforcement personnel be productive? Did the media forget that these are the same law enforcement officials that lay down their very lives in terrorist attacks? Why did the think that making statements like “Delhi police incompetence revealed” will encourage these public service officials to be more conscientious in the performance of their duties ? Do they think revolting against the state would resolve their problems? Caught between trivia, sensationalism and histrionics, the space for independent journalism in the public interest seems to be shrinking.
Furthermore, media outlets seem to be increasingly and fearlessly violating legal norms and practices. The Supreme court has on several occasions pointed out that the right to freedoms of speech has certain limitations placed upon it in respect of the right to privacy and reputation. But it seems that the warnings of the Apex court have gone unheeded. A simple look at how the media reported the details of the Arushi Murder case would go to justify all of the legal anger at the term “Trial by Media”. So much so that some media outlets also went on to allege a physical relationship between the deceased 14 year old girl and her servant causing the courts to issue a stinging observation. It is impossible to understand what could have been gained by maligning the reputation of the deceased. Even more disturbingly, a media outlet brought the sole witness of the Delhi gang rape case on television forcing him to recount all his facts while providing the defense of the accused with several loopholes in his statements and creating a scenario where it seems that the state and medical authorities were more guilty in attributing to her death than the accused themselves (a fact, which the defense will no doubt seek to take advantage of).
Media outlets and spokespersons attack any attempt to rationalize or criticize the conduct of with the ferocity of rabid wilderbeast claiming it to be a war on freedom of speech and an attempt to deny the citizens their fundamental rights. I would seek to draw their attention to the fact that even Mahatama Gandhi was once constrained to observe that “The sole aim of journalist should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole country side and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.” Jawahar lal Nehru once remarked that “If there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually whithers away. This is true of a nation’s freedom and it applies as much to the Press as to any other group, organisation or individual.” Would these spokespersons now charge the Father of our nation or its First Prime Minister as corruptors who sought to do away with the fundamental rights of the country they helped create ?
Private media outlets compete with each other in unearthing facts and bringing them to the attention of the masses. This enthusiasm in bringing news to our vast population is not merely understood but also appreciated. However, the media needs to stop engaging in self congratulatory exercises and realize that their role as the link between the authorities and the public places upon them a heavy constitutional burden. They need to put an end to Negativism in media and its irresponsible attitude because it only serves to misguide the people and creates disorder in the society. A healthy, honest and hardworking media would ensure that people are provided with all the necessary facts required to formulate their own independent opinions. Only then can the true “Rule of Law” as envisaged by the constitution achieved.
 In LIC vs. Professor Manubhai D Shah the Supreme court laid down that the state cannot prohibit criticism of an executive action thus paving the way for the pro active media of today.
 In Printers Mysore vs. Assistant Commercial Law Officer (1994) 2 SCC 434 it was held that the press is not immune from the general law of defamation.
 L.K. Koolwal vs. State of Rajasthan AIR 1988 Raj 2
 People’s union for civil liberties vs. Union of India 2003 (5) SRJ 197
 A J Libeling