Media freedoms come with responsibilities. A stronger Press Council, composed of media professionals, would be the best regulator
The Indian Express carried a report about two television reporters, from India TV and ABP News, accused of blackmail for allegedly trying to extort Rs 20 lakh from a person by threatening to implicate him in a false case of rape (‘Two television reporters accused of sting and blackmail: ‘Rs 20 lakh or we air sex tape’’, November 9). Earlier, Jindal Steel alleged that Zee News attempted to extort Rs 100 crore from it. There are other allegations of such practices by media personnel. Paid news is apparently a common practice. Madhu Kishwar, a senior journalist herself, said on Rajya Sabha TV that many media people are bribable and manipulable.
When I spoke of regulating the media, there was a hue and cry in a section of it, which painted me as some kind of dictator who, at the behest of the government, wanted to gag or muzzle the media and crush media freedom.
Although I have expressed my views earlier, I would like to give a comprehensive clarification.
There is no such thing as absolute freedom. In our Constitution, Article 19(1)(a), which provides for media freedom (as part of freedom of speech), is subject to Article 19(2), which states that the freedom in Article 19(1) (a) is subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. Thus, there cannot be freedom to defame, incite religious riots, or extort and blackmail.
There is a difference between control and regulation. Where there is control, there is no freedom; while under regulation, there is freedom but it is subject to reasonable restrictions. I am in favour of regulation and am opposed to control. The question arises: who is to do this regulation? I am opposed to regulation by the government, but am in favour of regulation by an independent statutory authority like the Press Council of India.
The Press Council has, apart from its chairman, 28 members, 20 of whom are representatives of the press (six owners, six editors, seven working journalists and one from a news agency). These 20 members are not appointed by the government but elected by the press. Of the other eight members, five are members of Parliament and there is one person each from the Bar Council of India, the UGC and the Sahitya Akademi. Decisions in the Press Council are taken by majority vote and even I have to respect the verdict of the majority.
If the Press Council Act is amended and broadcast media comes under the Press Council (which can be renamed the “Media Council”), it can have an additional 20 members from broadcast media. Hence, 40 of 48 members will be media representatives. If this media council decides to take penal action by majority vote against a media person or media house, it will be a judgment by one’s peers and thus a form of self-regulation.
It may be mentioned that the Bar Council can suspend the licence of a lawyer, but Bar Council members are themselves lawyers. Similarly, the Medical Council has doctors as its members and can suspend a doctor’s licence. The proposed media council should have the power to suspend the licence of a media person or outlet, but such a suspension should be by majority vote of the media council.
This media council must be statutory and have penal powers, including the power to suspend licences. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority, which professes “self-regulation”, is a non-statutory body with no penal powers and is therefore toothless.
The Press Council has only the power of admonition or censure and no power to impose a fine or suspend a licence. I have advocated enlarging this body and making it a media council with penal powers, but the penal power should not be exercised by the chairman or the government, but by a majority of members. It will thus be a judgment by one’s peers. What reasonable objection can there be to this suggestion? Objecting to it implies that some media houses do not even trust their peers.
Those who accuse me of trying to crush media freedom can see my track record. I have fought for media freedom every time it was threatened, whether in Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, the Karnataka legislative assembly, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, etc. I was the strongest critic of the arrest of the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, and Virbhadra Singh’s statement that he would break the camera of a media person. I genuinely believe that the media should be broadly free, and I have appreciated the good work done by the media in exposing scams. There are many excellent journalists who are doing a good job.
At the same time, I have also said that freedom comes hand-in-hand with responsibility. Evidently, media owners accustomed to having a free ride and making a lot of money (through advertisement revenue, etc), or who are using their media house to protect their other businesses where they are under suspicion of malpractice (one newspaper owner is said to have several other businesses, like sugar factories, coal blocks, etc), do not want any kind of regulation. If this attitude continues, I am afraid it will be counterproductive and may ultimately result in the severe curtailment of media freedom.
Published in The Indian EXPRESS on 17/11/2012