Sunday 23 June 2013

"Media Freedom and Media Responsibility "

I had firmly decided not to write any more articles or say anything publicly or appear on t.v. for quite some time, firstly because I had already expressed my views on several issues, and secondly because some people had started accusing me of seeking popularity or cheap publicity. I regard publicity or popularity seeking as a form of vulgarity, and I never seek it. 

What I was doing was to put forward certain ideas which I thought were in the national interest, though it is quite possible that some of my views were wrong. But since I was misunderstood by many people, some of whom even started abusing me and launching personal attacks, I thought that the time had come for me to become silent. 

For this reason I said and wrote nothing for two months, and I would have continued my silence in the future too for a long time but for an event which happened recently.

On 19th June a senior journalist wrote an article entitled " Muzzling the Media--Freedom at Risk", which was published in his own newspaper, a leading English Indian national daily. His basic idea was that the government was trying to muzzle the media, and thereby violate the freedom of the press guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution.

I would have remained silent had he left it at that, because, after all, he is entitled to his view. However, what motivated me to break my silence is that the article specifically named and vilified me as the main agent who is helping the government in gagging the media. The article describes me as a ' terrier', though by allusion. 
Since I had decided not to write or say anything for quite some time, at first I was thinking of not replying to this deliberate, malicious falsification of my views about the media ( which are available on my blog ). It was only after several days of deliberation that I reluctantly decided to respond, though not by getting some article published in a newspaper but only on Facebook and my blog.

Here are the true facts:

(1) I have consistently supported media freedom, and condemned attacks on the media, overtly or covertly, e.g. In the cases of Aseem Trivedi, Iftikhar Gilani, Shaheen ( the girl who wrote on Facebook), Prof. Mahapatra of Jadavpur University, etc or when media persons were attacked in Maharashtra, J&K, Himachal, etc, or when media freedom was sought to be covertly suppressed in Bihar, etc. I have strongly criticized some Congress governments too in this connection, and not merely non Congress governments. So how am I a Congress agent ?

I support freedom of speech not for popularity or as a fashion but because I genuinely believe in it. Without freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to write and discuss, and freedom to dissent there can be no progress. It was because there was freedom in England that it progressed, whereas countries like Spain, where freedom was stifled by the Inquisition, lagged far behind.

(2) When the Times of India office in Mumbai was attacked by some hooligans, I strongly condemned the incident. When the Court imposed a fine of Rs.100 crore on the Times Now channel, I defended Times Now, saying that no doubt it had made a serious mistake, but it had apologized for the same several times, and in any case the fine was excessive.

(3) In the article in question it is mentioned that I have spoken of the need for media ethics. What is wrong in this ? Should there be no ethics for the media ? Everybody is accountable in a democracy, but for the media should there be no accountability?

(4) In the article it has been stated that the government tries to muzzle the media by cutting off advertisements. Here I entirely agree. But what the writer conveniently overlooks is that I issued a strong press note on 4.2.2013 condemning this practice of governments stopping or curtailing advertisements merely because the newspaper criticized the government or some minister or official ( see the press note on my blog). I also said that in a democracy the media has a right to criticize the government. In any case, I said, if the government wishes to stop or curtail its advertisements in some newspaper it must give the latter an opportunity of hearing, and then reasons for its decision, otherwise the rules of natural justice will be violated.
In its issues of 5.2.2013 and 7.2.2013 the Times of India complimented me, and published the views of several media persons who supported my stand ( see online).

(5) The article takes the stand that there should only be self regulation by the media. In my opinion self regulation is no regulation, it is an oxymoron. If self regulation were sufficient why should there be the rampant malaise of paid news, allegations of blackmail, Radia tapes, etc ? Why should there be laws at all ? Let everybody self regulate.

The truth is that every social activity has to be regulated in the public interest, because one's freedom cannot go to the extent of damaging society or others. A lawyer is in a free profession, but his license can be suspended by the Bar Council for professional misconduct, and a doctor's license can be suspended by the Medical Council for medical misconduct.A Judge can be impeached for misconduct.

Here I must make the distinction between regulation and control. In control there is no freedom, whereas in regulation there is freedom but subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. I am in favour of regulation, but am opposed to control. This regulation, too, should not be by the government but by an independent statutory authority, like the Press Council. The Press Council consists of a Chairman and 28 members, 20 of which are representatives of the press ( 5 are members of Parliament, and one each from the Bar Council of India, UGC and Sahitya Academy). The press representatives in the Press Council are not appointed by the government but elected democratically by the press bodies.Decisions in the Press Council are taken by majority vote, and not by me alone. Often I have been overruled by the majority.

At present the Press Council deals only with the print media, but if the electronic media is also brought within its purview by an amendment to the Press Council Act ( as The Press Council has recommended several times to the government) there may be 20 representatives of the electronic media also on the Council ( which can be renamed the Media Council).

Thus, 40 of the 48 members on the Council will be media representatives, and decisions on complaints will be by majority vote. This will really be a judgment by one's peers. In fact this proposal is more pro media than that of Lord Leveson, who in his report recommended that media persons should not be on the Media Council. What reasonable objection can there be to this suggestion ?

The article objects to criticism of content in the media. But what is wrong in such criticism ? Today India's main problems are socio -economic--massive poverty in about 80% of our people, massive unemployment, healthcare problems, farmers suicide, malnutrition,etc. as well as rampant casteism, communalism, and widespread crimes against women like dowry deaths, honour killings, etc.Yet the media focuses on film stars, cricket, fashion parades,astrology etc as if these are the real problems of the Indian people. Thus the real problems of the Indian people are sidelined or treated as non issues, and the non issues are projected as if they are the real issues. Sensationalism, trivialization, etc are the hallmarks of much ( though not all) of the Indian media today, obviously for T.R.P. rating and profits from advertisement revenues. Today I read that Hema Malini's younger daughter has been engaged. What a historical event !

Is not the Indian media behaving largely like Marie Antoinette who said that if the people do not have bread let them eat cakes.
The Roman Emperors used to say that if you cannot give the people bread give them circuses. Much of our media seems to say, if you cannot give the people bread give them film stars and cricket. Cricket today is the opium of the Indian masses, doled out by the media to the gullible public.

Today India is passing through a terrible transitional period in its history,transition from feudal agricultural society to modern industrial society,which in my opinion will last another 20 years or so. The transitional era is a very painful and turbulent period in history. If one reads the history of Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries ( when Europe was passing through its transition) one finds that it was full of turmoil, wars, revolutions, social chaos, intellectual ferment,etc. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. 

India is presently going through that fire. We are going through a very painful period in our history, which I guess will last another 20 years or so. In this transitional period the role of ideas becomes very important, and therefore the role of the media becomes very important, because the media is not an ordinary business which deals in commodities, it deals with ideas. It is the duty of all patriotic Indians, including media persons, to help shorten this transitional period and make it less painful, so that India becomes a modern, powerful, industrial power, with all its people ( and not just a handful) prosperous and leading decent lives, with food, employment, healthcare, education, etc available to the masses. For this it is essential for intellectuals, including the media, to promote modern and scientific ideas and combat backward and feudal ideas and practices like casteism, communalism and superstitions.

But is the Indian media doing its patriotic duty ? No doubt there are some media persons like P. Sainath who are doing a great job, but what about others ? Filmstars and cricket dominate much of or media. Many t.v. channels show astrology, which is promoting superstitions, when the media should promote scientific ideas. At a time when our nation should be united if we are to progress, a section of the media promotes communalism by demonizing Muslims and portraying them as terrorists. 

Historically, the media arose in Europe in the 18th Century as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time all the organs of power were in the hands of the feudal authorities. Hence the people in England and France had to create new organs which would represent their interests. The print media was one of those powerful organs created by the people. In England, France and America the media represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the established feudal organs which wanted to preserve the status quo. Great writers like Voltaire attacked religious bigotry, Rousseau attacked the entire feudal social and political system, Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man.

In my opinion the Indian media should give leadership to the people in the realm of ideas, the way Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, etc did when Europe was passing through its transitional period. Instead of pandering to the low tastes of the Indian masses our media should seek to uplift its intellectual level so as to make our masses part of enlightened India.

I do not wish to comment any further on the issue. In fact it is with great reluctance that I have written this piece only because of the vicious attack on me, twisting and falsifying my views, a methodology to which I have now become quite accustomed.
Justice Katju