At a seminar this morning, organised by the Editors’ Guild of India to discuss problems facing the Indian media, a succession of well-known lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats and journalists returned again and again to the subject of media regulation. The chief editor of CNN-IBN, Rajdeep Sardesai, gave the concern context: the Supreme Court’s ongoing hearings on possible guidelines for reporting court proceedings.
The Centre, however, “still remains committed to self-regulation” by the media, said Law Minister Salman Khurshid – although, he insisted, whatever self-regulation currently in place was inadequate. He added: “We do not understand the social media landscape in government. Thus, the easiest response for us is to either play the ostrich or to attack it. That can’t continue... We cannot and must not do what China is doing.” He did, however, say India’s enforcement was lax as compared to other liberal democracies. This applied, too, to defamation and “old” media regulation: “If you can’t implement old laws, you shouldn’t make new ones.”
The former editor of The Hindu, N Ravi, disagreed; constraints in India, especially contempt of court, were more stringent than in other liberal democracies, he claimed. On statutory changes, he said “the legal system is the wrong place to look for a remedy to bad journalism,” and added, on court reporting guidelines, that what court proceedings needed was more openness, not less. Khurshid said judges considering the media “should have a few guidelines for themselves”; the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad cited problems such as retired judges appearing on TV to justify their decisions.
Khurshid said measures to facilitate the public viewing of court proceedings, such as video-conferencing, mightincrease transparency and reduce misreporting.
A discussion on the subject with senior judges will happen on Wednesday, he said.
Ravi added it is extreme situations that have led to calls for regulation, not the norm—an argument supported by the head of Network18, Raghav Bahl. Bahl said excesses were born of inexperience and youth, but plurality and competition in the media market ensured that problems would be transient. Both Ravi and Bahl agreed journalists needed better training and more expertise as the subjects they covered became more complex. The editor-in-chief of the Express Group, Shekhar Gupta, said journalism was “the most incompetent of Indian professions”, that was “not threatened, except by itself” and its own “arrogance, incompetence and greed”.
Ajay Upadhyay of Amar Ujala took an even stronger line against regulation: “Instead of having others frame guidelines for us,” he argued, “demand freedom of expression be made more explicit in the Constitution”, as Ambedkar originally intended. Ravi, too, had said that intolerance was stifling speech, masquerading as the protection of the rights of victims or of the credibility of institutions. The BJP’s Prasad called, nevertheless, for “some mechanism” to stop offences against faiths.
Paid news was also discussed. Gupta of the Express said paid news, sponsored or “theme” content was too prevalent in the print media, including in those who dominated the market. Mrinal Pande, the chairperson of Prasar Bharati, said people are now upfront about the money that vernacular papers make during elections. Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi said there was political unanimity that paid news led to harassment during elections and distorted the democratic process. The EC recorded 253 admissions of paid news in the UP elections alone, he said, calling for the laws to be amended to make paid news a statutory offence – adding: “Self-regulation is a delusion. It will not happen.” An independent regulator was needed, he argued.