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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: Media and its freedom of expression

News media is going through a boom that our information-starved democracy has never seen before

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

The arrest and release of two young girls in Palghar for an innocuous comment on and the arrest of a couple of editors for alleged extortion are facets of the same issue — that of Whose freedom is greater: the individual’s, a group’s or a company’s? Is a media company’s freedom to unearth scams greater than an individual’s to privacy? Within media companies, is Facebook’s or Twitter’s freedom bigger than India TV’s or Dainik Jagran’s? Is the freedom of those two girls more important than, say, that of a painter? What responsibilities does this freedom come with?

These are just a few of the questions that both these incidents throw up in the new India, where news media – newspapers, TV channels, the internet, radio among others – is going through a boom that our information-starved democracy has never seen before.

Until these questions are answered honestly and adequately, we will keep going round in circles every time a Zee-type scandal erupts or a militant party browbeats a filmmaker, painter or writer.

A good place to look for direction is the UK. The country is currently poring over the details of the Leveson Inquiry Committee report, out last week. was appointed in July 2011 to inquire into the “culture, practices and ethics of the press in its relations with the public, police, politicians and, as to the police and politicians, the conduct of each”. This was done after it was discovered that reporters of the now defunct News of the World had hacked into the telephone messages of dozens of people, including a murdered girl, to access confidential information.

On several parameters such as size and heterogeneity the Indian and British media are not comparable. But on many others they are. They both operate in a democracy, have an established tradition of free media and have press councils that are, largely, toothless bodies.

After the hacking scandal, a large number of readers surveyed in the UK have favoured statutory controls. And that is what the Leveson report – compiled after talking to, or reading the evidence of, 637 witnesses – suggests. It recommends an independent-of-the-government media regulatory body that has statutory backing.

Simplistically put, UK Prime Minister now has to decide whether he should allow for some statute-backed, independent regulation of newspapers or just rap them hard on the knuckles and give them a last chance at self-regulation. He seems inclined to do the latter.

What Britain does is critical. If one of the world’s freest media markets finds it worth having a regulator for newspapers, then publishers in India, the world’s second-largest newspaper market, cannot argue against it.

This is where our real differences with the UK media market start showing up. The Leveson Committee is the seventh time in less than 70 years that an inquiry has been commissioned into the workings of the press. We are nowhere close to even having a sane, reasonable discussion on the media — forget a committee. This makes the Indian news media market a happy free-for-all.

The News Broadcasters Association, or NBA, has a content code and strict rules for members who do not adhere to it. However, the bulk of the troublesome news channels circumvent those simply by not becoming members of NBA.

In 2009 several prominent newspapers were caught taking money to cover candidates in the general election. Just about half a dozen of the other papers covered the ensuing ruckus and the report. The guilty brands are not just sanguine, they are brazen. According to Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, the Election Commission has so far received 750 complaints on paid news in 2012, up from 155 in 2011.

Add to this the case, or the others coming out, and the government doesn’t need to do any clamping down — Indian media is in self-destruct mode anyway. All it needs is a few more episodes like these for people to demand that the news they get be controlled. Note that there has been very little defence offered in favour of Zee by anybody. The media’s reputation has gone down so much that there is a general sense that “something must be wrong”.

On the other hand, Salman Rushdie, M F Husain or those poor girls in Palghar are the reason you need patience when rogue newspapers and television channels commit their excesses. Because when there is a real issue, only a free media can run with it, without fear or favour.

The worrying part is that the good media companies remain strangely silent on the excesses of the rogue brands. Or on the creeping interest that the government has shown in media regulation. If only Indian media owners could sit up and take charge of their industry. If they don’t, very soon some retired bureaucrat or judge will be telling them what they can or cannot publish.  

First Published: Tue, December 04 2012. 00:44 IST