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Newsmanic: Are we deserving of the freedom we seek?

Guest Column
Newsmanic: Are we deserving of the freedom we seek?

Author | BV Rao | Saturday, Oct 31,2009 8:21 AM

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Guest Column<br>Newsmanic: Are we deserving of the freedom we seek?

Tamil Nadu is in the news for the arrest of two editors in quick succession on charges of criminal defamation. B Lenin, the News Editor of Dinamalar, a widely circulated daily, was arrested on October 7 and AS Mani, Editor of ‘Netrikan’, a Madurai magazine, was arrested earlier this week.

After a TV actress was arrested for prostitution, Dinamalar published a report naming seven well-known Tamil actresses as also being involved in the racket. By way of proof they had what they called the arrested actress’ statement to the police.

The Tamil film industry rose in angry protest, led by the likes of Rajnikanth and Vijaykanth. Considering the filial connections of the Tamil film industry to politics, swift action was a given, but the manner in which it came was reprehensible. Cops turned up unannounced and dragged Lenin away from the newsroom. When you do that to the Dinamalar newsroom in Chennai, the intent is clear: open intimidation of the media.

‘Netrikan’s Mani had published a story claiming Union Minister MK Alagiri was receiving kickbacks for allotting road contracts in South Tamil Nadu. ‘Netrikan’ has very little reach even in Madurai, so not many have seen the article. Once again, the story only named Alagiri, but did not nail him with proof.

The Editors’ Guild of India was quick to pounce on the two transgressions on the freedom of the press. It said it was shocked to hear that the cops turned up without a warrant to arrest Lenin and even denied him legal assistance. “The Editors’ Guild of India has consistently held that arrest and imprisonment of editors and journalists for complaints of defamation amounts to intimidation of the media and is an affront to the freedom of the press. The section on criminal defamation is a hangover of the Colonial Raj, where editors and journalists were thrown into the prison on the pretext that they had committed criminal defamation. The British authorities used this draconian provision to terrorise the newspapers,” it said in response to Mani’s arrest.

I cannot quarrel with that view. Intimidation of media is a serious matter, so it is comforting when the most respected body of journalists (current President is Rajdeep Sardesai) springs up in defence of professional freedom. But that’s not to say I have no quarrel.

My quarrel is with what the Guild’s press releases did not say. In Lenin’s case, I read extracts of the Guild’s statements as published by newspapers. In Mani’s case, I was able to procure the full text of the statement (neither is available on the Guild’s official website). In both the statements, I did not see a word of condemnation of the poor quality of journalism in both the cases.

Dinamalar and Netrikan had published reports that may have been true, but did not produce a shred of evidence to prove that. That is lazy, shortcut journalism when you want to be charitable, but since freedom of press doesn’t come in charity, it should be seen as reckless misuse of the same freedom. While rightly protesting the excessive police action in both cases, the Guild would have done the profession a greater service by being equally vehement about this sad transgression and advising the profession to recognise that freedom of the press is not an unencumbered right, that it is not absolute.

I mention this omission because I think it is part of a larger malaise: the media’s inability or unwillingness to look within and course correct. Because bang in the middle of these two arrests, something far worse was going on. The elections to the Maharashtra and Haryana Assemblies were in full swing and media houses were auctioning away the same ‘freedom’ that the Guild wants to protect, to the highest bidder.

Newspapers big and small, were selling sacred news space to political parties and candidates. These were actually advertisements disguised as news stories. Packages for interviews, profiles, campaign trail stories, stories favouring the paying-candidate or stories against his rival; every lousy trick was being used to make money by cheating the reader and subverting democracy itself.

But not a word on that from the Guild (www.editorsguild.in).

Thankfully though, not everybody is a mute spectator. The Foundation for Media Professionals (www.fmp.org.in) organised a dialogue in Delhi on Wednesday on the “blurring of lines between News and Ads”. The venerable Prabhash Joshi, Editor of Jansatta, who has been writing on the topic since the Lok Sabha elections, painted a rather dismal picture of the media’s lure for lucre.

P Sainath wrote an equally shaming piece in The Hindu (http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article38482.ece?homepage=true) detailing the journalism of commerce in the Maharashtra elections. But, while Prabhashji and Sainath did not name names, TheHoot (http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=4178&mod=1&pg=1§ionId=5&valid=true), a media watchdog website, gave enough examples of the rampant corruption.

These are brave efforts, but just small ripples that will die out soon because most media houses are on the take in this new route to revenue, and those that are not, follow a silly convention of not talking about malpractices by competitors. Contrast that with the tide of criticism Washington Post had to face from the rest of the media when its publisher tried to commercialise an editorial event earlier this year. The Post was forced to apologise to its readers for breaching their trust, and it was not even selling news space. You will never see such searing, inward-looking, self-policing in our media. That’s why it is worth asking ourselves once in a while: Are we deserving of the freedom we seek?

(The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)

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