The unprecedented reach and influence of media in the last two decades has made everyone sit up and take notice. The Fourth Estate of the Democracy has resultantly drawn both, appreciation and flak for rippling effects it is capable of generating; especially from the political class, which has sometimes called it powerful and other times, dangerously powerful. Cudgels have been drawn on many occasions in the past to allocate boundaries for the media, especially after globalisation and the entry of private television channels who have often taken the ruling state head on.
In the last few years, these attacks have become regular. In 2012, a private members bill to gag media stirred a row, but has so far progressed no further towards the statute book. Later that year, the Supreme Court shied away from framing broad guidelines for how media companies should cover court proceedings, but said that judges could rule to ban media coverage of court cases temporarily on a case-by-case basis. In 2011, Justice Markandey Katju, Chairman of the Press Council of India, said the country’s journalists “are of a very poor intellectual level.”
The hornet’s nest has been stirred yet again by Manish Tewari, the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, who has made a suggestion that journalists should be tested through “a common entrance exam” which would lead to them being awarded “licences” before they could enter the profession. The minister claimed to “a certain degree of standardisation”, which he appeared to think was something that should be encouraged when it came to the reporting of news and the expression of views. This comes some time after Katju has suggested a committee be set up to investigate whether journalists should be “minimally qualified”.
“Rather than imposing a common curriculum, stakeholders should consider a common examination like in the case of legal and medical professions where a licence is required to pursue the profession,” Tewari had told a conference on news media standards and education. “Maybe a case needs to be built up for certain standardisation,” he added.
The suggestion met instant criticism. The Editors’ Guild of India termed the statement a “recipe for total state control of the media”. Licensing, it added, was an “obviously undemocratic practice” that had been condemned by international human rights organisations and the idea a “violation of the very concept of freedom reporting of facts and expression of ideas is the right of every citizen”. Pointing to the fact that the media dealt with a range of issues, the Guild said “no fixed or identifiable collection of works or coherent body of knowledge on which journalists could be tested”.
It is prudent to note that journalism, unlike professions such as law and medicine, does not require practitioners to register with a professional body in India. Lawyers are mandated to enrol with the Bar Council of India, while doctors get a unique registration number from the Medical Council of India. Architects need to get themselves registered with the Council of Architecture, a body formed by the Indian government through a law in 1972.
After the advent of private television channels and an enviable number of newspapers and magazines as compared to some of the developed countries, media in India saw an exponential growth and became a powerful tool for citizen journalism and advocacy. In recent years, this growing influence of the media was met with criticism of overreach and biasness, leading to demands for transparency and regulation. All these were, however, termed as an attack on citizen’s right to freedom of expression and the larger freedom of the press.
The suggestions of licensing keeping the above points in mind seem premature. Keeping the diversity of the country in mind, it is difficult to fathom how a common entrance examination will ensure free expression and standardisation in an open society. It is ridiculous to imagine that an examination, however tough, would, in any case, weed out the corrupt and the incompetent. If that were the case, India would have had the most incorruptible and most efficient bureaucracy in the world.
Moreover, the Guild’s concerns cannot be ignored. How, in the age of blogs, tweets, YouTube, telephone texts, can the government ensure standardisation by keeping a check on mass communication schools? Media today are diverse in their reach, commitment and deliverance of responsible journalism and licensing may not prove useful at all.
But licensing continues to thrive as one way (among many) used by governments to control the press in other countries. An examination of regulatory practices in more than 100 developed and developing countries found that in at least one out of every four, governments have a role in licensing — that is, in approving who can work as a journalist and who cannot. In some cases governments merely set parameters for the job — minimum age, education level and national origin of prospective journalists. In others, governments explicitly issue press cards only to journalists certified to follow the official line.
However, the minister’s comments on licensing should not totally be shrugged off. Every comment emerges from some ground reality and is not made in isolation. Numerous suggestions from various counters on media should be seen as a chance for the industry to introspect and there are plenty of issues for the media to dwell upon and take voluntary action to retain at least the ground left over (from a rapidly slipping base of credibility); not the least due to inane breaking news, hyper patriotism, paid news, the influence of big business, and most importantly, rank incompetence. Far too often, its tone veers into the polemical; reportage can lack context and coverage is uneven. These issues need examination. What the comments should revive is not the debate on journalistic qualifications but the need to address ‘systemic issues’ across the media landscape — the global crisis in the print media, the fragmentation of the market in the broadcasting sector and its flawed ad-dependent revenue models, and the emergence of new media.
As most of the world now acknowledges, freedom of expression — including freedom of the press — is crucial to democracy and good governance. Only if news media maintains its independence, can it play a watchdog role in society. Any government policy that restricts that independence, including licensing, must be examined closely. But licensing cannot be ignored only because it has some ‘state’ ingredient involved. If the media cleans up and adopts some self-correcting measures like weeding out vested interests from the industry, licensing would not invite such a backlash.
The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media