Journalism is an expertise, not just a profession. The journalist may be employed by a publishing entity or the journalist may be a freelancer, but he or she is bestowed with an important mission. A journalist is an expert of the art of speech and expression.
Freedom of speech and expression is a cherished Fundamental Right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of the India, drawing inspiration from the first amendment to the Constitution of United States of America enacted in 1971. The operative clause states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; on abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; on the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
The original US Constitution also incorporated a landmark principle in the form of sub section 8 of section which states, “The Congress shall have power to promote the progress of the sciences and useful arts, by seeming for limited Times to Authors and inventors the exclusive Right to their respective writings and Discoveries.” The present intellectual property laws have estimated from the said clause.
The need to quote from the two cornerstone principles is to give the journalist his two parameters to fix his co-ordinates while proceeding to perform on his mission.
The journalist has the responsibility to not only articulate the expression of the common just as an advocate of some cause but also as a communicator to ventilate his grievances and to stir the conscience of the community. But the journalist has to be disciplined enough to self-correct his course of action, to check himself from being carried away by emotions or bias. His actions are circumscribed by reasonable restrictions.
His freedom does not give him the license to lower the esteem of any person or institution in the eyes of society or prejudice any citizen by the manner of depiction of events. Such defamatory insinuations and innuendoes also violate Articles 20 and 21 of the Constitution of India.
Among the statutory authorities created to watch over the functioning of journalists is the Press Council of India, which has laid down the guidelines for free and fair journalism. An example of such a guideline is the following extract.
“The journalist is entitled to the ownership of his works and enjoys intellectual property rights by way of rights laid down in the status of Copyright Act with its amendments. He must remember that while he is entitled to his fair share for his remuneration or royalty on books, his conduct must not in any way infringe any other author's rights by plagiarism even inadvertently. He must take all due diligence to ensure such infringement does not occur.”
Citizens look up to journalists as an example of their aspirations and vest authenticity upon the works of journalists. The professional practicing journalist must take utmost care and caution so that such trust in him is not misused or abused by his oversight.
The journalist has to remember the maxim “Equity aids the vigilant and not those who slumber on their rights”. Doctrines of laches is defined as negligence to assert a right or claim, which taken together with the lapse of time and other circumstances cause prejudice to adverse party and operates as bar in court of equity. Thus, delayed publication of apology does not automatically absolve the guilt of a journalist whose column has already stigmatised the reputation of an individual or institution.
Laches is an element of estoppels or neglect which has operated to prejudice a defendant. The injured party is thus entitled to move the criminal court for punishment to the erring journalist and civil court to award damages and compensation for “tortuous act”.
The journalist cannot afford to take for granted his fundamental right guaranteed in the Constitution and must remember the dark days of the emergency from June 1975 to March 1977 when the freedom of the press was trodden upon the impunity by the state. Some journalists followed their own ethics and dictates of conscience and were incarcerated, while some others succumbed to the dictatorship of the state.
It were the heroes of journalism who stoked the embers of the life of liberty to usher in the era of democracy and demise of Emergency. Such is the noble saga of journalism of India, which is proving its justified pivotal role each and every day since then.
In effect, the Right to Freedom is placed at the mercy of the Legislative in normal times and at the disposal of the Union Executive during the time of emergency. Hence, a member of the Constituent Assembly lamented during its debates that what was given by one right hand was taken away by “three or four or five left hands”. Hence, the profession of journalism is that of a torch bearer of people's liberties with its attendant responsibilities.
Relevant to the topics of the day, it is pertinent to emphasise aspects of such media law as non-disclosure of names of sexual assault victims and juvenile delinquents. The specific statutory provision is contained in section 228A of the Indian Penal Code which provides for imprisonment of the journalist who violates the privacy of the said victim and publishes her name without her consent or without the consent of her legal guardian.
It has to be borne in mind that journalists are under an obligation to act in a fiduciary in a capacity while recording the statement of such victims. However, in recent days a controversy has started to enable the disclosure of names as an enlightened measure to expose and deter future wrongdoing. But still, the time the legal provision is repealed, journalists have to be well advised to operate strictly within the contour of relevant law.
The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media Group