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Guest Feature: From blank columns to paid columns

Guest Feature: From blank columns to paid columns

Author | Ravi M Khanna | Tuesday, Dec 11,2012 6:34 PM

Guest Feature: From blank columns to paid columns

India used to be a country where during the state of emergency in 1975  major newspapers ran blank columns on the front pages to protest the draconian move by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, saying it was left blank because the news in that column was censored by the government. It was a country where the media came together and spoke with one voice against the restrictions of any kind imposed on the press. But as they protested for their rights, they also had a full sense of their responsibility to print only the news that was factual, correct, unbiased, balanced and free from any personal or ideological twist. Even the government respected the stalwart editors and newspaper owners of the time, despite the fact that it put pressure on them from time to time by switching their power off at night when their newspapers went to the press or by reducing their newsprint quota, if they had too much criticism of the government.

So there was a time not too far ago when India’s fiercely competitive and hungry free press had become watchdog of the nation, exposing banking scandals, real-estate scams and most recently, the alleged government corruption during the international Commonwealth Games and Coalgate.

But in recent days, Indian journalists have also been accused of wrongdoing, including having inappropriate conversations with a corporate lobbyist in the Radia Tape scandal and accepting or allegedly offering millions of rupees to suppress a big corporation’s involvement in Coalgate.

So, today from those blank ‘protest’ columns, India has come to a stage where some editors are being accused of allowing ‘paid columns’ – the alleged ‘paid news’ where editorials and some time ‘hard’ news articles are written or altered for money or other favours.

So it is apparent that India needs a regulatory body. May be every newspaper should have their own regulatory editor and then there should be an independent body, not appointed by the government, but formed by the media itself so that it can always remind them that any kind of freedom comes with a huge responsibility, just as recommended by the recent Leveson Report about the press freedom released recently in the UK.

It is not that there hasn’t been any watchdog for the Indian media. India formed the Press Council of India (PCI) in 1966 with the object of preserving the freedom of the press and of maintaining and improving the standards of the press in India. It is a statutory, quasi judicial body that functions under the aegis of the Press Council Act of 1978. The PCI is headed by a Chairman, who has by convention, been a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India. It is represented by a cross section of the society, including journalists, members of parliament from both houses, newspaper editors, working journalists, media management members and also people from cultural, literary and legal fields as nominees of the Sahitya Academy, University Grants Commission and the Bar Council of India.

The PCI also acts as an advisor to the government on matters affecting media freedom and has drawn up a set of norms on media reporting. While the rationale behind forming the PCI was noble, unfortunately its existence is superficial today, serving no purpose. But it does not represent the views of the media, nor does it have any legal power to take any punitive or corrective action against the offending publishers.

The person who misses all these powers a lot is the Press Council of India chairman, Markandey Katju.

According to The Hindu, Katju told journalists this week in Mangalore that many media persons “cared two hoots” for PCI, which only had powers to admonish newspapers. He said many journalists did not even respond to the notices issued by the PCI. They know, he said, that PCI has no punitive powers such as suspending publication permissions for newspapers, while the electronic media was out of its ambit any way.

“I am not in favour of controlling the media, but at the same time, I advocate that there should be some regulation in place. I have already met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and made suggestions to amend the Press Council Act. I have made suggestions to reconstitute the Press Council with 48 members where 40 members will be from the media,” he explained. He also said that contempt of court laws should be reviewed. “Laws related to contempt of court are feudal in concept, which is out of place in a democratic set-up. The concept of contempt of court laws was introduced to uphold the judgments and decisions of kings in the ancient period,” he added.

The PCI chairman said his recommendation was “far more democratic” than the recent Leveson Report on regulation for the British press.

Katju said the country’s respect for the media can be restored if it genuinely tries to highlight the real issues affecting India’s ‘aam aadami’ today. He urged journalists to take up the cause of people and their rights at a time when the country was undergoing a transition from a feudal agricultural system to a modern society.

Katju also accused the media of ignoring real issues related to poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and healthcare and indulging in the practice of “paid news” and sensationalising trivial issues related to Bollywood and cricket. He said more than 500 accredited journalists had queued up to cover a fashion show in Mumbai a few years ago and hardly one of two reporters wrote about the plight of farmers who were committing suicide just a few kilometers away in the Vidarbha region.

So it seems, the way forward in India could be to empower the Press Council of India, allowing it to take punitive action in the form of punitive monetary penalties, suspension of license, etc. Also, it can be made more broad-based by including some of the stakeholders in the media, thus giving them a voice.

For this analyst, the only way to impart a sense of responsibility in the media is to give it an opportunity with a ‘veiled responsibility’ to regulate itself. Given the history and impeccable traditions about press freedom in this rising nation, the move might throw up some surprising results.

A longtime observer of South Asia, author and senior journalist Ravi M Khanna has covered the region for Voice of America as the South Asia Bureau Chief in New Delhi and also as the South Asia Desk Editor in Washington from 1980 to 2011.

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