Dialogue July-September, 2010, Volume 12 No.1
The Indian Media: Crisis of Accountability and Credibility
When a nation claims to have the largest democracy in the world, the leaders of that nation should ensure a free and independent, vigilant and accountable media on its soil. Any discourse regarding the freedom and necessity of media cannot begin without the historical remarks of Thomas Jefferson: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a govt. without newspapers or newspapers without govt., I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later". In the Indian context the first Prime Minster Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, while addressing the All India Editor’s Conference in 1950, declared: "I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or a regulated press". Only 6 months after the death of Pt. Nehru his own daughter Smt. Indira Gandhi, the than Minister of Information and Broadcasting, told the same editors in December 1964: “wherever the press has not regulated itself, it has had to be regulated. That is the choice before the press in the country”. It was a clear warning for the shape of things to come in future. The whole world knows that she imposed emergency and press censorship in June 1975. Fundamental Rights and constitutional safeguards to protect freedom of speech and expression were suspended. No organized resistance was put up either by the media community or media trade unions. A very small section of journalists who tried to oppose the censorship were either arrested or thrown out of job. It was the abject surrender of that a political party like Communist Party of India and the Indian Federation of Working Journalist (IFWJ) welcomed the press censorship and passed a resolution supporting the government’s order. On the contrary, the National Union of Journalists (India), only 4 years old organization of working journalists, took a bold stand. In July 1975, a delegation of NUJ (I) met the then prime minister Smt. Indira Gandhi. The leader of the delegation a veteran journalist. Prithvis Chakraverti told her those who are projecting you as above the constitution and the law are doing no service to you. Senior editors and journalists like Kuldip Nayer, KR Malkani, KR Sundarajan, Shaym Khosla, PK Roy and many others in the country were arrested under MISA. Only Indian Judiciary actively and successfully internemed to save the Constitution. In 1985, during Rajiv Gandhi govt. ‘postal bill’ was proposed to put a curve on the media. All journalists backed by the media owners took this fight to the streets and forced the govt. to shelve the postal bill. During the discussion on ‘paid news’ phenomena in Rajya Sabha on March 5, 2010 the Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smt. Ambika Soni made the comment: “the media acts as a repository of public trust for providing correct and true information to the people. If paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and there by hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion. There is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect public’s right to correct and unbiased information”. In this journey of Indian media from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh almost all prime ministers and ministers information and broadcasting assured the Nation that they will ensure the freedom of media as a basic principle of democracy and free expression of opinion.
It is also the times to remember the glorious history of Indian press during freedom struggle. Nationalist newspapers and journals were produced and edited by freedom fighters and the patriotic editors. Leaders like Lok Manya Tilak, Bipin Chandra Paul, Lala Lajpat Rai, Mahatma Gandhi, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, Swami Shraddhanand and many others had to pay a heavy price for opposing the British govt. and it’s draconian laws. Their sacrifices and sufferings were unparalleled. The ethos of the Indian press was nationalism, their mission was the freedom of India and not to grab power, authority and money. They were accountable primarily to the people of India. Editorial freedom was ensured by the proprietors or publishers. The editors had the moral courage to say No to any intrusion into professional matters. Editor was conscious of his responsibility, accountability and credibility. He the moral courage to say 'No' to any intrusion into professional matters. Editor was conscious of his responsibility, accountability and credibility. He had to carry his cross with him. Now after more than six decades of democracy and self governance the institution of Editor is de-valued. The breed of frank and fearless editors became extinet long back. Mercenary media managers are installed as editors to join the chorus of power that be. The fast change and deterioration in the character and credibility of Indian media was more apparent after emergency. The media, especially electronic media, has definitely succeeded in compelling the authorities and the governments to adopt pro-people policy and programmes. Corruption by public servants and people's representatives was exposed. Such achievements were acknowledged by the people but the main concern is why media is inaccessible to the poor and deprived people? Why media did not start vigorous campaign against poverty, corruption and unemployment? On the contrary some powerful media groups have joined the political and economic establishments. It is no secret that some senior journalist and proprietors are occupying seats in the Rajya Sabha, membership of some prestigious committees which lay down policy or the coveted post of ambassadors. The whole nation was stuned when serious allegations were made by journalist like Late Shri Prabhash Joshi, P. Sainath, Kuldeep Nayar and others regarding the publication of ‘paid news’ after Lok Sabha elections in 2009.
Many seminars and workshops were organized including one in Delhi by Makhanlal Chaturvedi University of Journalism to protest and express concern over the emergence of ‘paid news’ syndrome. Chairman of the Press Council of India Justice G.N. Ray, Prabhash Joshi, Chandan Mitra participated in the discussion. After realising the grave situation, Press Council constituted a small subcommittee on July 3, 2009 to enquire into the allegations after meeting the core sectors of society, including the representatives of media organisations. The sub-committee submitted its report on April 1, 2010. The Press Council discussed the report and made some recommendations but it was a divided house. On July 30, the council, which is an autonomous body, requested the media not to accept ‘any kind of inducement, financial or otherwise, to project a candidate or party in elections. It shall not accept hospitality or other facilities offered to them by or on behalf of any candidate/party.’ The 71 page report was, however, replaced by a brief one. This was never expected of the Press Council to a brilliant report produced by its own sub-committee.
The debate and concern expressed in the Parliament was a much
more serious one than the discussion in the Press Council. Senior leaders of both the houses, Shri L.K. Advani, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, Sarvashri Arun Jaitly, Manish Tiwari, Sitaram Yechury and the Minister Mrs. Ambika Soni deplored this phenomenon and warmed the people of India that this syndrome will negate the concept of a Free Press and ultimately our parliamentary democracy. They also emphasised the need to ensure accountability towards the people by the journalists and the media houses. The million dollar question is to what extent the Indian Media is accountable to the people of India? Why the media is losing its credibility and trust among the people? An independent public relations firm ‘Trust Barometer Survey’ conducted a survey in 22 countries during 2010. The report shows that the Indian media has been losing its credibility and trust among the people. Sharp drop in trust over the past two years in television news has been registered. Trust in the media in India has declined by seven percent, (from 65 in 2009 to 58 in 2010).
Is it not a paradox and pity that those who passed the bill in Parliament allowing foreign funding, core ownership and control over Indian media are now crying for regulatory proposals to make it accountable. Who paid the huge money and tried to pollute the very political atmosphere and electoral system? Who will punish whom? Who is the bigger offender? The biggest challenge before the fourth estate has been to save its integrity, identity and impartiality.
|Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati|