Dialogue  July-September,  2010, Volume 12 No.1

So that the Misdeeds are not Exposed

Ram Bahadur Rai

The much awaited Inquiry Report of the Press Council has fallen prey to an internal turmoil. It was expected that it would be approved unanimously in the meeting of Press Council on 26 of April. But, there was a lot of hue and cry and resistance. It’s not very difficult to understand the reason behind it. With the ratification by the Council, the Report would have blackened the faces of those newspapers and channels that were selling news during the elections. But they have their supporters in the Press Council. They had many objections to the Report. And they were the real troublemakers. The retired judge and the chairman of the Press Council. Justice G.N. Ray has worked out a middle path. The Report under consideration had been prepared by a subcommittee constituted in July 2009. It gathered the facts very assiduously. It heard the versions of those accused and also questioned them. The sub-committee consisted of intrepid journalist and representative of the UGC Prananjoy Guha Thakurta. The other member was K. Srinivas Reddy.                                                                                           
    The report of the subcommittee was ready in March 2010. It was discussed in a meeting at Indore and it became apparent that there would be persistent roadblocks at every step of the inquiry report. The suggested amendments set forth by some members were the early indicators. The Report was modified in accordance with these suggestions. The original  Report is of 71 pages containing more than thirty six thousand words. There should have been no obstacle in approving this report consensually. The report contains only those facts in a systematic manner which is now known to every alert citizen of this country. But there is more in it than that. It also has the history and the modus operandi of selling news. There are evidential citations of examples of news selling. It has details of the survey underlining the declining credentials of media. It contains suggestions steps on how the Parliament, the Government, the Election Commission and the Press Council can control the new phenomenon of business of news selling compelled. An alert  citizen, when he reads the report will be filled with anguish and to think if there is any solution at all. He knows it that even the most powerful slip in elections. They adopt wrongful means to win them. But he would not have been aware that the media which he so far took to be a vigilant watchdog of democracy has also fallen prey to the market forces. He would have understood from this Report the dangerous consequences of the this phenomenon. In a true sense this report would have acted as a catalyst for the public opinion and strengthened our democracy.                                                                             
    Those who wanted to see that happen have been waiting for the report. Those who wanted to save their face wanted to bury it so deep that it cannot be resurrected. We all know that a man never returns from his grave. If at all it comes out it is its phantom. The newspaper owning families and news channel owners want the same fate meted out to it.  Isn’t it a dual crime? It is noteworthy that the uproar in the meeting on 26 April, which was intended for thoughtful discussion, clearly reflected this mindset. Two days later the chairman of the Press Council constituted a committee of 12 members with a heavy heart. It is a drafts committee to furnish a fresh report. His order says that the committee will base its report on the subcommittee's report. Apparently it will be proclaimed by the new report that it is a compendious rendition of the earlier one. The truth is that it will distort the old report in a manner that the tainted media owners have no objections. This is not an easy task though. Because Prananjoy Guha Thakurta is also in the new committee. And the tainted media heads will not succeed easily in their intents as long as he is there. Although the committee has to complete its task within three months of time, it will have its first meeting on 31
st May and 1st June. 
    The sub-Committee’s Inquiry Report has been dedicated to late journalist Prabhash Joshi. It is a respectful remembrance of his contribution. Everyone was watching the Loksabha Elections in 2009. But the way Prabhash Joshi saw it required an aware and vigilant mind and conscience. It was he who raised the question in anguish that since the elections are big festivals of democracy, it becomes imperative on media to help the electors in taking right decision through their news. Contrary to it news were sold. When he got to know of this, he wrote relentlessly. It resulted in awareness among the public against the horse-trading of media. Facts were gathered on the issue. A campaign started, thanks to the initiative taken by none other than Prabhash Joshi. He talked to his erstwhile comrades and one day reached the Chairman of Press Council taking B.G. Verghese, Kuldip Nayar and Ajit Bhattacharjea and handed him a memorandum requesting an Inquiry by the Press Council into the matter. The President of the council retired Justice G. N. Ray constituted a subcommittee to look into it. But Prabhash Joshi did not sit silently after bringing the matter before Press Council. He motivated his journalist brethren. The young journalists realised the gravity of the situation and went on a campaign realising that the imminent danger is more serious than the Emergency wherein democracy had been strangulated.                                                                                             
    As long as the current chairman of the press council is in seat, there is little possibility that the matter shall not be investigated using the modus operandi once used by the B. Shankaranand Committee. When Rajiv Gandhi was accused of kickbacks in the Bofor’s deal, a Joint  Committee of Parliament was constituted with B. Shankaranand as its chairman. The report of that committee was prepared under the supervision of the then Defense Secretary S.K. Bhatnagar.  He was one of those against whom there were allegations. All this was manipulated in a bid to save Rajiv Gandhi and others. Even if the new committee of the council does not go to that extent, the questions regarding the need for it may still be asked. Will the new committee only abridge the subcommittee's report anew? If that was the case, the 12 members committee cannot do it. It can talk about disputed issues, endlessly but it cannot decide on the issues. Has the new committee been formed to gain time? They say that time is the biggest healer. But those who are wounded don’t want procrastination. They want quick relief. It should be understood clearly that the business of news selling has attacked the very core of democracy, hurting the conscience of every conscious citizen. The new committee will neither be able to give first aid nor treat the disease. It will not be able to satisfy the curiosity of the people. It will also not be able to save anyone as the issue has progressed too far. The trade of news selling and news buying has been condemned at numerous forums. Apparently the people who have blackened their integrity see no respite from the attacks that are coming from every corner. In fact this trade occurred mainly because politics has turned into a market. The political parties and politicians need media for their marketing. As such they are as guilty as the media tycoons. A representative from such a media family raised in the council the issue that the report is putting the blame solely on those taking bribe, but is silent about those offering bribes. This is the irony of Indian democracy which has not spared anyone. In fact it has left no one untouched. I don’t know why the news sellers didn’t ask for the evidences of this. This question by them means that evidence should be gathered from the correspondents who worked as agents in this business. And if this question is raised at all, the ‘Foundation for Media Professionals’ will manage to answer that.  On
October 28, 2009 from that same Forum, Prabhash Joshi delivered his historic speech, whose important points have been appended in the Report in translation.                                              
    The issue of news selling is an extra-ordinary one. In the states it was in practice for two decades. Maharashtra and Gujarat were such two states. Random complaints were received in the 2004 Parliamentary elections. In 2009, elections it became an organized trade all over the country inspired by the motives of profit and greed. When the flames of this fire of corruption started threatening to consume the democratic system itself, all the people in seats of power started raising alarm that led to a debate. Vice-president Hamid Ansari also partook in this debate. Expressing his concern over the issue he said in a seminar that media had abdicated its basic responsibility and is now working from the profit motive. This issue was raised by BJP leader Lalkrishna Advani in the Loksabha. He opined that if the government bears the election expenditure, the trade of selling news may come to a halt. He had been harping on this tune for long but did not receive much  heeded credence. Advani uses it occasionally to attack and hurt some persons. In the whole debate, the only person to talk about the real issue was Arun Jaitly. He advised that existing laws should be applied to media houses and a tribunal for a speedy implementation of the same, should be set up. The suggestion put forth by SEBI to the Press Council is also very useful. It says that the media houses must divulge the “silent agreements” they have entered into with business corporates betraying the readers. Sitaram Yechury had the good initiative when he moved a Calling Attention motion in the Rajyasabha, compelling Ambika Soni to come and speak on it. It must be recalled that when in the sixties of the last century media had started showing signs of going out of control, Indrajit Gupta had moved a private bill providing an opportunity for introspection. Sitaram Yechury asserted this to be a serious matter. It heralds a steep decline in journalism and is harming the Parliamentary democracy. He was supported by the leader of the opposition Mr. Arun Jaitly. He, however, disagreed with the solution suggested by Mr. Yechury. He termed the statements of Ambika Soni as shallow and diversionary. The minister had averred in her speech that the Press Council is investigating the whole matter. Her statement implied that the government is waiting for the report to take action. Arun Jaitly challenged it and said that the Press Council is a toothless wonder. He was right in saying so because the Press Council that we have is a crippled one. We can compare it to a scarecrow that a farmer keeps in his field to save the crop. Only terming it as toothless wonder shall not serve the purpose and we have to get at the real meaning of it, which is that the Press Council has been rendered toothless under the pressure from corporate families.                                                                                         
    At the time of its constitution, Press Council was given certain legal and moral rights to keep the newspapers under check. When Justice P.B. Sawant was its chairman, he proposed to the government that a Media Council should be constituted in place of Press Council so that it can supervise both newspapers and channels. At that time Sushma Swaraj held the same post which Ambika Soni holds today. In an interview given to ‘Pravakta’ P.B. Sawant said, “If Ambika Soni is really concerned about news selling, she should accept my proposal of media council. She will get its draft in her ministry.” Arun Jaitly challenged Minister Ambika Soni that if the government has the guts to do it, then it must declare news selling a commerce and apply the relevant business laws on media families as on other business. He also demanded setting up of a regulatory tribunal for this. It is really very strange that no one in the Rajya Sabha was in favour of making the Press Council a regulatory tribunal. 
    In the course of their testimony before the Press Council the political leaders betrayed the duplicity of character. Some of them confessed at personal level that money was demanded from them by media houses. But when they were asked to record their statements, they evaded it. They looked embarrassed and expressed their inability to reveal them on record. In fact they were more bothered about the fact that it may mar their relations with media houses. A careful reading of the report itself will unveil this unstated truth. The complete extent of the business of news selling and buying can be comprehended by the report. It provides a rough estimate that the news selling trade involves hundreds of crores of rupees. The share in it is decided by the status of a media family. It is not only a matter of transactions in black money. It should have been less worrying if it were only that. The report particularly underscores three facets of this trade. Firstly, it is a betrayal of the readers who read the newspaper taking it as a hallmark of truth. They view the news channel also with the same conviction. Secondly, the buying and selling of news violates the code of conduct of Elections and renders the People’s Representation Act meaningless. The Election Commission is reduced to nothing more than a letter box. Besides, the very validity of the elections comes under cloud. Thirdly, the income generated from this is reflected  nowhere and amounts to theft of income tax. The conscious citizen was hitherto concerned that the journalists are becoming corrupt. Corruption in journalism is, however, as old as the profession itself. Earlier those who were found involved in corruption lost the esteem of their institutions and society. That was considered the personal fall of that particular journalist and the integrity of the institution was not affected. The phenomenon of news selling has, however, institutionalized corruption. It has created hierarchical corruption. It has shown to the people the demonic dimensions of corruption. It is this institutionalized corruption that has now become a matter of investigaion. 
    The impartial sub-committee report has reached the conclusion that, “Although the phenomenon of news selling has a very wide dimension and many a people have confirmed it orally, but there are no documentary proofs to assert that media houses, advertising agencies, journalists, political leaders and parties were involved in monetary deals. There was only one exception. Parcha Kodanda Ramarao was a candidate from Loksatta Party in Andhra Pradesh. He revealed to Press Council that he had to pay fifty thousand rupees to a Telgu newspaper ‘Enadu’ in order to publish news in his favour. The paper has demanded one lakh from him. No receipt was given to him for the money he gave.” It appears that having reached a conclusion; the press council report got entangled in the issues of legality and illegality. People are aware of it. The Press Council cannot be entrusted to collect evidence of a fact which is an open secret, which has been seen and experienced by many. This is the job of the CBI or Income Tax Department, or the Enforcement Directorate. The Press Council report details the problem extensively and deeply. It is a document that will shake those who believe in clean democratic society. And the tainted media houses are concerned about it and are impatient to cleanse away the stigma and are leaving no stones unturned to that end. Is it a mere coincidence that the International News Media Marketing Association has conferred the first prize on the public awareness campaign sponsored by ‘Dainik Jagran’ during the elections?  Is it a move to white-wash the investigation of the Press Council? After all it has got an American medal; so what if not from
India. Similarly the same Association awarded the ‘Times of India’ for ‘Lead India’. It may be that ‘Wall Street Journal’ is now satisfied with it. It also published articles condemning news selling during the elections. All this is fresh evidence that the world is really round.                                                                                                                  
     In a bid to maintain a balance with the conclusions of the report, the sub-committee has started its report with evidence. It writes that ‘ample circumstantial evidences of selling and buying of news was found. This evidence was, collected by journalists, journalist associations, some individuals and institutions. Their statements given before the Council make it clear that the news selling trade flourished across the country. There were less number of complaints from Tamilnadu and Kerala as the media there is clearly divided between two political camps. Elsewhere most of the papers and channels were involved in news selling trade.’ What the inquiry report terms as circumstantial evidences are not just the anguish of troublemakers, but vigilant findings of those who chose to be missionaries of democracy against news trade. People who normally keep away from tumults of elections also came forward to testify. It underscores  the enormity of the problem. Such witnesses cannot be rejected by mere legal quiblings. They represent morality. Fifty such persons provided to the Press Council material collected on their own initiative. They also came to testify before the council when called. Many others also sent documents and e-mails. Apparently while some media houses were engaged in auctioning their integrity, there were a few who collected proofs.                                                                                
    While this report gives a clear picture of the mixing of news and advertisement, it also provides a glimpse of the growing influence of foreign capital in media. The Press Council team visited Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad to talk to those people who could be of help in the inquiry. Besides, facts and evidences were collected in every possible manner. Completing its inquiry the subcommittee prepared its report. The allegations of news selling by newspapers in Hindi belt is against Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar,
Hindustan, Amar Ujala, Aaj, Haribhumi, Punjab Kesari etc. The accusers comprise BSP candidate Harmohan Dhawan, Congress candidates Santosh Singh and Sandeep Dikshit, BJP Candidates Ram Iqbal Singh, Lalji Tandon, Neelam Sonkar, CPI Candidate Atul Anjan and SP candidate Mohan Singh etc. Former chief minister Omprakash Chautala also submitted a written complaint to the press council. The council talked to important leaders of different parties, particularly to those who contested elections from some constituency or conducted it. Leader of opposition Sushma Swaraj recounted a personal experience of this problem when called upon by Press Council. She mentioned a newspaper that asked one of his election organizers to pay money, though she was not approached directly. “I was told that media can be turned in favour spending one crore rupee.” When the Press Council tried to know the name of the newspaper she evaded it and requested not to ask the questions saying there were bigger questions to grapple with. Press Council also heard the version of the  tainted ones. The report has comprehensively recorded the clarification given by Ashok Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra.                           
    The problem that emerges from this report of the Press Council is more of moral dimensions than legal. This dilemma has continued with many former governments. There are many obstacles in deciding legal accountability of media, and this report has identified them all. These are, new technology, globalization, excessive interference of foreign capital and those favouring foreign capital, lobbying agencies and the mushrooming power brokers. Dr. M. Sridhar, the director of ‘Center for Media Law and Policy’ Hyderabad, told the press council that news selling has become a mixture of three poisonous chemicals. They are- Media, Money and Mafia. And in the eyes of law it is a heinous crime which the Election Commission must put a stop to. The government is unable to muster enough courage to cleanse the relationship between democracy and market, at least as far as Media is concerned. As a result the task of building public opinion has been overtaken by profit motive, and become a priority. This report has exposed the helplessness of the government and the crippled status of Election Commission and the Press Council. The Election Commission can be empowered by  amending the People’s Representation Act so that it may take action against news selling. As of now, the current report is prisoner of the crippled status of Press Council. We should keep our faith in the Press Council though. If is possible that we may after all get the real and correct report from Suchana Bhawan.

Courtesy: Pratham Pravakta, June 1, 2010.

Translated by Dr. Ghanshyam Sharma.   


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati