Apart from its political, economic and social dimensions, the Congress party’s manifesto for the 2019 elections has triggered a debate on the main opposition party’s outlook towards the fourth estate. While some sections of the media have welcomed some of the proposed initiatives, many others have already slammed it as an assault on freedom of speech and expression. Some have even reminded that it is the same party which imposed Emergency in the country in 1975, introduced media censorship, jailed and harassed journalists.
Interestingly, many of the views echoed in the party’s manifesto reflect those of its arch-rival the ruling BJP. One is reminded of BJP patriarch LK Advani’s famous statement that (sections of the media) “crawled when they were just asked to bend”.
"In recent times, sections of the media have abused or surrendered their freedom," says the Congress document.
BJP leaders from Arun Jaitley to Rajnath Singh have not spared any opportunity to criticise the media coverage of the Mumbai terror attack and compared it with the US media coverage of 9/11. They have also repeatedly called for a code of conduct for the media to ensure that national security is not compromised with.
Now, look at the promise made by the main opposition:
“We will work with the Press Council of India and associations of newspapers and media to formulate and enforce a Code of Conduct on reporting in situations of natural disaster, communal conflict, riots, terrorist attacks and war in order to ensure a balance between the need to inform, need for restraint, maintenance of law and order, and interest of national security.”
It had become fashionable at every media conference in the country to slam the Press Council of India as a “toothless tiger”. Today media houses do not even bother to carry in its pages the reprimand or censure of the council with regard to any complaint made against it. Moreover, apart from industry bodies such as News Broadcasters’ Association or Broadcast Editors’ Association, operated voluntarily by the private players, there is no platform with even quasi-judicial powers, which the citizen can approach for his complaints and concerns about the contents in the electronic media.
And with regard to the digital media, particularly social media, where fake news and fake narratives are being circulated in heavy doses, defamation and character assassinations are being carried out day in and day out, the Digital Citizen has no ombudsman whatsoever to offer him or her a shoulder to cry.
The need of the hour, therefore, is a wider Media Council of India, with the powers to take punitive action, if required but what is important is the composition where not just the Yes men of the government but even its harshest critics find a place through representation of trade unions and associations and thereby ensure the much-needed balance.
One is really skeptical as to how Congress proposes to move forward with the law to “curb monopolies in the media, cross-ownership of different segments of the media and control of the media by other business organisations.” Will that is used a tool to harass and browbeat media houses which are perceived by the party as being close to the current ruling dispensation or is it aimed at ensuring that the media represents the diversity and plurality of the country?
With regard to the Congress promise to pass a law to preserve the freedom of the Internet and to prevent arbitrary and frequent shutdowns of the Internet, it has to be taken with a pinch of salt as the blatant misuse of Whatsapp has led to mob lynchings in the country and widespread unrest in Kashmir and other parts of India, which may require the authorities to impose a blanket shutdown off and on. The question is who will ensure it’s not “arbitrary”?
The Congress has stated that it will work with state governments to formulate rules to require the police to extend protection to journalists working in conflict areas or investigating matters of public interest and to journalists whose lives are threatened or otherwise in danger but is it feasible for any police force to deploy as much security personnel to protect the journalists as most of them are pursuing matters of public interest only most of the time. Also, would any journalist worth his salt would like to be seen moving around with a rifle-wielding constable ad also unwittingly remain under surveillance? The solution is to create a conducive law and order situation where the journalist can work freely and stop hate mongering against the media.
As for its stand with regard to film censorship and directing the Censor Board to certify films according to transparent and reasonable criteria, the nation will keep its fingers crossed keeping in view its approach to films such as ‘Garam Hawa’ & ‘Aandhi’ and ‘Indu Sarkar’ & ‘Accidental Prime Minister’ of late.
That the Congress party chose to remain silent on restoring the autonomy of institutions like Prasar Bharati and Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) speaks volumes of the unwritten consensus among the political parties on critical issues concerning media freedom.
The author is a Senior Journalist and former Director General of Indian Institute o Mass Communication.
First Published: IST