In the interest of democracy
While the highly sensationalised coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case by the media does warrant some efforts of moderation, curbing press freedom is not the answer
First, the Bombay High Court said that "we are surprised to find there is no state control over electronic media". Then the Supreme Court favoured the formation of a committee to set up standards for the media.
Even if the background of the two orders explains the calls for regulation, the suggested solutions have their own drawbacks. For instance, nothing demonstrated the pitfalls of "state control" more than the press censorship which was imposed by the Indira Gandhi Government following the proclamation of the Emergency in 1975.
And no one understood the negative impact of the clampdown more than Indira Gandhi herself when she attributed her defeat in the 1977 general election to the lack of feedback because of the silencing of the media.
A renewed experiment with such a failed endeavour is, therefore, unwarranted even if the reason for it can appear justified in view of the 'media trial' of some of the accused in the case on the death of a Bollywood actor. Although the shrill presentations by several TV anchors emphasise the need for a restraining measure, there is little doubt that a remedy of this nature can be worse than the disease.
In any event, the Government's intervention in the realm of free expression militates against the democratic concept and is, therefore, 'ipso facto' unacceptable. Besides, in view of the nation's experience during the Emergency, no government will be willing to go down that road again.
The hasty withdrawal of the proposed 'Publication of Objectionable Materials Act' by the Rajiv Gandhi Government after a public outcry demonstrated how sensitive the authorities had become about the popular antipathy towards any attempt to muzzle the media.
If state control is not feasible, so is the idea of a committee for overseeing the media. For a start, it is likely to be regarded as censorship by another name. After all, during the 1975-77 period, such 'committees' of bureaucrats loyal to the party in power if not to the Constitution scrutinised the news items and editorials of the next day's newspapers the night before publication to detect and delete any subversive content in the Government's opinion.
True, the Supreme Court wants the committee proposed by it to comprise members of "commendable stature" and not "persons of politically divisive nature". But it will not be easy to find people of such impeccable apolitical credentials. It is an impossibility in today's polarised world to find such men and women when the Left and the Right are constantly at loggerheads.
But, perhaps, it is wrong to blame only the present times for the divisiveness. It has probably always been the case where one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. The gulf between the Left and the Right, the liberal and the conservative, the pluralist and the religious fundamentalist, must have always been the determining feature of all societies.
In any event, it is very much so in India today where, after decades of liberalism and secularism promoted by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Right-wing majoritarianism of the Hindu supremacist RSS is guiding the present ruling dispensation at the Centre.
The two judicial pronouncements are nothing but the expressions of disquiet about the manner in which Rightist political views have become the norm in some of the television channels at the expense of media professionalism which stresses a strictly neutral approach to news and views.
Hence, the so-called media trial of the accused in the tragic death which deliberately sensationalises the event so that the viewer's attention will be focussed on the tragedy and not on the problems faced by the Government such as the Coronavirus pandemic, the economic malaise and the tense Sino-Indian border situation.
The Supreme Court's judgment, too, concerned a television serial which, the judges felt, were seeking to malign the Muslims. This vilification can be said to be in line with the Islamophobia which has marked the pro-Government channels, not to mention the BJP's formidable army of trolls who traduce not only the Muslims but also the Congress's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who have long been the BJP's bugbear.
The antidote to such partisan coverage is the restoration of professionalism in journalism where the media personnel will eschew bias as was the practice earlier when a scribe's pride lay in being deemed fair. Although the governments of the day did try to woo them by providing housing and other facilities, such enticements rarely influenced what the correspondents wrote or said.
As a result, some of the newspapers built up a reputation for being fiercely independent, a status for which some of their journalists faced jail terms during the Emergency. Today, only a handful of TV channels and publications can answer to the description of being independent. Elsewhere, professionalism is at a discount.
It is this loss of journalistic integrity which has given rise to the calls for controlling the media. It is a dangerous trend, for the urge for regulation can act as the thin end of the wedge to enable the authorities to curb the much-vaunted freedom of the press.
Views expressed are personal