Recent actions of the judiciary in curbing rogue elements of the media come as a welcome sign of the possible restoration of impartial and professional journalism
Notwithstanding the claim of friendship between our PM and Trump, India has always been at the receiving end, There was the threat of retaliation for non-supply of HCQ, the charge of under-reporting of figures of deaths and cases of Covid, castigation of communalism and of suppression of democratic rights, and, now about 'Filthy air'. Although such remarks are hurting, mostly they speak about the reality of 'filth' that has overwhelmed governance and society in the past six years. But, what is unfortunate is that instead of showing the mirror to the Government to help in course correction, most of the media is acting as their propaganda machinery. The current intervention of higher courts in media matters is thus a silver-lining.
The country is ill at ease. After having gained power with false promises and a media blitz, the ruling party could not walk the talk. Thus, Trump was right when he said the air in India was filthy. While we are far from achieving Paris Agreement goals, the environment laws are being relaxed. For example, earlier, environment clearance was required for coal lease in Chhattisgarh, if the distance involved was more than 50 km. Now, it is dispensed with by dividing a 500 km stretch into smaller segments.
'Time' magazine pointed out that pandemic was used to stifle dissent and push a vibrant democracy deeper into the shadows. Now, petty politics are being played with the COVID-19 vaccine in the Bihar elections.
Every institution and law has been blatantly abused. Dissenting intellectuals and activists were booked under draconian laws, terming them as 'Urban Naxals.'
Then, while an otherwise healthy economy has been burnt to ashes and dirt, taking unemployment and poverty to great heights, retrograde actions like mob-lynching, encounter-killings targetting minorities are never condemned by the leadership. Further, morbid thoughts of indoctrination have been introduced in certain educational systems in place of rational thinking and independent research. Instead of promoting patriotic fervour based on principles of secularism as enshrined in our constitution, unpatriotic 'communal' strife is being patronised.
As a result, several indices, like World Happiness Index, Environment Performance Index, Democratic Principles, Freedom of Press, hunger, poverty, performance in Covid, economic inequalities, etc. have placed us at the bottom of the list of countries. Our image in the international community has touched its nadir. Yet, the supplicant media has not been stirred into professional action.
Tragically, they have not only failed to take up people's issues for remedial action but have been promoting the agenda of this Government to create a cleavage in the society on religions lines. Their grovelling at the feet of those in power is to such an extent that when fake news about disbanding of a Muslim regiment in the past for refusing to fight with Muslims across the border has come in circulation, they remained silent. Even after defence stalwarts like Admiral Ramdas wrote to the President and PM that such a regiment never existed, no one in authority speaks to the country about it, nor the media tries to clear the air, implying the element of conspiracy against minorities.
For the past few years, the way channels have been openly generating and spreading venom against minorities and suppressing information about the failures of the Government. The way the Government has been pampering them with advertisements, it becomes clear even to the layman that there is some level of collusion between them. And, those who do not join hands are being targeted and are starved of government ads from tax-payers' money. Yet, it is they who fed the country with true facts like, the crisis of migrant workers, economic mismanagement, lies about Chinese intrusion, engineering of political defections, collusion with crony capitalists, incidents like Hathras, etc. In fact, disgusted with the abominable conduct of the 'Godi' media, the country has been waiting for courts to restrain them. It appears that it is happening at last.
High Courts of Delhi and Mumbai and the SC seem to be intent on reforming them by tackling the issue of Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression vs no-holds-bar approach assumed by the channels. Courts are consciously aware of the rights of citizens that are being trampled by the channels and the principles of 'secularism' enshrined in our Preamble.
In the obnoxious programme of 'UPSC jihad', the stated intention of Sudarshan TV is to apprise the state and the people about the conspiracy to increase the number of Muslims in UPSC selections, even though their entry is through merit. However, the SC stayed the programme saying that prima facie, it appeared, their intention was to malign Muslims, like in the case of Tablighi Jamaat.
The case has prompted the SC to examine the aspects of share-holding, the investors, their revenue pattern, etc. which have to be transparently put on the website for the public to view. Importantly, government ads also need to be allotted without discrimination or favour. The role of the Press Council of India and National Broadcasting Agency in checking abuse of the Article to malign the image of individuals and communities also comes under scrutiny. The ultimate objective is to promote impartial and professional journalism that reports unadulterated and unprejudiced information so that Art 19(1)(A) is not abused.
Further, these higher courts have made it amply clear that the media does not have the authority to investigate cases, and that their one-sided trials are illegal. At this juncture, the fraud of TRP has been exposed by Maharashtra Police, in which channels bribe the host families of TRP machines.
An important question that arises is whether courts' orders would ultimately discipline the Government-pampered media. The country's experience is that even after the orders of the SC for police reforms in the past, and for allocation of government ads in the recent past, nothing has changed. The political executive finds ways to ignore, defy, or circumvent the orders of the SC. Incidentally, it was the bench of Justice D Y Chandrachud (who is now heading the bench in Sudarshan TV matter) that had delved into the matter of advertisements while hearing the case of Rajasthan Patrika.
In 2016, 'Rajasthan Patrika' was denied government advertisements by the government of Vasundhara Raje. When the editorial criticised such action, the government in Madhya Pradesh too banned advertisements to this paper. The PM too kept his silence when the matter was taken up in the Parliament. It was at this stage that SC made it clear that allotment of government ads cannot be banned, and ordered their release. However, soon a law was enacted by the Rajasthan Government to the effect that before publishing any news connected with judiciary or executive, prior permission of the state government should be taken, with two years imprisonment for violations. The matter got precipitated when the paper declared a blackout for government news and the Centre was reticent to intervene. It was ultimately referred to a select committee, and the law was repealed in 2018.
But, the fact remains that in spite of the SC orders, still there is no transparency in giving ads by governments. This is the state of freedom of the press in India. Sliding consistently from 2014 every year, India now stands at 142 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index. Even Myanmar is placed higher. The approach of the Government only promotes the interests of 'rogue-journalists'.
One only wishes that this time around, the court-ordered reforms would be real and binding on governments and media, with no escape routes. Like how the restorative justice system is used in the west to order deviant journalists for their hate news to spend some time with police officers, etc., similar arrangements could be planned in India too.
The writer is a retired IPS officer and a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. Views expressed are personal