A few weeks back, a revered Governor with over 24,000 followers on Twitter, took it upon himself to expand the ambit of his gubernatorial duties and tweeted observations on the regional media and shared an article, which was considered to have communal overtones. Needless to say, the same was much endorsed amongst his cronies. His Excellency frequently takes to the microblogging site to speak his mind, which, almost always, is very caustic. I am not pondering upon such indiscretions of a Constitutional head of state here. For that, a full piece will follow shortly. Expression of such views, however, by any other person would have attracted sharp criticism, severe penal provisions, and reprimand. Be that as it may, the same got me thinking about the state of media as it is today, be that print, electronic, or social and how much the world’s largest democracy is hinged on it.
An average person gets more information from his Sunday morning newspaper today than he would have throughout the entire course of his life in the 17th century. You probably believed the last statement to be true, even though I just made it up, without any verifiable data! I think I have made my point, but let us linger on.
Saying that the media affects every aspect of a democracy is like saying the moon has an effect on the tidal waves. However, one needs to sit back and comprehend the extent to which the media governs our life. News, much like the previous statistics I stated, verified or otherwise, spreads within minutes. But I am not of the pedestrian nature of what most news tends to be today. What I am on is far more poignant. Beyond a point, your page three news causes a dip in the nations general intellect, but I would not venture so far as to state that the very bonds of national integrity are affected. But alas, on this count as well, the media can rarely be held faultless. Most incidents of communal unrest in the recent past were amplified, if not caused, because of the mass hysteria doctored by few media as a circulation game.
The media reaches almost everybody. That is a heavy burden to carry. In a country with people easily driven by passion, we are sitting on a veritable apocalypse. Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana are all shining examples of how media can cause a flare up. The recent incidents in Bengal provide another example of rather irresponsible journalism practised by a few segments of the press. It was a sad day for journalism when some national papers let go of the sacred principles of restraint and self-regulation, and let lose a salvo of unverified mass hysteria and which was followed and shared on the social media, again unsubstantiated and unregulated. However, a daft fool might say the media needs to be further regulated. We don’t need a ban on a national news channel to remind us of the darkest hours our democracy.
Our Constitution, under Article 41, lays a duty on the State to take active steps to educate people within limits of its available economic resources and this includes political education. Newspapers and news channels are the most potent means of educating people. The Supreme Court in Bennett Coleman v\s Union of India (reported in AIR 1973 SC 106) held way back in the year 1973 that the liberty of the press remains an “Ark of the Covenant” in every democracy and that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech is not so much for the benefit of the press as it is in the interests of the public. The public interest in freedom of discussion (of which the freedom of the press is one aspect) stems from the requirement that members of a democratic society should be sufficiently informed that they may influence intelligently the decisions which may affect themselves. Though our Constitution does not use the expression “freedom of press” in Article 19, it was declared by the Supreme Court in Brij Bhushan v/s State of Delhi (reported in AIR 1950 SC 129) and Bennett Coleman & Co. v/s Union of India that it is included in Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.
However, with the country being as precariously poised as it is at present with communal forces raising their ugly horns, a certain degree of self-regulation would not be amiss. With great power comes great responsibility. Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India provides for reasonable restrictions on freedom of press on grounds of sovereignty and integrity of state, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or morality, or in relation to contempt of Court, defamation, or incitement to an offence. These restrictions should, however, pass the “reasonability test”. Such is the independence of the press in India, and it has hardly seen any limitations. The Press Council of India that regulates print media and the National Broadcasters Association that monitors the news channels prescribes norms in respect of reporting incidences that might be communal.
It is commonly laid down that the media should abstain from publishing pictures of corpses or anything that would trigger communal passion, ensure proper verification and authenticity of facts concerning religious disputes, and avoid focus on existing differences between religious communities. Media should be extra cautious while expressing their views since their positions are exposed to a larger audience. Focus must at all times be to encourage peace even during a crisis/calamity and to act as a troubleshooter rather than a troublemaker. Sensational, provocative, disturbing headlines to be avoided.
More so, when information and views are shared and spread unfettered by one in power and all and sundry, the media’s responsibility enhances while penning down or telecasting information. Hence, while we do not dare tutor the powerful, a self-regulation by the rest may guide the powerful, which is desirable and the need of the time.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)