Media in India: fine line between regulation and freedom

December 3, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

If you are a journalist in India or have been around people who work in the field, you might have heard these comments:

“You are a journalist, can’t you get passes arranged for that concert?”, “Can I get a similar Press Card like yours?”, “It is easy to show your Press Card and tell the police you are a journalist when you are charged for a minor offence”, “Don’t you know I am from the media?”, “A PRESS sticker on the car can do wonders”.

The common man sees journalists as powerful people. But the Zee News episode, in which two senior journalists were sent to prison after being accused of extortion, has prompted another wave of outrage over the misuse of this so-called power of the media, though on a much bigger scale.

Rajdeep Sardesai, the editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN television, tweeted after a televised debate on the subject, “I guess journalists are more feared today, but sadly less respected. We are more arrogant, less ethical”.

Questions that remain unanswered in the Zee case are best left to the courts, given that the journalists are in Tihar jail, serving their 14-day judicial custody but have not yet been found guilty of any crime.

This case is not isolated, however. Three media people, including two employees of the India TV news channel, were accused of trying to extort money from a traditional Unani healer, after apparently filming him prescribing Western medicine to patients. In another case, correspondents from India TV and ABP News were suspended after they were accused of being involved in an extortion case.

Such instances, and a bigger case like Zee News that involves politician and wealthy industrialist Naveen Jindal, have reignited the debate on media regulation in India. It seems the self-regulation model has failed in India and it is time for a body that has the authority to issue and cancel a journalist’s permit to work, something that is not required in India today.

Critics argue that a regulatory body on the lines of the Medical Council of India is not going to yield the desired results. After all, such a regulatory framework has failed to deter doctors from doing what they shouldn’t. But I don’t see a possible failure as reason enough for not having stringent rules in place.

The Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill 2012 includes a provision to cancel a media organisation’s licence and impose heavy fines for offences. But other provisions which give the authority powers to suspend or ban coverage of an event in national interest have drawn criticism as it is seen as a suppression of the media’s freedom to report in India, something enshrined in the constitution’s law guaranteeing freedom of speech.

The industry doesn’t need a regulator to seek reporting approvals, or to get story ideas vetted or sources verified. In a democracy, the freedom of press is and should be paramount. What we need is a body which can come down heavily on those who misuse their position for unethical practices such as extortion.

For instance, if a journalist is found guilty in an extortion case and serves the jail-term, can he be trusted to report objectively once he’s back on the job? What we need are rules with provisions to ban journalists or news organisations found guilty in such cases.

As more and more young people continue to enter the profession, strict provisions could act as a deterrent. Only then will there be the possibility of journalists being feared less and respected more.

(You can follow Aditya on Twitter @adityayk)

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