Media in Indian Democracy
By Davendra Sharma
Freedom of Press and Media in not metioned explicitly in the Constitution of India, as per Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India, all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression. This fundamental right is also applicable for media. However, this freedom is not absolute, as Article 19(2) also speaks of power of the state to frame laws for imposing reasonable restrictions in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the 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. In a democratic form of Government, media is an important tool available to the people against the power of the state and is usually referred as the fourth estate of democracy along with executive, legislature and judiciary.
Information to "Infotainment"
The advent of electronic media has completely changed the scenario of reporting. Now we have 24x7 news channel beaming news from all over the country. However, like any other technological development, it has its own merits and demerits. While constant availability of news in visual form is a positive development, the flip side is that due to the nature of the medium and due to cut throat competition, the channels do not get enough time to verify a number of news and hence errs at times which adversely affects the rights of a number of people.
Earlier media use to be a source of information only. It was expected that media would impart neutral information. However, with the advent of private Electronic media this paradigm completely changed. Few major factors which influenced the role of media are:
The role of media changed from giving neutral information to shaping public opinion. There is nothing wrong in shaping public opinion however the anomaly arises when the public opinion being infulenced without proper verification of facts.
The another prominent factor which has influenced the character of media to a great exteant is the role of Market Forces. Media Channels like any other business entity are is owned by the Corporate Houses with the goal to maximize the shareholder's wealth. Since in media the revenue is propotional to the incidence of eye balls and number of audiences, thus a rat race has started to bring in "Sensetionalism" through "Breaking News" to capture maximum eye balls. Thus media the word "infotainment" (i.e. Information + Entertainment) is apt to describe the altered role of media. In order to telecast the "Breaking News" at the earliest at times facts are not properly verified and/or delibrately manipulated to create sensetion.
Some of the controversial issues about the electronic media are as under:
In many cases, the electronic media has shown stories on basis of allegations leveled against a person or on the basis of legal proceedings. While media claims that they are reporting a factual position, the effect of such a broadcast is that the person is considered to be a criminal prior to a verdict by a Court of Law.
In October, 2005, Naresh Pal, an employee of Pusa Agricultural Institute was accused by his niece of raping her. She called a media channel which promptly aired the news. The accused committed suicide along with his wife. In his suicide note he stated that his niece has made allegations of rape against him although he was impotent and he was ending his life as he cannot face the humiliation. This incident shows the lack of responsibility on part of media channel by not verifying the facts before broadcasting the news.
Courts have taken an adverse view in the matter though the Supreme Court in a recent decision refused to frame guidelines for media reporting for court cases. In a recent judgment in September, 2012, a Constitution Bench of five judges said when there was conflict between two rights - right to dignity and right to presumption of innocence guaranteed under Article 21 and right to free speech under Article 19 - the right to free speech must give way to right to life as in India, the right under Article 19(1) (a) was not an absolute one. To protect the rights of the accused, the Court evolved the ‘Doctrine of Postponement’ in which the higher judiciary could impose a temporary freeze on the reporting of a case under trial.
Matters relating to security concerns
During the terrorist attack on Mumbai, the media beamed live images of various encounter sites and action being taken by the security forces. This live coverage gave the terrorists important information about the movement of the security forces, which the terrorists used to their advantage. This action was criticized by the Supreme Court. A bench of Justices Aftab Alam and C K Prasad said that “The shots and visuals that were shown live by TV channels could have also been shown after all the terrorists were neutralized and the security operations were over. But in that case, the TV programmes would not have had the same shrill, scintillating and chilling effect and would not have shot up the TRP ratings of the channels."
The content of news channels has invited criticism and it has been alleged that these channels are airing programmes with the sole aim of increasing TRP. Subjects like films and cricket are prominent subjects and if these prove insufficient in increasing the TRP, then excerpts of soap operas and reality shows from entertainment channels of the same group are roped in to improve the TRP. Obviously, this is at the expense of serious issues facing the country. Apart from this, most of the channels broadcast programmes about astrology or some other mysterious methods to solve the problems of people. At the time of every major festival or a solar/lunar eclipse we can see a host of gentlemen trying to guide people to prosperity or to save them from disaster. Needless to say, these solutions do not have any scientific or logical basis. This does not help in developing a scientific and rational approach.
Sting operations are the most controversial aspect of TV journalism. Some of these like Operation Westend, exposing corruption in defense procurement and Operation Duryodhana about MPs taking money for asking questions in the Parliament, have done a great service to the nation by exposing wrong people. However, many of these are done to give a boost to the TRP without any consideration for ethics.
In the year 2007, a TV channel conducted a sting operation about a school teacher Uma Khurana, accusing her of providing girls for prostitution. Violence erupted near the school after the news was aired. The teacher was attacked by a violent mob and her life was barely saved. She was arrested, suspended from her job and faced extreme humiliation. Later on it was proved that the sting operation was fake and was at the behest of some colleague of hers who wanted to settle personal scores. Although, the reporter was later arrested and faced criminal trial and the TV channel was banned for a month, the incident raised serious ethical issues.
Few years earlier, a TV channel conducted a sting operation to expose “casting couch” in the film industry in which film star Shakti Kapoor and TV actor Aman Verma were supposedly ‘exposed’. ‘Casting couch’ is more of a moral issue than a legal one. This raises questions about the rights of media to probe the questions of individual morality, which is a matter of individual perception and differs from person to person. Another question that arises is, whether the TV channel had any previous knowledge of ‘casting couch’ being practiced by these two. If not, then what was the basis of selecting those two people who were themselves at the margin of film industry? At the end of the day, nothing concrete came out of the sting as no person was charged for any illegality. As the regards the existence of the practice in film industry, despite the fact that the industry does not boast of high standards in sexual morality, the channel proved nothing, as it could not bring out any instance in which film roles were given on this basis. However, this did create a sensation and TRP of the channel must have definitely shot up during the period.
Government of India sought to regulate the media by setting up an independent regulatory authority, i.e. Broadcasting Regulatory Authority of India under a proposed law “The Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2007” which was amended in 2008. However, this met stiff resistance from the media which favoured self regulation. Hence, News Broadcasters Association was formed and News Broadcasting Standards Authority was set up in 2008. The authority has laid guidelines for general reportage as well as specific guidelines for a number of issues like security issues, sting operations etc. The guidelines include the aspect of accuracy in reporting, impartiality neutrality and fairness, Law & order and crime and violence, good taste and decency, privacy, national security, supernatural, occultism & paranormal, children’s interests, racial & religious harmony and sting operations.
However, the guidelines are not exhaustive probably because of the fear of affecting the independence of the media. These guidelines leave the field open for interpretations. Guidelines say that reporting should be in public interest, but leaves it open to the media channels to have their own opinion about public interest as per their convenience . Secondly, there is no transparency about conducting sting operations. Recently India TV has conducted a sting operation about six umpires being involved in match fixing. Website of the channel states that six umpires agreed to give favours in lieu of money, while the seventh refused, though he also talked of taking money in ‘black’ for ‘assignments’. The moot point is, how did the channel zeroed in on these seven persons. Did the channel had any knowledge about any match fixing done by these umpires earlier, if yes , what was that and if not how did the reporter knew that these particular umpires are in between murky deals. Apart from this, the contents of most of the news channels reflect a great taste for populism which diverts attention from main issues. Apparently, self- regulation has remained only on paper. Government regulation of media would be very unfortunate as would deprive the society of a very powerful tool. However, to maintain its independence, the media will have to self-regulate itself not only in letter but also in spirit and would be required to have same standards of professional ethics and morality which it so strongly demands from other sections of the society.