Will it and it will happen

Follow Seshan, Vittal or even Quraishi, Justice Katju!


Prasanna Mohanty | November 1, 2011

Justice (retired) Markandey Katju, the new chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI), is unhappy with the state of the India media – both the print and the electronic ones. In his interview with Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN, he says the media is not working for the interest of the people; is very often anti-people; sometimes it divides people; promotes superstitions; publishes paid news and conducts frivolous debates in TV studios; adding for good measure that he thinks the majority of the media persons are of very poor intellectual level who have little knowledge of economic theories, political science, literature or philosophy. He points out that the self-regulation of the electronic media has failed and hence prescribes two solutions – (a) bring the electronic media into the ambit of the PCI and rename it Media Council and (b) give PCI more teeth so that it can stop government ads and suspend license to punish deviant behaviour.

Anyone familiar with the working of the Indian media would agree with Justice Katju’s views. Within the media, there have been considerable debates and introspection in the past few years. We have no problem is accepting Justice Katju’s diagnosis but we do have reservations about his prescription. What has Justice Katju or his predecessors done to address the many ills that afflict the Indian media? Absolutely nothing. Last three years have seen a heated debate on paid news. Repeated complaints forced the PCI to set up a sub-committee to go into issue in 2009. The sub-committee did a good job, naming a leading media house and describing unholy practices like paid content and private treaties in its report. What did the PCI do? It suppressed the report for more than a year and half until the Central Information Commission forced its hand in September this year.

The PCI accepts, in its covering note to the report, that the print media (PCI is a watchdog for the print media) functions “as a repository of public trust” and has an “obligation” to provide truthful and correct information. It also accepts that, “the phenomenon of paid news goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies. It has become pervasive, structured and highly organized and in the process, is undermining democracy in India.” What did it do in response to this betrayal of public trust and undermining of democracy? It issued a set of general “guidelines” and advisories – like, it will be the duty of the press to give objective reports about elections, refrain from publishing unverified allegations against candidates and not accept any kind of inducement etc. This is a little better than just advising the media to “introspect” when paid news first come to its notice in 2003. It may not have much power but PCI does have the power “to admonish, reprimand and pass strictures”. It didn’t exercise that power.

On the contrary, PCI circulated some recommendations, which sought amendment in laws to give more teeth to the election commission and PCI to deal with paid news. Electoral laws have not been amended and yet, in October this year, the commission threw out Umlesh Yadav, wife of BSP leader DP Yadav and MLA from Bisauli in UP, from the state legislature and disqualified her for three years for getting paid news published during her electioneering but failing to account for it in her election expenditure.

There are many such examples. A seemingly powerless election commission was transformed into a powerful election watchdog overnight, without any external help, by TN Seshan in 90s. N Vittal spread terror among the bureaucrats with the existing toothless Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) Act a decade ago. Both used existing legal frameworks innovatively and imaginatively, named and shamed the deviants and worked the media to their advantage. Our experience shows institution doesn’t make difference, those who run it do. Power is often inadequate until and unless someone knows how to use it. Chief election commissioner SY Quraishi is only the latest example who used his power innovatively to disqualify Umlesh Yadav. If Justice Katju really wants to make a difference, he can do so without running to the prime minister for more powers.



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