Sunday, January 29, 2012

FREEDOM OF PRESS AND JOURNALISTIC ETHICS (By Justice Markandey Katju, Judge, Supreme Court of India)

The topic ‘Freedom of Press and Journalistic Ethics’ is a very important topic in India today.  By the word ‘press’ I include the electronic media also, and there is no doubt that the media in India has become very prominent and very powerful.  It is for this reason that it is in the fitness of things that there should be a serious discussion on the topic ‘freedom of the press and journalistic ethics’.  
In my opinion a serious discussion on freedom of the press includes a discussion on the responsibility of the press too, particularly since it is so powerful.
In our country, freedom of the press has been treated as part of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution vide Brij Bhushan and another vs. The State of Delhi, AIR 1950 SC 129 andSakal Papers (P) Ltd vs. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305, etc.   However, as mentioned in Article 19(2), reasonable restrictions can be placed on this right in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.  Hence freedom of the media is not absolute freedom.
The importance of freedom of the press lies in the fact that for most citizens the prospect of personal familiarity with newsworthy events is unrealistic.  In seeking out the news the media, therefore, acts for the public at large.  It is the means by which the people receive free flow of information and ideas essential to intelligent self-governance, that is, for democracy.
For a proper functioning of democracy it is essential that the citizens are informed about the news in various parts of the country and even abroad, because only then can they form rational opinions.  A citizen can surely not be expected personally to gather news for enabling him to form such opinions.   Hence the media plays an important role in a democracy and it serves as an agency of the people for gathering news for them.  It is for this reason that the freedom of the press has been emphasized in all democratic countries, while it was not permitted in feudal or totalitarian regimes.
In India the media has played a historical role in providing information to the people about social and economic evils.  The media has informed the people about the tremendous poverty in this country, the suicides of farmers in various States, the honour killings in many places, the corruption, etc., and for this the media in India deserve kudos.
However, the media has also a great responsibility to see that the news presented to the people is accurate and serves the interest of the people.
If the media conveys false news which may harm the reputation of a person or a section of the society it may do great damage since the reputation of a person is a valuable asset.  Even if the media subsequently corrects this, the damage may be irreparable.   Hence care should be taken by the media to carefully investigate any news before reporting it.
I know of a case where the photograph of a High Court Judge who is known to be totally upright was shown in a well known TV channel along with that of a reputed criminal.  The allegation against the Judge was that he had acquired some land at a low price misusing his office, but my own inquiries (in which I met and questioned that Judge and many others) revealed that he had acquired the land not in any discretionary quota but in the open market at the market price.
Also, sometimes the media presents twisted or distorted news, which may contain an element of truth but also an element of untruth.  This, too, should be avoided because a half truth can be sometimes more dangerous than a total lie.  Also, the media should avoid giving a slant to the news, and avoid sensationalism and yellow journalism.  Only then will it get the respect of the people and fulfill its true role in the democracy.
Recently reports have been published of purchased news which means someone pays some money to the newspaper and gets something favourable to him published.  If this is correct it is most improper and the editors should curb this strongly.
Media comments in pending cases especially in criminal cases where the life or liberty of a citizen is involved is a delicate issue and should be carefully considered.  After all, Judges are human beings and it may sometime be difficult for them not to be influenced by such news.  The British law is that when a case is sub-judice no comment can be made on it, whereas the American law permits such comment.  We may have to take an intermediate view because while on the one hand we have a written Constitution containing the freedom of speech in Article 19(1)(a) which the British unwritten Constitution does not, at the same time the life and liberty of a citizen is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21 and should not lightly be jeopardized.  Hence a balanced views has to be taken on this issue.
Apart from the above, it is also necessary to mention that very often the media publishes correct news but places too much emphasis on frivolous news such as the lives or activities of film stars, models or cricketers, etc. and gives very little prominence to much more important issues which are basically socio-economic in nature.                
Today, India is passing through a very difficult transitional phase, between feudal agricultural society and modern industrial society.  This is a very painful period as a study of European history between the 16th and 19th Centuries discloses.  In this crucial period in our country’s history it is very important that the people are given full information realistically about the happenings in our country and also in the world.  But is the media discharging this responsibility?
What do we see on TV these days?  Some channels show film stars, pop music, disco and fashion parades (often with scantily clad young women), astrology, or cricket.  Is it not a cruel irony and an affront to our poor people that so much time (and money) is spent on showing cricket, film stars, disco dancing, pop music and astrology?  What have the Indian masses, who are facing terrible economic problems, to do with cricket, film stars, fashion parades, disco, pop and astrology?
Historically, the media was born as an organ of the people against feudal oppression.  In Europe, the media played a major role in the transformation of feudal society to a modern one.  Everyone is aware of the great role the print media played in preparing for, and during, the great British, American and French Revolutions.  The only media at that time was the print media, and this was used by great writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Junius, John Wilkes, etc, in the fight of the people against feudalism and despotism.  Everyone knows of the great stir created by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet `Commonsense’ during the American Revolution, or of the letters of Junius during the reign of the despotic George III.
The media became a powerful tool in the hands of the people at that time because the people could not express themselves through the established organs of power since these organs were in the hands of feudal and despotic rulers.  Hence the people had to create new organs which would serve them.  It is for this reason that that the print media became known as the Fourth Estate.  In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the feudal or despotic organs which wanted to preserve the status quo in society.
In the 20th century other types of media have emerged e.g. radio, T.V., and the internet (the electronic media).
What should be the role of the media?  This is a matter of great importance to our country today when it is facing such massive problems of poverty, unemployment, corruption, price rise, etc.
To my mind, in underdeveloped countries like India the media has a great responsibility of fighting against backward ideas like casteism and communalism, and help the people in their struggle against poverty and other social evils.  Since a large section of the people is backward and ignorant it is all the more necessary that modern ideas must be brought to them and their backwardness removed so that they become part of enlightened India.  The media has a great responsibility in this respect.
Underdeveloped countries like India are passing through a transitional age, between feudal, agricultural society and modern, industrial society.  This is a very painful and agonizing period.  A study of the history of England of the 17th and 18th Centuries and of France of the 18th and 19th Centuries, shows that the transitional period was full of turbulence, turmoil, revolutions, intellectual ferment, social churning, etc.  It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe.  India is presently going through this fire.  For instance, the barbaric `honour killings’ in several parts of the country of young men and women of different castes or religion who get married or wish to get married, etc. show how backward we still are, full of casteism and communalism.
Our national aim must therefore be to get over this transitional period as quickly as possible, reducing the agony which is inevitable in this period.  Our aim must be to create India as a modern, powerful, industrial State, for only then will we be able to provide for the welfare of our people and get respect in the world community.
Today the real world is cruel and harsh.  It respects power, not poverty or weakness.  When China and Japan were poor nations they were derisively called `yellow’ races by the Western nations.  Today nobody dares to call them that as they are strong industrial nations.  Similarly, if we wish our country to get respect in the comity of nations we must make it highly industrialized and prosperous.  For this purpose a powerful cultural struggle, that is, a struggle in the realm of ideas must be waged by our patriotic, modern minded intelligentsia.  This cultural struggle must be waged by combating feudal backward ideas e.g. casteism and communalism and replacing them with modern, scientific ideas among the masses.
The media has an extremely important role in this cultural struggle, as already mentioned above.  But is it really performing this role?
No doubt the media sometimes refers to the farmers suicide in Maharashtra, the price rise, etc. but this occupies only a very small part of its coverage (may be 5 to 10 per cent), while most of the coverage is given to cricket, film stars, astrology and disco dancing.
The sad truth is that today in India there is a large disconnect between the mass media and the mass reality.  I am giving below a few facts from a speech delivered by Mr. P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of `The Hindu’ and Magsaysay award winner, on September 6, 2007 in Parliament House in the Speaker’s Lecture Series.
The mass reality in India (which has over 70% people living in rural areas), as stated by Mr. Sainath, is that rural India is in the midst of the worst agrarian crisis in four decades.  Millions of livelihoods in the rural areas have been damaged or destroyed in the last 15 years as a result of this crisis, which is because of the predatory commercialization of the countryside and the reduction of all human values to exchange value.  As a result, lakhs of farmers have committed suicide and millions of people have migrated, and are migrating, from the rural areas to cities and towns in search of jobs that are not there.  They have moved towards a status which is neither `worker’ nor `farmer’ but many of them end up as domestic labourers or even criminals.  We have been pushed towards corporate farming, a process by which farming is taken out of the hands of the farmers and positioned in the hands of the corporates.  This process is not being achieved with guns, tanks, bulldozers and lathis.  It is done by making farming unviable for the millions of small family farm holders, due to the high cost of inputs (seed, fertilizer, power, etc.) and uneconomic prices.
India ranked 4th in the list of Dollar Billionaires but 126th in human development.  This means that it is better to be a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation in South America) or Guatemala or Gabon rather than in India.  83.6 crore people (of the total of between 110 to 120 crore) in India exist on less than Rs.20/- a day.  Eight States in India are economically poorer than African States, as a recent Oxford University study discloses.  Life expectancy in our nation is lower than it is in Bolivia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.  According to the National Sample Survey, the average monthly per capita expenditure of the Indian farm household is Rs.503/-.  Out of that Rs.503/-, 55% is spent on food, 18% on fuel, clothing and footwear, leaving precious little amount to be spent on education or health.  The world report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows that from 1995-97 to 1999-2001, India added more newly hungry millions than the rest of the world taken together.  The average rural family is consuming 100 kgs. less than what they were consuming earlier.  Indebtedness has doubled in the past decade.  Cultivation cost has increased exorbitantly and farming incomes have collapsed, leading to wide scale suicides by farmers.  77% Indian are earning only Rs.20 per day.
While there were 512 accredited journalists covering the Lakme India Fashion Week, there were only six journalists to cover the suicides in Vidharbha.  In that Fashion Week programme the models were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves at a distance of one hour’s flight from Nagpur in the Vidharbha region.  Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.
Is this a responsible way for the Indian media to function?  Should the media turn a Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities in which over 75% of our people are living, and concentrate on some `Potempkin villages’ where all is glamour and show biz?  Is the Indian media not behaving like Queen Marie Antoinette who, when told that the people did not have bread, said that they should eat cakes? 

No doubt sometimes the media mentions about the farmers suicides in Maharashtra, the price rise in essential commodities etc. but the coverage for this is at most 5 to 10 per cent of its total coverage, whereas the bulk of its coverage goes to showing cricket, the life of film stars, pop music, fashion parades, astrology, etc.

Some channels on TV show cricket day in and day out throughout the year.  The Roman Emperors used to say, “If you cannot give the people bread give them circuses”.  This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment.  Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their economic and social plight.  What is important is not price rise or unemployment or poverty or lack of housing or medicines, what is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still, Pakistan) in a cricket match, or whether Tendulkar or Yuvraj Singh have scored a century.  Is this not sheer escapism? 
To my mind, the role of the media in our country today must be to help the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment and other social evils and to make India a modern, powerful, industrial State.
For this purpose, scientific thinking should be promoted, as in my opinion science alone is the means for solving our country’s problems.  And I may clarify here that by science I do not mean physics, chemistry and biology alone. I mean the entire scientific outlook, which must be spread widely among our people. Our people must develop rational, logical and questioning minds, and must abandon superstitions and escapism, and for this purpose the media can and must play a powerful role.
 The nation is today passing through a terrible socio-economic crisis.  Artists, writers and media persons must start acting responsibly and help the people who are suffering terribly in solving their problems.  And this they can do by focusing on the real issues which are basically economic and not by trying to divert the attention of the people from the real issues to non issues like film stars, cricket, astrology or disco dancing. 
I conclude by quoting a sher of the famous Urdu poet Faiz :
“Gulon mein rang bhare bade naubahaar chale
Chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka kaarobaar chale.”   
Urdu poetry often has an outer, superficial meaning, and an inner real meaning.
The real meaning of the above sher is that the objective situation in the country is ripe, and calls the patriotic people to come forward to serve the country (the word ‘gulshan’ ostensibly means garden, but in this sher it really means the country).

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