More Media Regulation? (Part I)

Anup Kumar
Columnist, The Hoot

Is the freedom of the press under threat in India? Not really. Some would argue that it cannot be a mere coincidence that the calls for stricter regulation of the media are coming at a time when the news media have been highlighting corruption in the government such as the 2G Scam and the graft in the organizing of the Commonwealth Games. The media advocacy, often questioned by some, for the movement led by Anna Hazare against corruption has also attracted criticism from the ruling party. Morever, it seems that the criticism of the government on social media is also making some in the government uncomfortable.

A few days ago, Kapil Sibal, the minister for Communication and Information Technology, called for stricter regulation of the chatter on social media sites to check hate speech and protect national security. Earlier, Justice Markandey Katju, the chairperson of the Press Council of India, in his widely reported interview with Karan Thapar and later in his rebuttals to his critics spoke on the decline in ethics and quality of journalism in the country, especially in the electronic media. He suggested perhaps media regulation from outside is needed as self-regulation has failed. 

I agree self-regulation has failed but more regulation by the government might only stifle public debate and harm Indian democracy in the long run. J.S. Verma, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently stated that the media and the judiciary are two institutions in which people have faith and suggested that self-regulation must be encouraged. Despite all its failings, the Indian news media has functioned as a support mechanism to the Indian judiciary and other constitutional institutions in protecting and fostering India's democratic experiment for more than six decades, which is a rarity among post-colonial nations. 

No one can be seriously against "reasonable restrictions" on speech and freedom of the press with the goal to improve the quality of journalism and raise the level of the media discourse, which are so central to the functioning of any modern mass mediated democracy. Although at the same time, no one wants the watchdog to become a lapdog. It is also imperative that the organized news media and millions of "citizen-journalists", on blogs and social media sites, engage in some self-reflection. The debate over regulation should be seen as an opportunity to initiate a public discussion on media reforms that not only addresses journalistic practices from the perspective of ethics and also look at the quality of the media discourse. Additionally, the purpose of any reform should be able to put in place a due process to discourage a few bad apples, rather than regulating media through executive fiats or a government monitor.

The irony is that everyone seems to be on the same side, i.e. improving the quality of Indian journalism and strengthening the empowering capacity of social media sites and the Internet. Though there are differences over how to address the problem of yellow journalism, I think the solution lies in professional journalistic practice and media literacy. Before looking at some of the solutions, let us recall some of the issues that were raised by Justice Katju as the detractors were quick to denounce rather than engage in a reasoned debate. There were three separate but related issues that were raised. I am paraphrasing here: 1) The decline in the quality of media discourse since journalists today lack intellectual outlook and have largely failed to play the role, unlike that of the past, in social transformation and cultivation of modern sensibilities. 2) The electronic news media devote a disproportionate amount airtime to cricket and Bollywood compared to more important public policy and social issues. 3) There has been a decline in ethical standards and proliferation in corrupt practices like "paid news" and lobbying for corporation (i.e. Niira Radia tapes). 

Most observers of the news media have broadly agreed with the core elements in Justice Katju's criticism of the news media. However, the observation that Indian journalism is failing because, unlike in the past, today majority of journalists are not well-read or as he put it, they are not "intellectuals" is a misdiagnosis of the problem. I also think that the historical comparison by Justice Katju with "the age of enlightenment" in the 19th century Europe, when journalism was not necessarily democratic, is anachronistic. A better comparison would have been with the period when journalism in older democracies in the West emerged as a profession that was tasked with upholding public interest. The lamentation about the loss of intellectual journalists reminds one of the debates in the late 1920s America between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Lippmann had argued for a transmission model for journalism and Dewey called for public journalism that educated and raised critical sensibilities in public, although today media scholars understand that it is not an either/or case. Broadly speaking, the role of transmission is the function of news reporting and critical public engagement is a function of editorial and news analysis in the media.  


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