High Court indicts Former SC Judge’s Report Part II

IN Media Freedom | 01/04/2011
While the need for honest and unbiased reporting by the media has grown, concentration of its ownership in the hands of the powerful is having the opposite effect,
observes MADABHUSHI SRIDHAR
Delivering his judgment on the Telengana issue and referring to the comments made by the Srikrishna committee, Justice L. Narasimha  Reddy dwelled extensively on media ownership. He referred to a paragraph of Press Commission Report from Bennet Coleman Case(AIR 1973 SC 106) which read:
 
“If ever there was a self-operating market of ideas, as Justice Holmes assumed, it has long since ceased to exist with the concentration of mass media in few hands. Protection against government is not enough to guarantee that a man who has something to say will have a chance to say it. The owners and the managers of the press determine which persons, which facts, which version of facts, which ideas shall reach the public. Through concentration of ownership, the variety of sources of news and opinion has become limited. At the same time, the citizen’s need for variety and new opinions has increased. He is entirely dependent on the quality, proportion and extent of his news supply, - the materials for the discharge of his duties as a citizen and a judge of public affairs – on a few newspapers.  
 
The Press Commission has observed in its report that since the essence of the process of formation of opinion is that the public must have an opportunity of studying various points of view,  and since the exclusive and continuous advocacy of one point of view through the medium of a newspaper which holds a monopolistic position is not conducive to the formation of healthy opinion, diversity of opinion should be promoted in the interest of free discussion of public affairs”.
 
Justice Reddy further quoted: “The mass media’s development of an antipathy to ideas antagonistic to theirs or novel or unpopular ideas, unorthodox points of view which have no claim for expression in their papers makes the theory of market place of ideas too unrealistic. The problem is how to bring all ideas into the market and make the concept of freedom of speech a live one having its roots in reality. A realistic view of our freedom of expression requires the recognition that right of expression is somewhat thin if it can be exercised only on the sufferance of the managers of the leading newspapers. The freedom of speech, if it has to fulfill its historic mission, namely, the spreading of political truth and the widest dissemination of news, must be a freedom for all citizens in the country. “What is essential” according to Meiklejohn, “is not that everyone shall speak, but that everything worth saying shall be said”. If media are unavailable for most of the speakers, can the minds of the hearers be reached effectively?”
 
While discussing business links, the judge referred to the Report of a Committee on Distribution of Income and Levels of Living, which said:
         
“Of these, newspapers are the most important and constitute a powerful ancillary to sectoral and group interests. It is not, therefore, a matter of surprise that there is so much interlinking between newspapers and big business in this country, with newspapers controlled to a substantial extent by selected industrial houses directly through ownership as well as indirectly through membership of their boards of directors. In a study of concentration of economic power in India, one must take into account this link between industry and newspapers which exists in our country to a much larger extent than is found in any of the other democratic countries in the World.”   
 
The Judge also quoted Justice Mathew saying (K.K. Mathew, Democracy, Equality and Freedom, Ed. Upendra Baxi, (1978), p.106):
 
“…The phrase (freedom of the press) must now cover two sets of rights and not one only. With the rights of editors and publishers to express themselves, there must be associated a right of the public to be served with substantial and honest basis of facts for its judgment of public affairs. Of these two, it is the latter which today tends to take precedence and importance. The freedom of the press has to change its point of focus from the editor to the citizen”.
 
Criticizing Srikrishna Committee’s suggestion on managing the media in a secret note, Justice Reddy said that this “note and the recent revelation in certain tapes pointed to a strange “link” which, if permitted to grow and develop, would have the potential of sounding a death knell to the foundations of democracy..”.
 
Justice Reddy found that what had been predicted by Justice Mathew and Alex Solzhenitsyn had came true as evidenced by the state of affairs of the media houses in Andhra Pradesh, as presented by the Srikrishna Committee. He said that more disturbing is the suggestion given by the Committee to the Government. It reads: “The print media is hugely dependent on the Government for advertisement revenue and if carefully handled can be an effective tool to achieve this goal.”
 
It was rightly pointed out that the freedom of press was evolved, more through the judgments of the Supreme Court, and works of jurists and academicians, but they also have nurtured it from any onslaught by state or others from time to time. State control of allocation of newsprint or release of advertisements was misused, either to encourage those who toe the line of the government, or to victimize the agencies that report truly and courageously causing embarrassment to the government. ``Great persons like Ramnath Goenka withstood the victimization and onslaught than to surrender, even while many others have either bent or crawled,’’ said Justice Reddy.
 
The judge found it strange that the Srikrishna Committee had thought of using government advertisements as a mechanism to arm-twist the media. He said: “Such an idea ought not to have occurred to the Committee in general, or to the individual members thereof, in particular. One would only wish that the members of the Committee hailing from the legal fraternity and social sciences were not aware of these contents of the report. However, if these passages have gained their entry into the report with their knowledge the people would have nothing more to do than to lament.”
 
Ever since the Srikrishna Committee report came out, there has been intense debate on the ‘secret’ chapter and it further intensified with the bold judgment of Justice Reddy, indicting the anti-democratic recommendations. While some media channels and newspapers chose not to discuss the comments on media, some TV channels such as Raj News, owned by TRS made elaborate analysis of the report.
 

(Coordinator: Center for Media Law and Public Policy, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad)

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