The RTI petition which forced the Press Council's hand

BY Manu Moudgil| IN Media Practice | 16/10/2011
The fact that PCI was clueless about the grounds on which it rejected the application can be gauged from the divergent stances the information officer took.
MANU MOUDGIL, whose RTI petition has forced the Press Council to post the original paid news report on the PCI website, describes his quest
The first time I heard about the paid news report being prepared by the Press Council of India (PCI), I remembered my journalism class in which the teacher told us how PCI stood for press freedom and integrity. It monitors and pulls up newspapers, magazines and other print media entities when they fail to do be fair and conscientious. At the same time, the teacher pointed out how the 44-year-old organization has mostly remained a paper tiger with no genuine punitive powers. 
I wondered how good the paid news report would be, my suspicions stemming from the fact that the Indian media has always dodged scrutiny. Whether it’s about witch hunts through sting operations, promotion of occult practices or the insensitive coverage of 26/11 terrorist attack, the media has always silenced critics by holding meetings on self regulation and projecting that things have been put in order. The revelation that some media groups, including the big ones, got money to publish news in favour of certain candidates during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections was the right opportunity for the media and the PCI to set their houses in order.
The 71-page document by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Sreenivas Reddy mentions allegations of paid news, detailing the procedure, naming the people and organisations involved and backing this up with circumstantial evidence. The sub-committee also gave ample space to accused media houses and politicians to defend themselves.
It was on July 29, 2010, at the India Today conclave that media tycoons and well-meaning editors publicly sought a blanket ban on paid news. The very next day, the publishers’ lobby prevailed over the PCI and it was decided that the well-researched report won’t be made public and a new 12-page watered-down version sans any names was released. This new version also removed references to the menace of “private treaties” and the sabotage of the “Working Journalists’ Act” by media owners who are forcing their staff to toe the management line.
The fact that the original report was leaked on the Internet took the air out of PCI’s protective posturing. However, what is displayed on the Council’s website is the watered down version. 
PCI is an independent body established under the Press Council Act 1978 and financed by the central government. Moreover, the sub-committee report provides credible information on corruption in media and politics hence catering to the larger public interest. There is no reason why we, who paid for the investigations, should be forced to seek the findings through unofficial means.
It was with this idea that I filed an RTI application seeking a copy of the report besides other details on January 3, 2011. The PCI was quick to reply that a legal opinion had been sought on the issue on September 7, 2010, and on receipt of the same it would consider providing the report under the RTI Act. A delay of around four months in securing a legal opinion seemed to be unreasonable. I filed first appeal under the RTI Act on February 2, 2011 but got the same reply. Second appeal was filed to the Central Information Commission on May 13, 2011 and the final hearing took place on September 19 with central information commissioner Mr Shailesh Gandhi presiding over the case.
Even before the hearing could start, the PCI’s information officer claimed a letter had been sent to me on September 14 offering to provide the paid news report on payment of the requisite fee (I did not receive the letter till September 25). The information commissioner was not amused by the change in stand by the PCI and asked why the information had not been provided in the first instance. He also underscored the point that even if legal opinion had to be sought, it should have been done within the 30 days period stipulated under the RTI Act.
The fact that PCI was clueless about the grounds on which it rejected the application can be gauged from the divergent stances the information officer took. He first said that the document was an official report which was in the PCI archives for anyone to access, then they said it was not a PCI document since the council had not accepted it and finally they also added that in any case a version had been made available by some source on the net. It should be noted that even the watered-down version made available publicly draws content from the original document. The commissioner ignored the PCI’s arguments and ruled that the document be made available to the public and also added that this version be put up on the PCI site.
It was the RTI Act which turned the daunting task into a cakewalk but is it really the end of this issue? I hope not. The Cabinet Secretariat had a meeting of the group of ministers on September 7 in which it decided to study the 12-page paid news report of PCI and suggest a comprehensive institutional mechanism to check the corruption in media. Would it not be prudent for the ministers to consider the original, much more comprehensive report?
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