‘Your profession makes you vulnerable’

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Media Practice | 11/12/2016
Press Council Chairman Justice Prasad recently expressed his views on press freedom, journalists’ security, paid news, and trolling
JYOTI PUNWANI was alternately reassured and dismayed

Press Council chairman C K Prasad 

 

Seldom does the Chairman of the Press Council interact with ordinary journalists. But Mumbai’s media got this rare opportunity thanks to the Mumbai Press Club, which invited Press Council Chairman (retd) Justice C. K. Prasad and two of the Council’s members: S. N. Sinha and K. Amarnath last week.

The primary message Justice Prasad sent to the assembled journalists was: ``Trust us.’’  Lamenting that journalists did not approach the Press Council when they faced professional abuse because of a ``trust deficit’’, the Chairman said that whenever the Council had learnt of any threat to journalists, it had taken action. No one, no matter how high, would be exempt from the Press Council’s investigation, he assured photographer Atul Takle, who was among those badly beaten at  Bombay House (the Tatas’ head office) by security guards on November 4 when photographers were rushing to take pictures of ousted chairman Cyrus Mistry.

``The Press Council is your body,’’ said the Chairman. ``Its function is not to regulate the press. I hate that word `regulate’. The Press Council is meant to ensure the freedom of the press.’’

As important as journalists’ physical security is their social and financial security, he emphasised. ``Journalists are crusaders. Your profession makes you vulnerable. Every wrongdoer exposed becomes your enemy. But for you to follow this high standard, you need financial security. We know that many journalists are not even paid enough to be able to run their families.’’

Justice Prasad suggested a welfare fund for journalists, run by journalists, on the lines of the Advocates Welfare Fund run by the Bar Council of India. ``State governments have welfare funds but who benefits from it depends on the government. A journalists’ fund frees you from dependence on the government. Every working journalist would be entitled to become its member, and get a lump sum on retirement. The Press Council can contribute to it,’’ he said.

In the two-hour-long meeting, attacks on journalists took up a major portion of the time. The Chairman remarked that a distinction was always made between a journalist who gets killed and one who was ``also a journalist’’. The first thing the police say when a journalist is killed, he said, was that the victim ran his own business. Given the salaries of journalists in small towns, what else were they expected to do, he asked.

K. Amarnath, who heads the Press Council’s committee on safety, spoke of the need for a new law to protect journalists, with special courts to conduct trials on a day-to-day basis within a set time frame and  monitored by the Press Council.The Council has written to the Government demanding such a law.

With the theme of the meeting being `defending press freedom in a digital age’, trolling of journalists was also discussed. While the Press Council had no jurisdiction over social media, said Sinha, it had decided to take up cases of trolling.  

The Maharashtra government’s spokesperson, Brijesh Singh, an IPS officer who is also the Secretary, Directorate General of Information and Public Relations, noted that in the context of Wikileaks and the Panama Papers, no longer did the mainstream media set the agenda for news. It had been replaced by the digital world. Twitter today was a source of news. The Internet works under no regulation, he said, but the flip side to this was that it also works under no business interests, unlike mainstream media. Today people can check the authenticity of every story online and contradict what passes off as news.

Moving on to press freedom, Singh asked journalists to read the Supreme Court judgment of Shreya Singhal Vs Union of India, which struck down Section 66A of the IT Act  as unconstitutional last year. Section 66A allowed the arrest of anyone who posted ``offensive’’ content on the Internet but the same judgment upheld Section 69A that enables the blocking of websites, and also upheld the blocking rules framed under it.

Singh said that the Supreme Court judgment had clearly defined the limits to freedom of expression, pointing out that they came under the very provision that guarantees it, Article 19 itself.The Constitution must be the guide in this, said Singh. Journalists must ask themselves: are we transgressing the limits laid down by the Constitution?

Singh then brought in Pakistan. ``A lot of what journalists write today is being lauded in Pakistan. This calls for introspection when it happens again and again. You may be right in what you write, but if ISIS favours it, you need to think. The responsibility that such transgressions do not take place is the journalist’s.’’

Singh didn’t give much importance to trolling of journalists. ``You have a right to your opinion, so does the troll,’’ he shrugged.

Those worried about surveillance by the government should look at China, said Singh, where the state monitors every tweet. When Al Jazeera talks of human rights, we should point out what’s happening in Saudi Arabia to them. The same technology being used by journalists today is also being used by terrorists. How does the state decide the limits of surveillance then?

Finally, the former police officer questioned the credibility of the press. ``The press has become a business today. News is often defined as that which is published between ads. After that, to claim highsounding principles such as `Let Truth Prevail’ is a bit much. Today, everybody’s an emperor and nobody has clothes.’’

Singh’s concluding words of advice to journalists were: ``Look at the larger public good. The nation’s sovereignty and integrity is important.’’ Pakistan he said, had a dedicated force monitoring Indian tweets and retweeting them. Journalists must be vigilant:``Your vigilance will save us.’’

Singh’s speech took this columnist’s breath away for the sheer contempt displayed towards the press. Luckily, immediately after him, it was the turn of Amarnath to speak. ``Freedom of expression is not something exercised by the press for its own sake,’’ said the senior journalist.

``It’s the property of the people and we exercise it on the people’s behalf. When we report, we must check facts, but comment is free. I am not prepared to accept the test of patriotism and national interest to what I write. There is no absolute truth. If I criticize the government, don’t dub me unpatriotic. At any rate, I don’t need certificates in patriotism from you. Don’t talk to me of national interest if I question anything done by the government or the police. Often, by national interest is meant the interest of the ruling party. If that’s the definition, I don’t mind being called unpatriotic. I will remain true to my profession. Journalists aren’t here to protect national interests but to strengthen freedom of expression and the Constitution.’’

Amarnath recalled that when freedom fighter and journalist Kaka Kalelkar  had wanted freedom of the press to be enshrined in Article 19,  Dr Ambedkar had rejected the idea, saying that the press exercised freedom of expression on behalf of the people; it was the voice of the voiceless. Amarnath ended his speech by advising young journalists: ``We are not living in a mobocracy but a democracy. So don’t go by public opinion when you write.’’

One journalist pointed out that managements were forcing journalists to sign declarations saying they did not want to be bound by the Majithia Wage Board recommendations. Though the Supreme Court had upheld the 2011 recommendations in 2014, they were not being implemented. ``So where’s the question of financial security?’’ asked the journalist.

The Chairman replied that the Press Council’s mandate did not cover wages or working conditions of journalists, but if this situation became a threat to the freedom of the press, the Council could examine it. Sinha intervened to say that the solution lay in strengthening journalists’ unions, and where that was not possible, strengthening Press Clubs. 

Another journalist asked what the Council was doing against the publication of communally motivated news and opinion pieces. Justice Prasad’s reply was disconcerting: ``Everyone has the right to express their point of view. You may believe something hurts you; another may believe it’s the truth. We can’t curtail freedom of the press.’’ 

It would seem that the current Press Council Chairman prefers to err on the side of press freedom. Earlier, talking about `paid news’, he made the point that genuine praise of a leader should not be mistaken for paid news. ``Today if Mahatma Gandhi were alive and the press praised him, it could be taken to be paid news! In the name of paid news, we should not suppress good news.’’

The meeting left this reporter with mixed feelings. It felt great to have a Press Council committed to freedom of the press but since it had no punitive powers, journalists would have to fight every battle afresh, the way Kashmir Reader, banned for over two months now, has been doing.  

 

 

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