Reporting Communal Violence

IN Press Laws Guide | 17/09/2012

1. What are the guidelines in place for reporting on issues relating to communal violence?

Answer: The guidelines for reporting on issues relating to communal violence are contained in the, “Norms for Journalistic Conduct, 2010” (edition) which was published by the Press Council of India.

Reasoning: Journalists are under a duty to promote communal peace and harmony in the society, or at the very least to not disturb the peace or provoke agitation. Therefore, they are under an obligation to report in such a manner which does not incite or aggravate tension between two communities. Keeping the above objective in mind, journalists should report on matters of communal violence in a manner which does not undermine the confidence of the public in the law and order machinery in the society (this however does not mean that the state cannot be criticised where due and where such comment is fair and balanced). The report should only be published once the facts are verified and corroborated. Sensitive and provocative headlines should be avoided. The guidelines also prohibit reporting of community wise figures of victims of the communal riot.

In 2002, the Press Council of India censored two leading Gujarat Dailies for reporting on the communal Gujarat Riots taking place during that period. The two newspapers indulged in publishing news which was against communal harmony and hence were censored by the Press Council of India. At the same time, The Press Council of India also appealed to the to the media to refrain from publishing/telecasting pictures of mangled corpses or any other photographic coverage which may create terror, or revulsion or ignite communal passions among people. Further, the Norms for Journalistic Conduct, 2010 lay down guidelines for preventing journalistic misconduct in relation to specific riots like the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid Dispute of 1993 etc.
Effect: Journalists should see to it that their reporting does not violate any of the Norms for Journalistic Conduct laid down by the Press Council of India as well as relevant IPC provisions. When reporting on issues of communal violence, it should be taken care that the report should not incite one religion against the other, make false or uncorroborated allegations or generally be of such a nature as is likely to provoke further violence.
2. What are the legal repercussions of violating these guidelines?
Answer: The legal repercussions for violating these guidelines can be two fold. Most directly action may be initiated by the Press Council of India. However the PCI’s jurisdiction is incredibly limited and only applies to the print media. Secondly, if any of the cases of communal violence is presently pending trial then such conduct may independently give rise to contempt for interfering in the administration of justice.
Reasoning: The Press Council of India is the authority which regulates the print media in the country. It has laid down guidelines which the media needs to follow while reporting. If the guidelines are not followed then the Council can initiate action against the offender either on the receipt of a complaint or on its own motion. On being satisfied about the admissibility of the complaint, the Council can initiate an enquiry through its inquiry committee. The Council can warn, admonish or censure the newspaper or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist as the case may be. It may also direct the respondent newspaper to publish the contradiction of the complainant or a gist of the Council’s decision in its forthcoming issue. Additionally, one news report may give rise to various wrongs and offences under different laws as one action can have multiple effects. One of the most probable legal actions which may be commenced against such erring journalists is the contempt power which is vested in Courts. Hence, if a news report interferes with the “administration of justice”, which may happen when a riot case is presently being tried in a court of law then the Journalist may be held guilty of contempt of court.
Effect: The only power which is granted to the Press Council of India is to warn or censure the violators. Thus, if the guidelines are breached then the repercussions are a warning or an apology to be published by the violator. No criminal sanctions can be imposed by the Press Council. However, journalists should not be cavalier in their reporting as they may be prosecuted under other substantive laws such as contempt of courts or the Indian Penal Code (if, for example, their writing leads to further incidents of rioting / communal tension etc). It is relevant to keep in mind that unbalanced opinions, graphic reports etc can have the effect, even if unintended, of provoking or inciting people to violence and can lead to penalties under relevant penal laws.  
3. Can I be critical of the government in such a delicate situation?
Answer: Yes,you can be critical of the government in cases of riots. There is no law as such which prohibits the media from criticising the government in situations of communal violence (subject to the reports being fair, balanced etc.). However, the government can impose prohibitory orders impacting the free movement of journalists.
Reasoning: There is no clear legal prohibition which prevents journalists from critising the government. However, the PCI guidelines on reporting in cases of communal violence serve as useful guidelines. However, if in certain situations the state government may impose prohibitory orders under Sec. 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure impacting the right of the media to travel through a certain area affected by communal violence thus impacting news reporting. In terms of the electronic media, it is also relevant to note that the news broadcast may be legally questioned under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 whereby the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting acts as a regulator and has the mandate to issue orders calling for channels to scroll messages containing apologies or even banning the channel for a definite time frame. However such power is exercised in an ad-hoc and restrained manner as in the past such action has rarely been preferred against television news broadcasts.
Effect: No clear laws prohibit the criticism of the government during communal violence however the government may impose prohibitory orders may be imposed by the government to prohibit the free movement of journalists.
4. Can I include my opinion in the same piece as the facts, or must they be clearly demarcated in such situations?
Answer: Yes, you can include your own opinion in the same piece, but the opinion must be clearly be demarcated from the facts. The facts on which the opinion is based should be verifiable.
Reasoning: When the public reads an article, they should not be confused between the facts and the opinion based on the facts. The facts on the basis on which the opinion has been formed should be true and verified. The opinion formed obviously cannot be true or false. Only the facts should be correct. However, if the journalist is reporting on an issue of communal violence then caution should be taken while articulating an opinion also. The opinion should not be such as to incite people of a particular religion against another religion. It is pertinent to mention that on this issue clear legal guidelines do not exist.
Effect: When reporting on issues of communal violence, more precaution than normal needs to be taken. Even though the facts may be true, the opinion should firstly be segregated from it, and secondly, it should not be scandalous or sensational which may incite one religion against another.
5. How do I verify facts and figures in such situations and to what extent must I check their veracity?
Answer: There are no guidelines as such which lay down as to how and to what extent facts and figures must be checked by a journalist in issues relating to communal violence. The only precaution that should be taken by the media is that it should not exaggerate the facts. The information should not be presented out of context as communal violence is a very sensitive issue. The facts should be verified from authentic and reliable sources.
6. Can graphic information be published during a communal clash, if it is verified to be true?
Answer: No, graphic information should not be published at any point of time, including during a communal clash even if verified as true. Although, there is no law on the issue (other than penal laws regarding provoking enmity, obscenity etc) such practices are generally discouraged by the government. Graphic information is likely to create friction between the two religions and hence not encouraged.
Reasoning: The Norms for Journalistic Conduct, 2010 (edition) by the Press Council of India lay down the guidelines which have to be followed by the Press including specific guidelines relating to coverage of communal violence. It states that while reporting news with regard to communal riots, the media should refrain from publishing/telecasting pictures of mangled corpses or any other photographic coverage which may create terror, or revulsion or ignite communal passion among people. Thus, graphic information should be avoided even if true.
Effect: The media should generally avoid publishing information which provokes one religion against another or provides a distorted, exaggerated or misleading version of events.
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