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 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. Moreover, 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 said that the media and judiciary are the 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 Indian judiciary and other constitutional institutions in protecting and fostering India’s democratic experiment for more than six decades, which is a rarity among postcolonial 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 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. But 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 an opportunity to initiate a public discussion on media reforms that not only address journalistic practices from the perspective of ethics, but also look at the quality of media discourse. Additionally, the purpose of any reform should be also to put in place a due process to discourage a few bad apples, rather than 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, I think the solution lies in professional journalistic practice and media literacy. But 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. One — the decline in quality of media discourse is because journalists of 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. Two — the electronic news media devote a disproportionate amount airtime to cricket and Bollywood compared to more important public policy and social issues. Three — there has been decline in ethical standards and proliferation in corrupt practices such as “paid news
” and lobbying for corporation (i.e. 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 the 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 the 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 function of editorial and news analysis in the media.
Contemporary journalism is significantly different from the past when very few could read and most of the journalism was produced for and by the highly educated class. Although no specific empirical data on news consumption is available for India, yet the size of the Indian public sphere does suggest that an overwhelming part of the population is watching and reading news on a daily basis. The news media’s main role is to give fact-based information, which does not necessarily require great intellectual abilities. I think majority of journalists do not have the desire to be intellectuals, which is perhaps why they have chosen this profession. Most of the consumers of the news have basic education and in some cases they are not even literate. In order stand true to the democratic credential journalists working for thousands of newspapers and hundreds of news television channels have to produce and present news taking into consideration the lowest common denominator of comprehension skills so that the news can help all citizens engage in the democratic process and make reasoned choices.
Although, Justice Katju is right at one level, often reporting lacks perspective and insight that places the news in its larger historical, political, social and economic contexts. The news media in India present news in a decontextaulized and largely episodic manner. Journalism research from across the world shows that this is not unique to India, everywhere in the world daily routine journalism is mostly episodic. A more nuanced and sophisticated interpretation and thematic contextualization appears in the elite newspapers, magazines and sometimes panel discussions on TV. The few media pundits, who have the training and education, play the role of intellectual-journalists while undertaking political and social analysis and cultural criticism in their columns and television talk shows.
Justice Katju is also right about the quality of media discourse in India, especially on television. Research on television content from world over has shown that infotainment oriented news shows, sometimes described as soft news, hog most of the airtime. Not surprisingly, electronic media in India devotes most of its resources to cover cricket, regurgitate content from the movies and exploit superstitions among parts of the population. Whereas, in comparison to infotainment and soft news relatively meager resources are devoted to original reporting on more relevant issues such as skewed developmental priorities of government, unrest in the hinterland led by Maoists, price rise, terrorism, and other forms of social injustices.
The upside in all this is that the news media in India plays a relatively decent role in offering a platform for some of the most vigorous debates and news analysis on contemporary issues. Thus, it would be unfair to say that the Indian news media has not made any significant contribution in the area of social transformation. Indian journalism has performed admirably, especially when we compare the Indian news media to news media in other postcolonial countries. The news media has played a vital role in moving the country, slowly but progressively, away from a feudal society at the time of Independence to a much more egalitarian and democratic society today. In this regard, we must not fail to acknowledge the role played by the Indian-languages press. The limited scholarship on the subject has shown that Indian-language press has functioned as a bulwark of democracy, especially outside the big cities and in rural areas. Moreover, the Indian news media that comes in multiple languages has done what scholars otherwise thought was impossible. On the one hand, it has sustained ethno-linguistic diversity in the Indian public sphere, and on the other hand, it has projected the imagination of India as one nation and one market with quite fascinating dexterity.
However, it is also in the Indian-language news media, both in print and in TV, that we find most of the problems associated with illiberal discourse, professional standards and questionable practices associated with the phenomenon of paid news. It needs to be pointed out here that in the more sophisticated English-language media paid news appears in the form “subsidy news” pushed by public relations agencies. Not surprisingly, many who favor stricter regulations have suggested that journalists cannot take a holier-than-thou approach to corruption, as they are part and parcel of the systemic corruption in politics and society. Even though it is a valid argument, I think it is not fair to compare journalists to the political class, bureaucracy and judiciary. Unlike them, the news media do not have monopoly over the exercise of lawful and sometimes also discretionary power that they derive from the statutes.
While there are no special privileges granted to journalists that are different from those enjoyed by ordinary citizens. The right of free speech and freedom of the press come from the same Article 19(1a) of the Constitution. From a strict constitutionalist perspective every citizen, including those who hold power, is a potential journalist— an ideal that has come to its fruition with the blogs and the social media. But it would be also be naïve to suggest that the news media do not have power, like the government, rather they have immense power to shape public opinion, which is a powerful thing. However, as the power of the news media does not come from some exclusive privileges and discretionary provisions, regulating the media would also mean regulating the liberties guaranteed to the citizens by the constitution.
Importantly, the company laws already regulate the corporations that own the news organizations and journalists come under the purview of criminal laws and civil laws that impose “reasonable restrictions” on the freedom of speech and the press. Moreover, from the perspective of corporate law and other laws Indian news media is already perhaps one of the most regulated among the advanced democracies. According to the Freedom of the Press 2011 study India ranks 79th and is categorized as “partly free.” Any further regulation of the media would effectively undermine individual liberties that are so essential to a democracy.
So what is the solution to the growing media malaise? What we have currently in Indian journalism is that the rules of the market, the TRPs and circulation figures, are influencing journalistic practices and news content disproportionately. However, this is not unique to India, similar problems are faced by market driven news media all over the world. The solution lies in exercising the freedom of the press with care. Journalists must exercise their power to shape and foster public opinion with humility and responsibility. In otherwise vibrant field of Indian journalism, professional standards that guide the necessary gatekeeping functions and inform editorial oversight of daily routine operations of news organizations are either absent or deficient. Although the Press Council and the News Broadcaster’s Association have codes, but they do not seem to have been internalized. What we need is the professionalization that comes with the codification of norms and values of a professional journalistic practice and reinforcement of them by the press clubs, editors and the educational institutions, especially by the schools of journalism.
For example, we in India perhaps need to go through what happened in America and Europe following the communication chaos of the antebellum years at the turn 20th century. Then the professional norms and values of journalism evolved out of a similar debate that is now taking place in India. The professionalization of news workers to a large extent weeded out the worst forms of yellow journalism and the sellers of snake oil from the news pages. This period also gave rise to organizations such as Sigma Delta Chi fraternity, also known as the Society of Professional Journalists, and the American Society of Newspapers Editors who came up with ethical standards for the practice of responsible journalism, which included the fairness doctrine and the norm of objectivity that included acceptance of official explanations at face value unless there was strong evidence to the contrary.
Thus, I think the solution lies in a better professional education, both in the skills required for what Lippmann described as transmission of fact-based information and the knowledge for what John Dewey described as public journalism that can give citizens resources to engage in a democracy. The improvements in journalistic quality through the elevation in the level of media discourse on contemporary issues can be achieved through a better professional education in the knowledge, skills, norms and values of journalism. Self-regulation or government regulation cannot by themselves solve the problem of corrupt journalistic practices and declining quality of media discourse, both in the organized news media and the growing field of social media. Professionalism founded on clear sets ethical principles must be inculcated in young reporters during their training period in journalism programs. Moreover, today we live in a media saturated society in which for all practical purposes democracy itself is mediated, hence we also require educational curriculums in the country to include core course in ethical media use and criticism.
Finally, this means not only more investment and improvements in journalism and media education in India, but also reforms that emphasize in liberal education that encourages critical thinking skills. Improvements in journalism education must be also supplemented with funding and support for empirical research in news media’s performance and media criticism, which currently is very limited in the country.
Anup Kumar, Ph.D., teaches in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University and is the author of The Making of a Small State: Populist social Mobilisation and the Hindi Press in the Uttarakhand Movement.