Proliferating Media: Challenges of Ethics and Accountability

K.B Jandial

There is no second opinion that responsible journalism is extremely important in shaping the society, albeit the nation. While the constitution talks about three important organs of the State that is executive, legislature and judiciary, there exists an equally important institution by the name of the media, the Fourth Estate.

Its role in the success of the democracy is no less important than the other three organs. While the powers of these three separate organs have their respective constitutional limits and accountability, the Fourth Estate has not been burdened intentionally with any constitutional restrictions. Free and independent press was conscientiously visualized as a watchdog of the interests of the people. Since the media has a tremendous potential for influencing the public opinion and public perception, it remains much sought after by everyone including the mighty rulers.

But the media today is not fully contended with mere status of the Fourth Estate. It has assumed the foremost importance in the society and in a way, in the governance as well. Such is the power of the media that it can make or unmake any individual, institution or even the thinking process.

Indian press has grown very fast after independence for different reasons. It grew from mere seven newspapers in 1900 to 1, 05,443 publications (only 14984 are newspapers) by 31st March, 2015 as per the figures of the Registrar of Newspapers of India for 2014-15. These seven newspapers existed, one paper each in the areas, now called states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

India’s 125 crore population is served  by 5505 lakh newspapers copies of which 2577 lakhs are of Hindi papers alone. English newspapers account for 626 lakh copies and Urdu 412 lakh copies. The daily newspapers’ circulation alone is assessed at about 370 lakh copies. This is perhaps the largest number of daily circulation of newspapers in the world.

Altogether, newspapers and other periodicals are being published in 132 languages with Odisha publishes periodicals in 76 different languages, followed by Delhi with 39 languages, and Maharashtra 33. It reflects India’s linguistic diversity.

The broadcasting and electronic visual media have too established their foothold in India in the last one and half decade. According to one estimate, India has about 700 TV channels and a half a dozen broadcasting (radio) channels. A large number of  TV channels at national level are 24X7 that have changed the life style of the people, including children, in many ways.

There is hardly any aspect of public life that does not have the dedicated channels:  fashion to religion; sports to geographical: family entertainment to kids’ entertainment: cookery to news; movies to popular songs etc. The monopoly of the Govt on Radio and TV through AIR and Doordarshan has since become a thing of past even though they still continue to command the maximum reach.

Despite growth of electronic media, the print media has not only survived but thrived with its circulation still going up. The reason is that print media has embraced IT and Information Communication Technology applications to its optimum to provide improved services to the readers. It is only due to the advancement of technology that we have multiple editions of daily newspapers.

The Times of India alone is published as many as 33 Editions with cumulative daily circulation of 46.30 lakh copies. Among the Hindi language dailies, Dainik Bhaskar has 34 editions with cumulative circulation of 36.94 lakh copies. (RNI figures)

The complexion of the newspapers too has changed altogether. Today, news has given its prominence to colourful advertisements on first and even subsequent pages of newspapers. The present trend indicates that both electronic and print media are bound to survive side by side as long as there are takers of both sources of information.

 The story of J&K is no different. Even though a bi-lingual eight-page weekly “Vidya Vikas” came out in 1867 with Maharaja Ranbir Singh as its patron, the first newspaper in the princely State is considered to be the Urdu weekly Ranbir.

Its first issue was published on June 24, 1924 from Jammu by the doyen of journalism, Lala Mulkh Raj Saraf who had the privilege of being associated with Lala Lajpat Rai’s nationalist organ “Bande Mataram” The newspaper was named after Maharaja Ranbir Singh.

The second newspaper permitted by the Maharaja was Vitasta in1932 by Prem Nath Bazaz followed by “Martand” published by Pandit Kashap Bandhu and many more followed.

From 1928 to 1947, 67 newspapers came in to existence in the State- 44 in Urdu including 3 in Muzaffarabad, 11 in Hindi, 10 in English and two in Kashmiri. In Ladakh, one journal by the title of “La-dvagi-ag –bar” was brought out by Moravian Missionary sometime in 1903 but it is not known till which year it survived.

As per the RNI report, there were 989 newspapers registered with it by March 2015 even though the records of the State Information reveal that hardly 375 papers are being published. What about the rest of the tittles? These are not in public domain and probably used for purposes other than communicating news and views which they had none. This is a trend seen all over the country.

Majority of the newspapers don’t have any circulation but publishes only for record purposes and government advertisements. It is one of serious challenges the Press faces on account of ethics and accountability which majority of them are not bothered.

J&K also witnessed the growth of electronic channels. There has been modest growth of cable channels in both the capital cities and also at district headquarters. Private radios too are becoming popular even though the number is very less.

While the press has proliferated, both in form and number, its role too has undergone a huge transformation. As all of us know, the press had played an important role in freedom movement. Right from the birth of the first Indian newspaper in 1870 till 1918, powerful newspapers had appeared on the scene that became the chief instrument for carrying out the main political task of formation and propagation of nationalist ideology; train, mobilize and consolidate nationalist public opinion and promoting strong sentiments for freedom.

Even the work of the INC was accomplished during those years largely through the Press. The resolutions it adopted and the proceedings of its meetings were propagated through newspapers

Many newspapers had emerged under distinguished and fearless journalists-cum-freedom fighters. G. Subramaniya Iyer started The Hindu and Swadesamitran, Bal Gangadhar Tilak launched Kesari and Mahratta, Surendranath Banerjee edited Bengalee, Sisir Kumar Ghosh began Amrita Bazar Patrika, G.K. Gokhale brought out Sudharak, N.N. Sen started Indian Mirror and Dadabhai Naoroji started Voice of India.

Nearly one-third of the founding members of the INC were journalists. In fact, almost all the major political leaders in India either owned a newspaper or were contributing their writings to one or the other newspaper or journal. Both the English and vernacular press started by prominent Indian leaders acted as catalysts to the freedom struggle. The British were kept troubled by the national awakening caused by the press.

Here, I would like to make a special mention of Mahatma Gandhi, who as we all know, was a multifaceted personality. Among his lesser known facets was the journalist in him. I personally feel that he was the real great journalist, not because he was associated with six journals but because of his writings, commitments to some principles which we can easily classify as media ethics of all times; He used every journal for a separate cause and perused it relentlessly.

He had his first brush with journalism in South Africa where he started ‘Indian Opinion’. On returning to India, he associated with ‘Young India’ and ‘Navjivan’ which he used to educate the public on Satyagraha. His note of defiance and sacrifice gave a new stimulus to the evolution of press as a weapon of satyagrah.

In 1933, Gandhi ji started ‘Harijan’ (English) Harijanbandhu’ (Gujarati) and ‘Harijansevak’ (Hindi) which he used as crusade against untouchability and poverty.

He believed that one of the objectives of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another is to arouse desirable sentiments, and the third is to fearlessly expose popular defects. Gandhi’s papers never carried advertisements but had wide circulation.

Gandhi’s journalism was a means to serve the people. In the ‘Young India’ of 2 July 1925, he wrote: “I have taken up journalism, not for its sake but merely as an aid to what I have conceived to be my mission in life. My mission is to teach by example and present under severe restraint the use of the matchless weapon of Satyagraha which is a direct corollary of non-violence.”

 Gandhi ji always felt that if the newspaper is used for livelihood and profit, the basic purpose of service and welfare of the people would be defeated and lead to serious malpractices at every level.

He considered journalism as a work of no mean responsibility. “The readers cannot always trust newspapers as often facts are found to be quite the opposite of what has been reported. If newspapers realized that it was their duty to educate the people, they could not but wait to check a report before publishing it… I am of the opinion that it is better not to publish a report at all if it has not been found possible to verify it.” Is this happening today?

Gandhi ji had set up a tough code for himself. He wrote, “To be true to my faith, I may not write in anger or malice… merely to excite passion. Often my vanity dictates a smart expression and my anger a harsh adjective.”

For Gandhi ji “editorial independence, adherence to truth and self-restraints” were the three over riding considerations for journalism. The concept of independence of the Press should imbibe in the journalist “an equal measure of self-restraint and the strictest adherence to truth”. Do we see in the media even a small reflection of these ethics?

In his famous autobiography “My Experiment with Truth” he wrote, “The newspaper is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within”. On this line of reasoning, how many newspapers would stand to the test?

I don’t look at Gandhi ji’s views as mere sermons but as scared ground rules for journalists which can be called as ethics of journalism. His first principle is that newspaper should not be as a business enterprise but as a “means for service to the people”.

Be doubly sure of the facts before publishing these, is his second principle as he believed that non publication of a report is better than to carry half-truth or falsehood. But, today, we are amidst a mad race of deadlines and one-up-man ship. It is a big challenge to the Media.

“Don’t excite passions: don’t write with anger or with malice”, is yet another ethic he followed. His advice to Journalists was “exercise self-restraint”.

In democracy all are for the freedom of the press. The Press should not be regulated by government enforced code of ethics as that would literally “chain” the media.

Today, when there is a widespread concern over the growing influence of market forces, political parties and corporate honchos on the media, and the journalism being no longer a social service, Gandhi ji’s views on the values of journalism appeared to have been conveniently dumped like in other sphere of Indian polity except for quoting him in speeches and paying tributes to the Father of Nation on his martyrdom and birthday.

Amidst proliferation of Indian media in the last two decades, we have come to the days of Citizen Journalism when any ordinary citizen can become news provider and put the government of the day on the mat. This gives a hope for enhanced accountability of the ruling class and consequent improvement in governance. The social media has shrunk the world further but it is mostly manipulated by all forces with no accountability.

The Press Council of India was established in 1965 under a statute for self-regulation of the Press, which Mahatma Gandhi articulated. Even Pt Nehru had said, “If there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually whither away. This is true of a nation’s freedom and it applies as much to the Press as to any other group, organisation or individual.”

The PCI with no government representative has been tasked to preserve the freedom of the Press and maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers. It has a Chairman and twenty-eight members- 13 of them are working journalists including six editors, six from the management of newspapers, one from the news agencies, five MPs and one each to be nominated by the Bar Council of India, UGC and Sahitya Academy.

One of the functions is “the maintenance of high standards of public taste” which is not seen much on the ground. On the contrary, the press through their page three items and blown ups have change the definition of public taste just to survive its circulation.

On  “building  up a code of conduct for newspapers, news agencies and journalists in accordance with high professional standards”, the PCI has formulated a long list of “ code of conduct” which is observed more in violation than in observance. The 2010 edition of “Norms of Journalistic Conduct” updated the norms evolved since 1996 on the basis of adjudications and other pronouncements.

The sanction behind code of ethics is moral; the source of their motive-force is within the conscience of the media person concerned.

The PCI code of ethics speaks every good thing-avoid communal writings, but did such writings stop? Journalistic impropriety- doesn’t media violate it by publishing reports against someone quoting unidentified sources or claim “off the record” revelation: Obscenity and Bad Taste- PCI itself expressed concern over the increasing instances of obscene advertisements in the print media. Public taste has to be judged in relation to the prevailing environment, milieu as well notions of taste prevailing in contemporary society: Right of Reply- but most of the papers either don’t publish it or if it does it is placed at innocuous place, or carry it by distorting it under the pretext of editing:  Pre-verification of News- the press needs masala material and doesn’t have time for verification: Defamatory – Scurrilous writings- The PCI held the opinion that fair comments on the public life cannot be held to be improper. But if any factual statements are made, these must be true and correct; Right to privacy Vs Public figures-A public person, who functions under public gaze as people’s representative, cannot expect the same degree of privacy as by a private person.

The newspapers are required to submit to RNI their sources of revenue and expenditure in the shape of Annual Statements. Respect for this statutory requirement can be assessed by the fact RNI report reveals that only 23394 publications complied this requirement during 2014-15.

The   PCI has been found to be a toothless organisation as it has no penal power, not even to enforce its own decisions. It conducts enquiry on the complaints and can censure the newspaper or the journalist but these are invariably ignored by the delinquent journalist or the newspaper.

While the media is continuing to proliferate, mainly as an enterprise with eyes on profit and power, the professional ethics are sadly declining with practically non- existent institutionalized accountability. It is like a catch-22 situation: the lofty concept of self-regulation doesn’t go beyond the document on which the code of ethics is written with or without consensus: and if the government is given the power to enforce the code of ethics and accountability, the Fourth Estate would lose its independence and become fully subservient to the ruling class. Either way the people are the loser. (Excerpts from author’s Sat Paul Memorial Lecture at IIPA on 17th December, 2016)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *