Overreacting to Katju

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Media Freedom | 04/11/2011
So what's new in what Justice Katju said? And in what way do his criticisms of the way the press conducts itself, depart from the Press Council's aims? He is telling us that we are accountable to the people. Can we disagree?
here’s looking at us
Jyoti Punwani
Before we go ballistic over Justice Markandeya Katju’s remarks on the media, let’s first recognise that he is one of those rare Supreme Court judges whose judgments have made all of us – across classes - freer citizens, by breathing life into our fundamental rights. His judgments have also furthered secularism and Indo-Pak friendship. He is undoubtedly a multi-faceted scholar, a linguist, and equally important, a judge of the apex court who apologised in court for having made an offensive remark on Muslims. Given all this, surely what he says deserves to be heard with respect? More so because his views on the media are not very different from what some journalists themselves have often said.
Consider the points he made in his interview with Karan Thapar, and also in his interaction with the media.
Hasn’t it become a cliché in media circles that we focus more on frivolous rather than serious matters? This reporter at least, has written ad nauseum about the way the media carries the police version of terrorist attacks blaming the usual suspects, never mind if these stigmatise an already targetted minority, and that the police story normally collapses in court. In the same way, Dr Binayak Sen was labelled a ``Naxali daakiya’’ by the entire Chhattisgarh press after he was arrested. Media trials – Shivani Bhatnagar, Aarushi - have left all of us wringing our hands at their insensitivity.
Paid news is such a serious issue that the Press Council was forced to do an entire investigation on it. As for the hocus pocus telecast by some Hindi news channels, after expressing horror initially, we’ve become immune to that. Can it be denied that many young reporters are pretty clueless about the background of the events they report on, although today, information is more freely available than it ever was?
As for being familiar with history, political and economic theory, philosophy, literature – journalists well versed in these disciplines can be counted on one’s fingers. Can we deny that such journalists have enriched the profession, that reading them leaves one wanting more?
So what’s new in what Justice Katju said - except that he has ascribed motives to our misconduct, which we refrain from doing when we make these criticisms? Perhaps we have so internalised all this as part of the profession, that it doesn’t even occur to us that to an outsider with a strong social conscience, these facets of media conduct are disturbing enough to make him/her question our motives. Divisive, anti-minority, corrupt, sensationalist – much worse is said of us by human rights activists, Muslims, feminists… We can dismiss their criticism as ill-informed and unrealistic, but cannot do the same when these remarks come from the recently appointed head of the Press Council. Is that the reason for the outrage? 
Or is it his tone? You have to be either incredibly gutsy or a real babe in the woods to say: ``Normally, if a media commits a mistake, I'll call them, I'll discuss with them that this is not proper and 80 per cent people can be reformed by persuasion.’’ Apparently, the judge has had no dealings with journalists, or he would know you don’t mess with their egos like this.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the new PCI chief’s interview is his desire to instil ``fear’’ among journalists, to ``use the stick’’, although he makes it clear repeatedly, that this would only be ``in extreme situations, as a last resort.’’ In fact, in his first remarks on taking over as chairman of the Press Council, he had said he was not in favour of puntiive measures. Again, in his first interaction with journalists, he had requested the government to defer its decision on licences for news channels.
The lack of punitive powers with the PCI has long been a matter of disbelief outside the press, and a matter of principle for print journalists. Both viewpoints are equally strong. Incredulous students and activists invariably ask: how can a mere reprimand from the PCI serve as a deterrent for newsapers such as Saamna, or Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar during the 2002 Gujarat violence? And journalists invariably reply: professional newspapers take a reprimand from the PCI vey seriously. Once you arm the council with punitive powers, you open up the dangerous possibility of media control by the government.
However, it’s well known that Samna cares two hoots about reprimands from the Press Council. Perhaps that, and the fact that the Council lacks teeth, are the reason the Maharashtra government complained to the Press Council about some of Bal Thackeray’s editorials during the Mumbai riots of 92-93, instead of filing cases against it u/sec 153 A (promoting communal enmity). Saamna described its own role in the riots as having  "prepared a burning generation, Saamna's job is to keep this generation smouldering. Every word of Saamna was like a flame." Sandesh’s editor didn’t mind asserting to the Editors Guild that his paper had to play a role in protecting Hindus during the 2002 violence. The Gujarati press almost blacked out the killings of Muslims across the state following the burning of the Sabarmati coach at Godhra, in which 59 Hindus died. They also published false news about Hindu women being raped at Godhra.
The first seige of the Babri Masjid in 1990 led to police firing on Hindutva activists in which sixteen of them died. The Press Council reprimanded four Hindi dailies: Swatantra Bharat, Dainik Jagran, Swatantra Chetna and Aaj, for reporting that 1000 Hindus had died. It also found that one of these papers had distributed 5000 of its copies free in Ranchi. Immediately, riots took place in the city.
Let’s also not forget that Raj Thackeray thanked the media for his unexpected success in the 2009 Maharashtra Assembly elections. This was a year after his goons had attacked helpless and poor North Indians across Mumbai, labelling them `outsiders’.
Stopping of government ads, suspending licenses – surely this is the kind of action any government should take against newspapers that glorify the killing of innocents or spread provocative rumours in an already inflamed situation? Shouldn’t some ``fear’’ be instilled in such newspapers? Indeed, these are crimes under the IPC, committed with immunity thanks to a benevolent government. It’s not that the government respects the freedom of the press. The reasons can vary: preventing communal propaganda isn’t the government’s priority; or, the government agrees with such views; or maybe, as in Maharashtra, the editor of the most rabid newspaper is the government’s most favoured politician. We may not want the Press Council to have such powers, but surely the Council should be able to recommend such action to governments? In the CNN IBN debate on Justice Katju’s remarks, the anchor Sagarika Ghose rued the fact that no action can be taken against some TV channels.
The role of the Press Council is broadly, to see to it that the press maintains professional ethical standards, to take up the cause of journalists unfairly targetted by managements and/or the government, and to protect the freedom of the press. In what way do Justice Katju’s criticisms of the way the press conducts itself, depart from the Press Council’s aims? He is telling us that we are accountable to the people. Can we disagree?
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