Protecting free speech

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Freedom | 01/05/2010
It is important to refrain from putting the police in charge of media regulation without tempering it with the participation of civil society. Meanwhile, the media’s failure to self-regulate, while damaging itself severely, is also threatening the su

Indian democracy is like a druid’s cauldron. The polity, the judiciary, the state and the people are adding herbs and spices to it every day to cook up a strange mix.  The media are often the primary institutions fishing out the herbs and spices, and keeping the fire stoked. While the major institutions of democracy are slugging it out, often the blame is often rested at the doorstep of media  for complicating and distorting issues. Calls for reigning in media have become more frequent. The Right to Freedom of Speech has become a much debated, contentious issue. Some dangerous trends have begun to show.

Two recent instances need to be examined to see where free speech in our democracy is headed.

In the first instance, VVSS Kameshwar Rao, a young lawyer, filed a PIL in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, asking the Court to pass restraining orders preventing violent programming on Telugu TV channels as they are violating section 5 and 6 of the programming and advertising codes. This was in December 2009. The court passed interim orders in January 2010 giving specific guidelines to channels that are transmitting crime stories, in response to the same lawyer filing a contempt of court petition against the channels, this time making the commissioner of police a party to the case as the implementing authority.

The Commissioner promptly held a press conference stating that he will constitute a three -member monitoring committee and take ‘strict action’ based on their recommendation. In its order, the Court directed the CP to appoint officers of not less than Group-A rank to monitor and control the channels.

All this would be exciting, but for the fact that the Cable TV Networks Regulation Act specifically provides for district-wise and state-wise monitoring committees. The Committees are to be constituted by the state information ministries. The state-level committee to oversee the functioning of the district level committees would comprise Secretary, Information and Public Relations of the State, representative of the DG of Police, Secretary, Social Welfare Department, Secretary, Women and Child Welfare Department, representative of a leading NGO working for women, academicians/psychologists/sociologists (one each to be nominated by DM) and Director, Information of the State.

The District monitoring Committees would comprise District Magistrate (Or Police Commissioner), District Superintendent of Police, District Public Relations Officer, Principal of one of the women’s colleges in the District, representative of a leading NGO working for women, representative of a leading NGO working for child welfare, academician/psychologist/sociologist (one each to be nominated by DM). The monitoring committees are supposed to provide a forum where the public may lodge their complaints about objectionable content.

The point to be noted here is, while the Act provides checks and balances by way of committees with civil society representation, that too to act only based on complaints, the judgement of the court (as per the newspaper reports) has turned it over to put the onus on the police commissioner. By the Act, it is the state governments, more specifically the Secretary, Information and Public Relations of the State, who should have been pulled up for not setting the mechanism in motion.

 The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, passed orders in September 2005 with detailed modalities of implementation and followed up with a reminder in February 2008 to all the state governments and union territories, but except for Jammu and Kashmir no other state appears to have taken the trouble of putting in place the monitoring committees to implement the Cable Act. For a lapse on the part of the state governments, the onus of implementation has been handed over to the Commissioner of Police, without the filter of civil society participation.

The PIL was about crime programmes under rule 5 and 6 of the programme code, but once the authority to monitor is handed over and legitimised, it is more likely to be used for political control while the crime programmes will continue with impunity.

In the second instance, on 14 and 15 February 2010 several journalists who went to Osmania University campus to cover the ongoing Telangana agitation by the students were severely attacked by the police. According to a report filed by the AP Union of Working Journalists with the Press Council of India, 28 journalists were injured, 13 cameras were broken, 19 vehicles were destroyed and 2 vehicles were burnt in the attack, even after some journalists repeatedly identified themselves as media people. Ambulances were not allowed to enter the campus to take the injured to the hospitals and only few FIRs allowed for the 27 or so complaints made by the journalists.

The Press Council of India (PCI) constituted a three-member enquiry committee to verify facts and came to the conclusion that ‘the incidents of February 14 and February 15 were cases of unprovoked and deliberate attack by the police on the journalists who had gathered at the Osmania University campus to cover the ongoing agitation by the students. According to PCI, there was ample evidence, including video footage, submitted by the journalists to suggest that the police personnel, on orders of the superior officials, took advantage of the surcharged atmosphere prevailing at the University campus to identify and target the media persons.’ The PCI went on to say, ‘we understand the concerns of the law enforcing machinery in surcharged situations. But we cannot accept a situation where the police stifle the voice of the media under the guise of concerns of law and order. Any form of pre-censorship is illegal and unconstitutional. The DIG, who prevented the electronic media vehicles from entering the Osmania University Campus, has by his actions violated the fundamental right of free expression.’ Several police officers chose not to depose before the PCI committee.

As a human rights activist pointed out recently, from the north-east, Kashmir, Central India to troubled pockets in different states, large sections of India have been turned into police camps. Citizens are deprived of basic rights in these parts and a common phenomenon is also the repression, arbitrary arrests and intimidation of journalists. The environment of repression is spreading on one pretext or the other, whether it is a regional agitation of stone pelting students which warrants some 15 truck loads of rapid action force; or worse in Maoist dominated areas that are cordoned off to prevent all outsiders – human rights activists, journalists, advocates or doctors – from entering. Only the police and the jungle forces they train and let loose are allowed free access to the cordoned off communities.

The police are trained to use force (sometimes excessive) to bring dissent quickly under control. Media play an important role in bringing both dissent and the use of force in graphic detail to the public in a democracy. It is of course easier for the State if there is no such pressure of accountability.

Clearly, over the years, the police force of every state has been grossly misused to protect the politician and the criminal. Like the politician and the criminal, the police force feels constantly cornered by the media, whether or not media function ethically. Media may be going through a self-inflicted crisis of credibility from which it has to extricate itself, but for whatever it is worth, it is after all the media that exposes the ugly face of our unequal society. It rings bells of caution to which the civil society sometimes responds. And for this and this reason alone, in the name of our democracy, it is important to refrain from putting the police, a repressive arm of the State, in charge of media regulation without tempering it with the participation of civil society. The media’s failure to self-regulate, while damaging itself severely, is also threatening the survival of our democracy. The potion of democracy will lose all its magic without the tang of the media enterprise.

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