The good judge could have exercised restraint

BY V S Hariharan| IN Media Freedom | 04/11/2011
If Mr Katju has his way, he will convert all TV channels into Doordarshan, forcing them to give unlimited coverage of poverty, agriculture and the like; sports and movies will have to wait till India completes its 'transition from a feudal, agricu

“Very disappointed.” He could have stopped at that. That would have lent respectability to his views. That would have enabled him to channel national attention to the really relevant point he was making- no freedom is absolute and media freedom is no exception. There should be reasonable restrictions.


But restraint is the last thing one exercises while facing TV camera. Also knowing very well his penchant for making controversial remarks, had he exercised restraint, he would not be Markandey Katju. So determined was he to spoil his credibility that he went ahead and poured out his wisdom on how the media was playing an anti-people role, the ‘poor intellectual level’ of journalists, the need to instill fear in electronic media by bringing it under Press Council, by assuming the power to stop government advertisements and cancelling media licenses.


He had propounded similar theory in his two-part article in The Hindu in June, 2011. It was, perhaps a dull article in a newspaper and did not catch popular attention. Further he was not the Chairman of Press Council at that time. This time around, the fact that it is a TV interview and that he has assumed charge of Press Council have resulted in generating more heat than he would have liked. News bodies such as the Editors’ Guild and the News Broadcasters Association did not want to be left behind and issued customary condemnation which also received widespread coverage.


Was this immaturity expected of a retired Supreme Court judge? He took charge of Press Council barely a month back and he wants wide ranging powers to ‘instill fear’! Should he not focus on exercising the existing powers to regulate print media and prove himself before bargaining for additional powers? Did not T N Seshan use the existing powers of CEC which his predecessors were loathe to exercise, bring repute to the position of CEC and change radically the way elections were conducted in the country before demanding additional powers?


Also is less than a month sufficient period for deciding conclusively on the ‘intellectual level’ of journalists? Even if it is, has he not alienated the journalistic community forever with this mindless indiscretion?


If Mr Katju has his way, he will convert all TV channels into Doordarshan forcing them to give unlimited coverage of poverty, agriculture and the like; sports and movies will have to wait till India completes its ‘transition from feudal, agricultural society to modern industrial society;’ journalists and therefore the media houses will not just relay the news but sit on judgment whether the same is in national interest or not; after every bomb blast and terror attack, media will go into a research and investigation mode complementing the police and NIA instead breaking the news; astrologers and jyotishs will lose their jobs and join the 80-90% poor people. Obviously he wants to rewind us back to 80s.


If Mr Katju’s real intention is to assume more powers to bring about genuine regulation, he has lost it by his intemperate remarks. The News Broadcasters Association has sent its objections to the same Prime Minister from whom Katju is hoping to get additional powers. Will Manmohan Singh, whose reluctance to act on letters addressed to him is legendary, act on Katju’s letter especially when NBA has objected to the same?


If the regulator prematurely expressed an interest to be a dictator, how did the News Bodies respond? The Editors’ Guild issued a ritual condemnation. The EG could very well have taken this an opportunity and done introspection. While it does not want external supervision, what has been its track record in enforcing self regulation? Its own Revised Code of Practice of 2007 lists 22 ‘Dos and Donts’ for journalists and many of them cover the same issues voiced by Katju. Unfortunately the Code does not talk of any disciplinary action for violation. In fact the Code prides itself by saying that it does not impose any fetters.


“The Guild would reinforce the guidelines by initiating suitable steps to improve the credibility and quality of publications and channels” says the Code of Practice. What has been EG’s response to the Paid News issue? Pathetic, to say the least. Prominent journalists figured in the Radia tapes. In a panel discussion organized by EG in the first week of December, 2010 many spoke against Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. What was the response of Rajdeep Sardesai, EG’s then President? He accused them of professional jealousy!


NBA is somewhat better in this regard. It provides a redressal mechanism. However there are just a handful of complaints which have been disposed by NBA Authority during the past 2 years and posted on its site, raising questions on the effectiveness of the mechanism and Katju has talked about this in the interview.

To conclude, while Markandey Kadju undoubtedly went overboard on many issues in the interview, news bodies also did not respond objectively and rationally. Looks like, both have lost an opportunity.

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