Responding to attacks on the media

IN Opinion | 19/08/2002
Responding to attacks on the media

Responding to attacks on the media


If the Government is increasingly hammering journalists in India, there has to be a sea change in the way we respond.



Reprinted from the  Hindu, August 18, 2000




Sevanti Ninan


BEING under attack is an occupational hazard for journalists, but that does not mean we get used to it. We protest vociferously every time there is a fresh assault, particularly if it is from the government. Speeches are made on the lawns of the Delhi Press Club. We take out processions, and wear black arm bands. And we just did all of that this past week.


The latest provocation was the fleeting imprisonment of Tehelka¿s Anirudh Bahal on the allegation that he had attacked a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officer. An impressive ssemblage of editors cried that it was an attack on democracy. One demurred, but the majority prevailed. It was a replay of a similar meeting in March this year, when the press was being blamed for its alleged excesses in Gujarat. There is solidarity in the midst of alarm. By the end of such exercises all those present are convinced that the profession is under siege.


Last week Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook, and Vir Sanghvi, editor of the Hindustan Times, made a specific, rousing point: this is not the time to talk about the means adopted (by Tehelka). Our profession is being attacked. Today Tehelka, tomorrow the rest of us.


So what do we do about it? First, a reality check is in order. We are not alone in being under attack, journalists are under attack everywhere, not the least in the land of the First Amendment, the United States. There is a considerable increase in the arrests of reporters and photographers who are just doing their jobs. What is more, judges there are increasingly handing out judgments unfavourable to the media. The police and the courts are less sympathetic to the newsgathering process, less willing to give the media a break, says the Columbia Journalism Review, in issue after issue. Speeches, processions and black bands will not alter that harsh reality.


Looking to what¿s happening in the U.S. should sober us up when we declare indignantly that this is not the time to talk about the means adopted. Lawyers for the plaintiff are increasingly zeroing in on the means adopted, and judges are lending them a ear. Jane Kirtley, a First Amendment fellow of the National Press Club in Washington DC was writing two years ago of the change that has come about in how the Judiciary interprets the First Amendment. To invoke constitutional protection, the information has to be obtained legally. Journalists are subject to laws just as any citizen would be. There have been a number of rulings, she says, adding that a reporter¿s failure to disclose his or her status as a journalist was misrepresentation amounting to fraud.


She wrote that more and more, judges are asking: did the reporter use a hidden camera, or hidden microphone? Was she forthcoming about her identity or her purpose in seeking entry into private property or a medical establishment, or an office? Did he induce a source to violate a confidentiality agreement with an employer? Did he violate a criminal or civil statute in the course of gathering news?


  If the Government is increasingly hammering journalists here, there has to be a sea change in the way we respond. Protest is hardly enough, particularly protest which stops at making speeches and going home. In societies that have nurtured press freedom longer, solid, organised

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