‘Dog bites man is no news; man bites dog is’ – this oft-repeated aphorism in journalism was upturned last week when media, or its sorry state of affairs in the country, became the most discussed topic.
The onslaught was led by no less a person than the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana. “Kangaroo courts on TV debates and social media are taking the country backwards,” he said at a public lecture at the National University of Study and Research in Law, in Ranchi.
Not many disagreed with him. In fact, dispassionate observers of the Indian media had felt so for quite some time. They had watched with trepidation some national TV channels playing havoc with the universally-accepted media rules of fair play and justice. The media coverage of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s alleged suicide and Shahrukh Khan’s son Aryan’s arrest on drug abuse charges were are two recent examples.
Even the Editors Guild of India, a peer group of media persons, was forced to publicly acknowledge that it was “disturbed by the irresponsible conduct of some national news channels for deliberately creating circumstances that target vulnerable communities by spewing hatred towards them and their beliefs.”
The CJI’s caustic comments emboldened many others to come out. Supreme Court judges, senior advocates, prominent intellectuals and even a section of the media leaders joined the chorus. Ramana continued his campaign for a more responsible media on several occasions after firing his first salvo. He, however, showed judicial restraint by not tarring the entire media with the same brush.
While the print media is regulated to some extent, there is no mechanism for regulating the electronic media. As for social media, it has failed to evolve any code of ethics and is frequently found freely propagating falsehoods and half-truths to the detriment of social harmony and national interest.
Clearly, it is time for the electronic, digital and social media to self-regulate if it wants to protect its independence from external regulation. For, the questions flagged by the CJI have acquired a sinister significance in today’s highly polarised India, where a section of unbridled media is threatening the basic values of the country’s time-tested democratic and constitutional system. Politicians and celebrities had been the favourite subjects for media trials till now. Things have reached such a sorry state that at times there are also concerted campaigns in media, particularly on social media, against judges.
Three weeks ago, Justice JB Pardiwala, one of the judges in the Supreme Court Bench which had been critical of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Nupur Sharma’s controversial comments in a TV debate, had struck a similar note. “Personal attacks on judges make them consider what the media thinks more than what the law thinks,” he rued. Experience shows that neither the electronic nor digital media have shown enough responsibility to evolve an effective self-regulation mechanism on their own.
Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology has recommended that the Government set up a Media Council, with statutory powers over print, television and digital media platforms. Many people are of the opinion that the Government should considers the panel’s suggestionrecommendation seriously.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but it also allows the Government to impose reasonable restrictions on it for security of the state and some other specified purposes. Without these, a democracy can end up in anarchy, they opine.