The Law Commission got judges and journalists to brainstorm on issues affecting the media. Some important takeaways.
In a first-of-its-kind initiative, Law Commission of India in collaboration with the National Law University (Delhi) held a public consultation on media law over the last weekend of September (27 and 28). The consultation was aimed to elicit inputs from a wide range of stakeholders which the Commission will bear in mind while framing media laws.
In a first-of-its-kind initiative, Law Commis
Held over two days, like most such “discussions” and conferences in South Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, the event saw poor media participation that didn’t go beyond the regular fixtures – a handful of journalists, most of whom don’t have much say in mainstream newsrooms anymore. Considering the bearing this consultation would eventually have on the media industry, the absence of representatives from prominent print and TV organisations is a telling sign of how serious owners and editors are about where the industry’s headed.
Broadly, the consultation touched on issues of regulation, reporting on court, privacy and defamation laws, trial by media, paid news and opinion polls.
Regulation: Who will bell the cat?
The first session of the day was “Self Regulation vs Statutory Regulation: Does the news media need structural regulation?” Journalist Siddharth Varadarajan moderated the session as his former boss N Ram sat two seats to his left. We strained to see if there was any awkwardness or hostility between the two, considering the circumstances under which Varadarajan quit The Hindu, but didn’t sense any.
Varadarajan started by introducing the guests, entertainment specialist Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, N Ram, Justice RV Raveendran, and NDTV’s Ravish Kumar. Varadarajan while introducing Ravish admitted that the NDTVprime time anchor is the finest out there. Most in the auditorium nodded in agreement.
It must be noted here that Ram, who is currently Chairman of Kasturi and Sons that publishes The Hindu, was the only prominent owner/editor from the media present at the consultation. (Ram, in fact, has taken pains to attend the many consultations, seminars and ideas that have taken place over the years to improve news industry.)
Varadarajan in the opening address emphasised that media regulation and how it is dealt with is of “concern to journalists”. No doubt it is, but it is of even more concern to the consumer of news. Regulation can potentially have an immense impact on the kind of news content available.
Justice Raveendran gave us a précis of the overview document that we had all been given. The debate on regulation can never be complete without weighing various options to achieve a more responsible media and looking at the pros and cons of self versus structural regulation. Ram stated that without waiting for an external body to set the agenda, media outlets can start with setting their houses in order via an internal news ombudsman who is solely responsible to readers/viewers and addresses complaints by them. So far, only The Hindu has instituted a full-time ombudsman editor.
Disclosures also were deemed a good way of establishing accountability and transparency. Varadarajan gave the example of IBN running a three-minute report on Reliance Foundation’s excellent work in Srinagar without a disclosure stating that the group owned the channel.
The Press Council of India (PCI) and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) of India were, by the end of the two days, discredited to the extent that anyone who had even the slightest illusion of their effectiveness would’ve been convinced otherwise. Justice Raveendran stated all that had to be said about NBSA: “NBSA has a mere 60 members out of about 350 channels”. So even if it did have teeth (that’s a big if) how effective could it really be? (We didn’t see anyone from India TV – the channel was once fined Rs 1,00,000 by NBSA but refused to pay.)
Ram underlined the fact that the very composition of PCI and NBSA – with editors of news organisations on the board – is flawed and would not stand scrutiny on independence. To this, Justice Raveendran replied by saying that none of the editors on the board ever attended meetings to influence NBSA anyway. Right. But why have them on the board if they’re not needed anyway? Wouldn’t it make sense to give them just advisory roles?
Although the emergence of Internet is changing the game in media, there seemed to be little understating of the dynamics of the online platform. Ravish pointed out that going forward, news will be medium-neutral. TV, print and digital will all converge into one delivery mechanism or platform. This may pose many challenges. For example, TV news or progammes when consumed through broadcast will have to abide by NBSA guidelines, but what happens when it is consumed online through the Internet. Also, online portals don’t have to apply for licenses like broadcasters and newspapers. Who then will regulate news on the net?
On a lighter note, Ravish also said that perhaps the PCI should be completely disbanded and the new office should be set up in Hapur instead of Lutyen’s Delhi since that post seems most coveted for the real estate attached to it rather than anything it is expected to do for the betterment of news. At a later session, veteran journalist Vinod Mehta remarked that PCI is “completely useless” and that he could say so openly since Justice Markandey Katju was not present. “Nobody takes it seriously. It only has a kind of moral authority and even that is contested.”
One hopes the long deliberations on regulations yield results in terms of a statutory body with more teeth, considering that self-regulation can only work in an ideal world. Some, like journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, have their doubts on what the Law Commission can achieve in this context.
Who moved my credibility?
While the debate raged on whether self-regulation would suffice or if current media regulators are capable of carrying out their tasks, Ravish raised an important point about the lack of redress for journalists when their credibility is tarnished by anonymous trolls or compromised by owners/editors who kill stories.
He expressed his dismay at the fact that the hard-earned reputation of a journalist can be damaged overnight by anonymous trolls who throw around the “newstrader” accusation loosely. Varadarajan did not forget to remind the audience that the phrase was coined by Narendra Modi (and we did not let the opportunity pass to point that out here). Ravish also lamented that a journalist has nowhere to go if he is pressured into dropping a story by an owner or editor. He did add that he had never had that problem and it’s clear given the fact that he has held the same job for over a decade. No one except him knows what he will be talking about on his prime-time show.
Reporting on courts
The panel “Contempt of Court and reporting of court and legislative proceedings” had Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw, HK Dua, Rajeev Dhavan and Geeta Seshu discussed reform of contempt laws and how reporting proceedings of courts and the judiciary can be facilitated so that the right to knowledge and the interests of justice are balanced. The panel also focused on whether “scandalising” the court should be a criminal offence. Scandalising implies the publication of any material that undermines the authority (dignity) of any court.
Geeta Seshu stated how the scandalising provision is used way too often to harass journalists. She mentioned a case in which three journalists from Mid Day were held guilty of contempt of court for reporting on rulings made by former chief justice YK Sabharwal that, according to the journalists, appeared to have helped his two sons. Journalists, more often than not, in such cases are left by their organisations to fend for themselves.
Representatives from the judiciary who were on the panel agreed there was a need to reconsider laws on contempt. On the question of reporting on courts, however, they spoke of instances of misreporting that happen while journalists cover cases. Judges stated that often the news in the next day’s paper on important judgments is completely misleading. To this, a young journalist from Mint raised an excellent point, that the courts make very little provisions to enable journalists to do their jobs well. “We are expected to stand at the very end of the court where we can’t even hear what’s happening up-front or what the judges are saying. There is no spokesperson from the court who can brief the media. In such a situation it is not unusual or surprising that erroneous reports or misquotes surface,” she said. Justice Endlaw’s solution to this was to advice journalists to not hurry with news reports.
While reporters have to be more careful while reporting on courts, or for that matter on any beat, it is important that courts also facilitate easy access to information. Instead of focusing on this aspect, lamentations were made on the big “beast” of media that has to be “fed” with constant 24/7 news updates and the faster pace of news production that has increased the demand for news stories.
Such pontification shows a lack of understanding of news media – it’s not news if it is delivered late. Whether we like it or not, the 24/7 “news beast” is here to stay and it will only get more competitive with the emergence of the web platform. To that extent, efforts should be made on part of journalists and judiciary to ensure that correct news goes out to readers and viewers.
Defamation as a weapon
The panel “Privacy, defamation and trial by media” had Justice Raveendran Bhat, Madhavi Divan, Saikat Datta and Vinod Mehta discussing the right to free speech and how freedom of the press can sometimes harm individuals. Panelist also focused on defamation and how it is used as an intimidation tactic by those who want to silence media. Mehta, who started his career in 1970s with Debonair, jokingly said that he has been through 40 years of defamation.
He stated that though we all speak of the importance of a responsible media, sometimes it is good for journalists to be irresponsible. “The most responsible press is in North Korea,” he said. Recounting his own experience where he had to keep appearing at Delhi’s Tees Hazari court for over 12 years before the judge realised that the case was frivolous, he said that efforts should be made to speed up cases of defamation.
Thakurta who was not part of the panel presented another side of defamation that shows how such notices are used to quell freedom of speech and expression. He was at the receiving end of four defamation notices for his book Gas Wars—Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis. The notice wasserved not just to Thakurta, but to other people too, like his co-authors, to e-commerce websites like Flipkart and Amazon for selling the book and to the person who sent out e-invites for the launch of the book.
The right to privacy
Privacy laws safeguard privacy of individuals and define invasion of privacy offences. Currently, India has no dedicated privacy or data protection law. But the issue assumes importance. Some of the most important stories or scoops in media have been the result of private conversations getting leaked. Recently, CBI Chief Ranjit Sinha had invoked his right to privacy to stop the media from reporting on the contents of the visitor’s logbook at his residence. Ratan Tata, too, after the Nira Radia tapes surfaced, moved court stating that his right to privacy had been violated.
Mehta who had famously published the transcripts of the Nira Radia tapes in Outlook stated that pubic interest trumps privacy. And that it took him no time to realise that the disclosure of the contents of Radia Tapes would be in immense public interest. “But public interest must be distinguished from what is interesting to the public,” he said.
Mehta stated that privacy to him is not such a hot issue considering we don’t have a very intrusive media. A representative from the transgender community, Disha Kene, thought otherwise. Making the journey all the way from Nasik to put forward her case, she said the media is insensitive towards the right to privacy of her community. “They click pictures without asking or make videos to put out sensational news and misrepresent the community. What recourse do we have?” she asked the panel. Disha is part of Manmilan, a community-based organisation, and was one of few fresh faces visible at the consultation.
The point of a public meet is to precisely get such inputs and be exposed to wider narratives that are ignored in the humdrum of daily news business. Disha, on the sidelines of the event, told us that the purpose of her coming from so far to take part in the consultation was defeated considering it was conducted mostly in a language she does not understand. Perhaps the Law Commission could make more efforts to ensure fruitful engagement with people like Disha in future consultations, even as mainstream media continues to be a reluctant participant.