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Covering violence: Social responsibility, self-regulation a must for the media

The ministry of information and broadcasting’s advisory to media to exercise restraint in their coverage of violence over Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

analysis Updated: Sep 13, 2016 19:34 IST
Satya Prakash
Cauvery stir

Fire men dousing a torched truck in Bengaluru on Tuesday, Sep 13, 2016, a day after violent protests by pro-Kannada activists over Cauvery water row. (PTI)

The ministry of information and broadcasting’s advisory to media to exercise restraint in their coverage of violence over Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has once again brought to the fore the issue of social responsibility of the fourth estate.

There is a fine line between accuracy and balance and in times of crisis – such as the one being witnessed in the two states – the distinction can get blurred, particularly given the environment of cut-throat competition in the media to get the story out first. In certain situations, what is accurate may not be balanced.

The government is worried that certain TV channels have been telecasting provocative and inflammatory news and programmes.

“Some TV channels have also been airing footage of violent incidents, rioting etc. repeatedly. This could further ignite tensions and reactions and cause the law and order situation in both the affected states to deteriorate,” the one-page advisory issued on Tuesday read.

This is not the first time that the government has issued such an advisory. During the 26/11 terror attack, the government did intervene to stop live telecast. It allowed deferred live telecast after the second day of commando operation. This was because the terrorists were getting instructions from their handlers in Pakistan based on the live TV footage. The operation to flush out terrorists who had attacked Pathankot Air Force Base was also not telecast live.

There have been allegations against the media, in particular against local newspapers during the 2002 post-Godhra Gujarat riots about the manner in which they reported the violence.

According to Press Council of India’s Norms of Journalistic Conduct, journalists are supposed to use their pen with circumspection and restraint.

“The role of media in such situations (Gujarat Carnage/Crisis) is to be peacemakers and not abettors, to be troubleshooters and not troublemakers,” says the PCI.

One may or may not agree with the PCI’s description of journalists as peacemakers but certainly they can’t be troublemakers.

However, no one can take away a journalist’s right to chronicle events as they become history. It’s part of their right to freedom of speech and expression – a fundamental right recognized under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. But it’s equally true that this right is subject to several reasonable restrictions, including sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State and incitement to an offence, under Article 19(2).

The government’s advisory also suggests what kind of shots may or may not be used in TV news coverage of the Cauvery water dispute and reminds the channels of their obligations under the Programme Code, the Advertising Code, the Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act, 1995 and the relevant rules. This is a veiled threat.

Governments have mostly eschewed from ‘guiding’ the media in their coverage of social unrest, leaving it to the Supreme Court to intervene.

Commenting on media coverage of violence by the Gujjar community for grant of Scheduled Tribe status, the Supreme Court had in 2009 emphasized the need for media responsibility. Advocating self regulation, the court said any restrictions on the media should follow “the least invasive approach”. It said the right way would be to strike “the correct balance between free speech and the independence of the media.”

India does not follow the Libertarian Theory that allows unrestrained media freedom. What is followed here is the Social Responsibility Theory that allows media freedom without any censorship but expects them to take care of social responsibility and follow a set of professional code of conduct or self regulation.

Media can ignore their social responsibility only at the risk of eroding their credibility and/or inviting government interference, which is undesirable to say the least.