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Control freakery

India needs a free and fair media. We can’t have this if bullying tactics by the judiciary, Press Council or the government become the norm, writes Arun Jaitley.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2011 23:22 IST

The chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, lost little time after his appointment to make known his contemptuous views about the Indian media. The obvious danger of talking out of turn in order to sound crusading is that one ceases to be objective. You only have to tabulate the weak points of the target institution and emerge a reformist yourself.

While doing so Katju overlooked the fact that despite many weaknesses, the Indian media is a key protector of our democracy and does not need to be regulated. The argument that every institution in a democracy needs to be regulated is not a valid one. It is this mindset that produced the Emergency of the mid-70s. Has anyone dared to suggest that the Supreme Court is an unregulated and hence needs to be regulated? This ‘control’ psyche is destructive of democracy.

The media, both print and electronic, is today judged by the readers and viewers. It is for this reason that some newspapers and channels manage to consolidate while others are marginalised. The viewer is king. He has a remote in his hand. The viewer is the best regulator of a channel. I would rather trust him than a retired judge seeking more powers. Freedom of choice and rejection of the unacceptable is a preferred option to a Big Brother who watches and intimidates the media.

As an active participant in politics I have no hesitation in admitting that besides one’s own ethical preferences, a vigilant media is an additional deterrent in the conduct of public and private affairs of a public person. The possibility of being exposed by an intrusive media may be an irritant for a politician, but it has played an important role in keeping politicians on their toes.

The media has its own share of problems. Its campaigning zeal leads to a lynch mob mentality. It has tended to create an environment of prejudice against media targets and influence free and fair trials. The remedy for this can be greater editorial control or, in extreme situations, even judicial intervention. The remedy can’t be government intervention.

The past one year has seen several ministers carry on a campaign accusing the media of being hostile to the government. The recent move of the ministry of information and broadcasting to renew a licence to operate a channel depending on the number of violations of the broadcasting and advertising codes was a result of this governmental irritation with the media. Media licensing is repugnant to press freedom. Thankfully, the move was short-lived.

Institutions like the legislature, the judiciary and the media must adopt an attitude of statesmanship while dealing with each other. There is no place for an attitude that entails teaching the other a ‘lesson’ in order to establish its own primacy. In this context, the recent judicial order of a court imposing R100 crore as damages against a news channel and its editor in a libel action raises serious questions.

The channel, Times Now, was telecasting a news report relating to the involvement of a retired judge of a high court in the provident fund scandal in Ghaziabad. It correctly pronounced the name of the judge, who has since retired from the Calcutta High Court. The operator of the channel’s database was asked to provide a photograph of the judge that could be flashed on the TV screen. He erroneously pulled out a photograph of a retired Supreme Court judge whose name was phonetically similar to the name of the judge whose photograph he was searching. Instead of Justice Samantha, a photograph of Justice PB Sawant was flashed for a few seconds after which the retired judge’s office protested. An apology was carried on the scroll, though belatedly. A Pune court awarded R100 crore as damages in favour of the former Supreme Court judge for loss of reputation.

As someone having familiarity with the quantum of damages Indian courts award, this order appears to be somewhat unusual. Observers are still unable to come to terms with the quantum of damages awarded even in cases of death or disability caused by Union Carbide in the Bhopal gas tragedy. The quantum awarded in various death cases, be it an accident or otherwise, in India, is normally modest. The quantum awarded recently in the Uphaar fire tragedy is a case in point. If a former judge is entitled to R100 crore for his photograph being flashed erroneously on account of being mistaken with another phonetically similar name, will this precedent be applied by Indian courts to other ordinary mortals who complain of loss of reputation on account of far more serious allegations? I am not aware of a single case where even 1% of this amount has been awarded to an ordinary citizen or a public person for loss of reputation. There is no better way of shutting down Indian media than by awarding punitive damages against journalists, newspapers or TV channels that are completely disproportionate to the value of money in Indian society.

Each media organisation is expected to exercise due care and caution. Errors, however, will take place on account of the very nature of the news circulation business. If channels or newspapers are to suffer such an order, on the assumption that R100 crore are to be the normal damages awarded to a citizen, we may in the next 10 years become a nation without media organisations.

Citizens deserve a free and fair media. We can’t have a free and fair media by having the Press Council act as Big Brother, or with the government threatening to de-license news channels, or with the judiciary imposing unreasonable punitive damages on them. We need an independent and a vigilant media as much as we need an independent judiciary.

Arun Jaitley is Member of Parliament

The views expressed by the author are personal