A fatwa could be bought. Members of Parliament could take cash for favours. Fake summons could be procured for a song. Policemen could be bribed to kill someone and then pass it off as an ‘encounter’. Doctors could become peddlers of children. Children could be bought from orphanages for criminal activities. And, of course, the head of a national political party could be captured on camera accepting bribes.
Do you remember these scenes from the recent past? They are some of the breakthrough stories that we, television journalists, are proud of.
We need to remind ourselves of them now because I see a systematic campaign to give TV journalism a bad name. Post-26/11, misdirected anger is being used to kill TV journalism as we know it. The whisper one hears of a State-imposed content code is a danger whose implications need to be understood before anybody jumps to support it.
We realise that a measure of regulation is essential in a civilised society. But who should impose that? Have we not been taught that the media are meant to watch each step of the government in public interest? If so, doesn’t it seem odd that it’s the government that could be watching over us?
If the government were to have its way, it would love to decide what’s good for the people. And when the government decides content, a Doordarshan is born. So when the government talks to us about ethics of communication, it makes one wonder: do you want all your news channels to be clones of Doordarshan? I am not mentioning State television merely because it’s boring. I am doing so because it’s not accountable to the people it’s meant to serve.
When we are asked to be more responsible, I am reminded of an interaction some TV journalists had with some bureaucrats. Somebody quipped that the electronic media had the potential to cause a riot. At this, a member of my fraternity pointed out that only one channel has that distinction — Doordarshan — which it did in 1984. If such people regulate the media, who would regulate them?
I am also aware of our weaknesses. That’s why national TV channels have adopted a self-regulatory mechanism. The sad part is that mistakes aren’t penalised.
As soon as the IC-184 hostage crisis ended, the government thanked the media for their restraint. But what happened thereafter has brought about a change in the government’s attitude. Was it because we became a vehicle of public anger? I suspect so. The government was shaken by the reported anger and weariness of the people at the inability of the state to protect its citizens.
The anger took politicians so much by surprise that some blurted out statements they would rather forget: “Yeh lipstick, laali laga ke hamari behnen...” (“Our sisters, with lipstick and rouge on them…”). Live, round-the-clock television has exposed weaknesses as never before.
When the government ‘advised’ channels to underplay the impact of 26/11 — after the end of the attack — was it infringing upon the right of the people to see something they deserve to see? We realise that everything that’s shown should be tested on the touchstone of public sensibility. But would the government determine what’s that sensibility? Should we delete this huge security lapse from national memory? Or should we ensure that it’s not forgotten, or worse, repeated?
If the government were to impose a content code on us, you might not see stories such as the ones I listed in the beginning.
Shazi Zaman is Editor, Star News