Today, 3rd May, is World Press Freedom Day, as declared by the United Nations.
In this connection I wish to present my views.
Votaries of media freedom often treat media freedom as a fetish, as an end in itself. In my opinion media freedom can at most be a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end must be raising the standard of living of the people and giving them better lives. If media freedom helps secure that end it should be supported, but not otherwise.
Today many TV channels spread communal hatred. Should such freedom be permitted?
Much of the media peddles lies e.g. against Tablighi Jamaat, as it happened recently? Should that be allowed? Much of media propagates astrology, which is pure superstition. Should they be allowed to do so?
And much of our media diverts attention of the people from the real issues facing the nation e.g. poverty, unemployment, malnourishment, lack of proper healthcare and good education for the masses, price rise etc to relative triviialities and non issues like lives of film stars, cricket, petty politics, astrology, pop music, fashion parades etc.
Our media often behaves like French Queen Marie Antoinette who when told that the people do not have bread said they can eat cake. So does our media deserve freedom? To increase ratings many of our TV channels can go to any low level, and indulge in sensationalism, jingoism, communal propaganda etc.
When I became Chairman of the Press Council of India in 2011 I suggested that those mediapersons who did wrong things should be penalised by fines, or in extreme cases even arrest and jail. Immediately after I said this almost the entire media community raised a hue and cry against me and portrayed me as a tyrant who wants to suppress freedom.
I pointed out that I did not want the power to penalise vested in the Chairman but in the entire Press Council which consists of 28 members and decides by majority vote. Out of these 28 members 20 are representatives of the press, elected by the press bodies (6 owners, 6 editors, 7 working journalists and one representative of a news agency). Five members are Members of Parliament (3 from Lok Sabha and 2 from Rajya Sabha). The other three are one each from the Bar Council of India, UGC and Sahitya Academy.
So the vast majority of members of the PCI are persons from the press. The power to punish should be in the PCI, and so members of the press themselves would have the power to punish their peers. What reasonable objection can the press have to this? I also suggested that TV can also be brought within the Press Council (by an amendment to the PCI Act) and it can be renamed Media Council with 20 representatives from the broadcast media too in it who are elected by their bodies.
I said that I am not in favour of control of the media but its regulation.The difference between the two is that in control there is no freedom, but in regulation there is freedom subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. Every activity has to be regulated.
If a lawyer commits professional misconduct he can be debarred by the Bar Council. A doctor who commits medical misconduct can be debarred by the Medical Council. A Judge who takes bribe can be impeached by Parliament. Everyone is accountable in a democracy. So the media too must be made accountable.
But to these suggestions there was fierce opposition by the entire media community, who don't want any regulation of any kind by anybody. They said we will self regulate.
I submit self regulation is an oxymoron. If the media should be allowed self regulation, then everybody should be allowed self regulation. Why have laws at all against murder, rape, theft etc? Let everyone self regulate.
So I regret to say that as long as our media keeps behaving in the irresponsible manner as it has been doing I cannot support media freedom.