Saturday, 5 July 2008

Vilasrao Deshmukh proposes Press Council for Maharashtra

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has recently announced that his government was contemplating to set up a Press Council for Maharashtra (PCM). His announcement comes in the wake of wide spread protests against attacks on the house of a veteran journalist in Thane and a newspaper office in Pune. It appears that the Chief Minister believes that the formation of a (PCM) will be a solution to prevent attacks on the freedom of expression, manifested by the vandalism.

Veteran journalists in Pune, by and large, seem to disagree with him. Those who feel that such a PCM will serve some purpose also have 'ifs and buts' provisos. Before we consider their views, let us first understand what the Press Council of India (PCI) does, its scope and limitations.

The PSI, first set up in the year 1966 by an act of the Parliament is a statutory, quasi-judicial body, which acts as a watchdog of the press. It adjudicates the complaints against and by the press for violation of ethics and for violation of the freedom of the press respectively.

The Press Council is headed by a Chairman, who has, by convention, been a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India. The Council consists of 28 other members of whom 20 represent the press and are nominated by the press organisations/news agencies. Five members are nominated from the two houses of Parliament and three represent cultural, literary and legal fields as nominees of the Sahitya Academy, University Grants Commission and the Bar Council of India. The members serve on the Council for a term of three years.

Thus, if a Press Council of Maharashtra has to be set up, it will be only after enactment of a law by the state legislature which can take may be a year or two. It will have to have the membership structure on the lines of the PCI if it is function as an independent body free from any pressure from politicians, bureaucracy, or even the readers.

If anyone has any grievance against a newspaper or a newspaper establishment in respect of violation of traditional code of ethics, he can file a complaint with the PCI. Similarly, the newspapers can approach the PCI to redress grievance against the governments or its agencies in respect of attempts to curb freedom of expression, even through stoppage of advertisements. The Press Council hears these complaints at its meetings held periodically in different cities in the country. These hearings take place on the lines of the proceedings in the court of law.

The PCI comes out with its recommendations to uphold or reject the complaints. Its decisions are recommendatory in nature as it may pass strictures against the newspaper/journalist or the government. It cannot go beyond passing the strictures, as it does not have punitive powers.

Precisely for this limitation, the Press Council of India is criticised as a toothless tiger. Defaulting newspapers and journalists do not bother to publish the PCI's verdicts, and the politicians and bureaucrats simply ignore its pronouncements. The situation has not changed over the years because the PCI has taken the position that the Council has to be a self-regulatory authority and not a judicial body to award punishments to the erring Press or the authorities in power. There is an argument that the aggrieved party has liberty to approach the courts of law if punishment is intended.

The authorities of the PCI quote Mahatma Gandhi on the role and responsibility of the Press vis-à-vis freedom of expression. The Mahatma, who was an eminent journalist in his own right, has said: "The sole aim of a journalist should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within." (emphasis added in italics)
Similarly, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has, while defending Press freedom, warned of the danger its irresponsible exercise entails: "If there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually withers away. This is true of a nation’s freedom and it applies as much to the Press as to any other group, organisation or individual."

These champions of the freedom of expression did not visualise that decades after they were gone, there would be a need to deal with acts of vandalism by those who were unhappy with the journalists and newspapers. Luminaries of the PCI, as indeed other veteran journalists outside the Council, have never spoken about a role of the PCI role to prevent vandalism, as the Chief Minister believes the proposed PCM should do. It is a different matter that several senior Pune journalists do not share his views.

(First appeared in DNA Pune Edition, July 01, 2008)

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1 comment:

Mahesh Vijapurkar said...

It is better to opt for self-regulation than a regulator, especially if the latter does not have any teeth. Moral authority does not seem to count for much in India, anyhow.

What kind of self-regulation am I talking about?

For one, care and caution when reporting on any, especially sensitive, issues.

Two, be aware of the laws of libel and defamation - as Press you may assert your rights, but as long as the laws exist on the statute book, one has to respect them. If you are opposed to it, by all means protest against their continuance.

Journalists need to keep a check on government, especially when their record is very poor in so far as governance is concerned but it has to be on the basis of verifiable facts that comments ought to emanate from. Not otherwise.

Freedom of the press does not mean licence misusing the power of the written word. It does not mean sexing up stories to sell copies.

It does not mean taking sides on the basis of whimsy or ideology; ideology in India is what is politically expedient, not what is right. For instance, when the Supreme Court is yet to adjudicate on the Ayodhya structure that was destroyed, why should the media call it 'a mosque' or 'a mandir'? Why not stick to 'disputed structure which it really it was and would continue till the matter is settled one way or the other?

Reams on that in newspapers added fuel to the fire and the newspapers are not even concious of it.

Come on, we don't need a regulator, especially the kind that people like Vilasrao Deshmukh contemplates. We need sensitvity, care, the willingness to do the right thing.

There is a lot more to say about the irresponsibility of the televsion and the mindless - or is it to a determined pattern? - hyping of stories which do not survive the end of the day! Indian news channels have truly managed to define what an Idiot Box is. And the worst is when newspapers, tabloidising themselves, model themselves after TV, allow it to lead the Print and remain satisfied with the edition in the morning which is a pale, ill-informed version of theTV screen of the previous night. Editors have abdicated their duty to the reader.

Why bring in the politician in it?

Mahesh Vijapurkar