New PCI chairman's sabre-rattling disturbs the media

In an interview to a news channel recently, the former judge of the Supreme Court expressed his ‘poor opinion’ about Press and said they often play an ‘anti-people’ role.

He described journalists as dumb, saying that most of them had a ‘very poor intellectual level’ and the ‘general rut was very low.’ He also accused the media of often diverting the attention of the people from real issue to non-issues and deliberately dividing people on religious lines by ‘demonising’ Muslims on every instance of terrorist attack in the country.

Justice Katju wants the government to invest more powers in the PCI to regulate media. With utter displeasure over the way the electronic media functions, he wants that news channels should also be brought under the purview of the Council and has written a letter to prime minister Manmohan Singh in this regard.

“I want powers to stop government advertisement, I want to suspend licence of that media for a certain period if it behaves in a very obnoxious manner, impose fines,” he said, maintaining that all these actions would be taken only in ‘extreme situations.’ Ever since his appointment as PCI chief Justice Katju has been most vocal and critical about the functioning of media, particularly electronic media, on the perception that they are going overboard.

Anyone who is concerned about the Indian media scene today, whether he is connected to it as a practitioner or as a consumer, would probably agree with many of the comments made by Katju, but his painting the entire media with one brush seemed unfair to the journalist community.

True, over the past several years, the Press Council has been an ineffective agency and is in dire need of reinvigoration. But, when the new PCI chief expects the government to give more teeth to the Council while stressing that there must be some ‘fear’ in media, it raises apprehensions that powers might be misused at some point in time to arm-twist media organisations for being critical of weaknesses in the system.

The Indian News paper Society feels that vesting of more powers in PCI as has been sought by its chief will militate against the primary objective of the council, which is to preserve the freedom of press.

By his observation that he has a very poor opinion of most media people, INS says, Justice Katju has demonstrated a deep bias against members of the Fourth Estate raising apprehensions that such bias will adversely affect the functioning of the Council, especially in its quasi-judicial role as a media watch dog.

Draconian powers
The Editors Guild termed as ‘ill-considered’ the comments made by Katju against the media and vowed to oppose any move by it to assume ‘draconian’ powers and bring the electronic media under its ambit. Alleging that Katju has been making negative statements ever since he assumed office, the Guild said his ‘sweeping and uninformed’ comments in an interview last week ‘touched a new low.’

Justice Katju’s withering judgment on the state of journalism and intellectual capacity of journalists prompted sharp criticism from the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA). It’s general-secretary Mrinal Biswas and former Press Council member Mihir Ganguly said that Katju's recent observations on the scribes ‘had crossed the limit of the jurisdiction set in the Act.’

However, much of what Justice Katju says is not wrong. In media circles, the falling standards of the profession have been a subject of discussion for a very long time. But, what action has the PCI taken in this regard?

The Press Council of India was set up by Parliament as a statutory, quasi judicial body for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the Press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India. However, it has been entrusted with only limited powers to admonish, reprimand and pass strictures. A proposal to amend Section 15(4) of the Press Council Act, 1978, to make the directions of the council binding has been pending for a long time.

But, this is the role that PCI was supposed to perform when it was constituted some 50 years ago. Although it cannot take penal actions against erring media house, it can always take cognisance of such matters and take them to the court of law for action. What stops it from doing so?

On the issue of paid news, a committee was set up to look into it in 2009. The committee which comprised some veteran journalists submitted a detailed report. The report was not accepted by the council and was only relied upon, inter-alia, for information for drawing up the final report.

In its report last year, the council, making various suggestions for the government and the media, recommended that self-regulation was the best option to check the ‘paid news’ phenomenon. The detailed report of the committee was only made public after an order from the Central Information Commission in September this year.

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