here’s looking at us
Once again, the Indian Mujahideen (IM) is making news. “The chief financier, the top organiser, the main planner has been nabbed,’’ screamed a TV reporter. The Delhi Special Cell, those top cops who keep nabbing Muslim terrorists, only to see them acquitted years later with the charges against them thrown out the window, have done it again. In a “nationwide swoop’’, they landed six alleged IM leaders, among them a Bihari who has never travelled outside his home state, and whose religious standing has often been used by the local police.
Once again, the Delhi super cops’ claims have left their counterparts elsewhere bewildered. The Bangalore police had arrested PDP leader Abdul Nasser Madani for the Chinnaswamy Stadium blast of April 2010, with the State Home Minister even claiming that Madani had confessed to it. Indeed, on the very day the Delhi Special Cell was announcing its fantastic “breakthrough’’, the Minister of State for Home, Jitendra Prasad, was telling the Rajya Sabha that there was no terrorist involvement in the Chinnaswamy Stadium blast! Similarly, the Maharashtra ATS headed by another super cop, Rakesh Maria, had arrested some others for the Pune German Bakery blast. The trial is underway.
It was just a month ago that Justice Markandey Katju had remarked on the media’s sensationalist reportage of terrorist arrests, and the harm done to an entire community through such reportage. Looks like no lessons have been learnt; the Delhi Special Cell story has been splashed across front pages. As a saving grace, the Indian Express gave equal space to an interview of the father of one of those arrested, with a picture of his hovel-like home.
A fortnight ago, seven Muslims arrested for the Malegaon 2006 blasts were released on bail. Media frenzy accompanied their release, with photographers telling them to make the V sign. The same media had accepted the Maharashtra ATS’s claims that these Muslims had planted the bombs that killed 37 of their own community, giving hardly any space to claims made by Malegaon’s Muslims that they were innocent. At the release, the accused’s lawyers and community leaders from Malegaon were being hounded for interviews; there was no sign of the ATS heroes. Neither were they asked for an explanation; nor did the media think it necessary to explain their own conduct.
It appears that only we media professionals think we owe no explanations, need no disciplining. At a recent journalists’ meet hosted by The Statesman, Kolkata, senior journalists lashed out at Justice Katju while students of law and journalism asked the former why they didn’t give space to AFSPA, to the neglected villages of MP and Rajasthan, to the entire North East. “Is the media blind or numb to issues that concern the people?’’ asked one student.
But it was at the final session of the meet, wherein students were supposed to show the way forward for the media, that the gap between what is expected of the media and how the media sees itself came starkly to the fore. The students were wise enough not to suggest regulation by the government or any outside body. The need for regulation however, was not questioned. Self-regulation is what would work best for the media, they said, on the lines of the Advertising Standards Council of India. However, the measures they suggested left even Katju-supporters stunned.
Revocation of a journalist’s accreditation was the remedy suggested for misdemeanours. Accreditation not by the government, but by the journalism school from which the journalists had passed out, or by the newspaper concerned, was what the students had in mind. Without such accreditation, the journalist could not function – it would be like taking away their professional ID.
Who would disable erring journalists by taking away their accreditation? The self-regulatory body, to be made up of journalists, which would draw up a code of conduct. Those who violated this code would have their accreditation revoked.
The assumptions made by the students here - and these were very bright and knowledgeable students of the Statesman Print Journalism School and the West Bengal National University of Judicial Sciences – need our attention. The basic assumption was that all journalists are trained for the job, and only armed with these qualifications, can they practise their profession. The fact that anyone with a command over the language can become a journalist shocked them.
The second assumption was that unprofessional conduct – say, unsubstantiated allegations against someone - can only be answered by debarring the offenders from carrying on with their jobs. Letters to the editor, complaints to the Press Council, suing for defamation, all the existing remedies, were not even considered.
It was interesting to hear these students’ opinion of the Press Council. Since readers don’t get to know when the Council reprimands a newspaper, such reprimands hardly act as a deterrent. Denial of a journalist’s “licence’’, on the other hand, would be a real deterrent. There were also three other suggestions by the students – a news ombudsman, bonuses for ethical reports (sic), and a ban on TV channels that are purely sensationalist.
The journalists present in the audience (including this columnist) reacted strongly against these suggestions. It was inconceivable that anyone could take away our right to practise our profession for a perceived misdemeanour, even if the one doing so was a body made up of journalists to monitor journalists. The possibilities for malafide actions, for rivalries being played out, seemed just too great. Besides, existing remedies have worked fine.
The sober truth is that they are not perceived to have worked at all. The question of accountability loomed large over the students’ proposals, as it does in Justice Katju’s observations. Supreme Court Advocate Madhavi Goradia Divan, who spoke on threats to the media from the government, asked whether any action had been taken by journalists on their peers involved in the Nira Radia tapes, pointing out that one of the key players was nominated on the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council after the scandal broke! She also mentioned the manner in which the government timidly backed out from issuing guidelines on how to report emergency situations, after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. Blanket TV coverage of those attacks had ended up helping the terrorists, it soon emerged. But the media outcry at ``government interference’’ made the government accept the “self-regulatory’’ code drawn up by broadcasters.
The other question raised at the seminar was: why should the media be outside the purview of the proposed Lokpal Bill, specially when large sections of it almost campaigned for the Janlokpal Bill and when the highest post in the country’s executive is to be under its purview? Can the media say it is free from corruption?
Those raising these questions were not advocates of media censorship. On the contrary, both the students and Advocate Goradia Divan were supporters of self-regulation. Yet, their discomfort at the unaccountability of the media was obvious. Without saying so, they made it clear that as readers and viewers, they could see little trace of self-regulation in the media.
The way the Delhi Special Cell managed a blitzkrieg in its favour once again, despite its dubious record, and the volte face by the media in the Malegaon 2006 blasts case, mirroring the volte face by the investigative agencies, must force us to answer these questions. Earlier this week, the need was expressed at a meet convened by Muslims, for an alternative English media exclusively for the community. The mainstream English media had failed to give Muslims a voice, it was said.
For journalists to regain their credibility, we need to listen to these voices. Can we honestly assert that we cannot be held accountable? Or, is our objection only to accountability being imposed from outside the organisation we work in, even if that is a body made up of our peers? What about the Press Council? Are we okay with it only because it is so toothless? Incidentally, when, and why, did newspapers stop publishing its indictments? Just last week, three anti-nuclear activists opposing the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu, sent a complaint to the Press
Council about the Tamil newspaper `Dinamalar' publishing on Page One of its issue dated November 24, 2011, their residence addresses, phone numbers and email ids, without asking their permission. This was done as part of a story against the Koodankulan anti-nuclear agitation. The story itself was libelous, said the activists’ letter. Since its publication, they complained, they and their families had been receiving threatening and obscene calls.
It would be interesting to see the new Press Council Chairman's action on this complaint.