When the Media is Let Down By Its Own
SC gives notice in Bhasin case
It was left to a woman journalist from Jammu and Kashmir to move the Supreme Court for press rights and freedom. Executive editor of the Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin petitioned the apex court for the restoration of communications, free movement and access, for journalists who have been at the receiving end of the current clampdown. The Court heard her plea and has issued a notice to the central government and the state to respond within seven days.
But the support that should have been Bhasin’s from the fourth estate as it were was missing. And this perhaps is a direct message that institutions set up to protect journalists and the profession have caved in to a point where even the fig leaves have been discarded. The Press Council of India that has been diluted to a shadow of what it was originally intended to be, crossed all lines when the chairperson Justice CK Prasad filed an intervention petition supporting the government argument to restrict journalists Kashmir.
The Editors Guild of india, even though approached forcefully by members, dragged its feet about issuing a statement challenging the PCI move. It was left then to other members within the Press Commission, and journalist bodies like the Press Club of India and the Indian Women's Press Corps to come together to oppose the stand taken by Justice Prasad. The Guild then issued a statement belatedly, that made little or no impact on anyone concerned.
The fact remains that Kashmir is under a lockdown. Communication services have been snapped since August 5, movement and access to information completely curtailed. Journalists have not been able to report on the impact of perhaps the most momentous decision taken by a government in nearly seven decades since Maharaja Hari Singh signed the document of accession - the abrogation of Articles 35A and 370, and the bifurcation of the state into two Union Territories.
Foreign media including the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera to name a few have been writing detailed reports about protests, detentions in the Valley. The local media in Jammu and Kashmir has not been able to report or bring out their publications. Mainstream television channels here have been largely following the government discourse, with little active reporting from within the Valley. A section of the print media has been reporting in bits and pieces, with the full picture still evading the journalists who have been visiting the state without any real access.
It is time, however, for a review of the PCI and the Editors Guild both set up to protect journalists, and both moving away from the task that was their responsibility. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said at the time, “If there is no responsibility and no obligation attached to it, freedom gradually whithers 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." India’s First Press Commission set up in 1954 had recommended the establishment of the Press Council to:
- safeguard the freedom of the press;
- ensure on the part of the Press the maintenance of high standards of public taste;
- foster due sense of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship;
- encourage the growth of sense of responsibility and public service among all those engaged in the profession of journalism.
Interestingly, under the Act of 1965 the chairperson of the PCI was to be nominated by the Chief Justice of India. This was diluted in 1970 with the chairperson and members to be nominated by the CJI, Lok Sabha Speaker and Rajya Sabha Chairman. In 1978 a fresh legislation removed the CJI from the nominating committee, replacing him with a person elected by the members of the Council themselves.
The Editors Guild of India was founded in 1978, the need for such a body being felt post Emergency when most of the media had caved in to government censorship. Senior editors like Kuldip Nayar were founding members, and the Guild took up the issue of press freedom on a national level. Over the years as Kuldip Nayar told this writer, “we started giving up on what we stood for, and the Guild stopped functioning.” Nayar who was jailed during the Emergency eventually stopped attending the meetings of the Guild that lost its zeal, and its initial determination to protect journalists and press freedom.
Senior editors find it difficult to get a statement out of the EGI with action delayed often to a point where it becomes meaningless. As in the PCI case now, when instead of taking the lead, this editors' body followed after the Council itself had shown signs of changing its position under pressure from members within and journalists outside.
By contrast the Press Club of India and the IWPC have been taking categorical positions for several years now on press freedom and rights, organising meetings and issuing statements, often together. The Press Association and the Delhi Union of Journalists are also in the forefront unhesitatingly. These bodies represent journalists per se, unlike the Editors Guild which boasts a membership of several hundred editors. The office bearers are nominated in barely attended general body meetings, and they in turn set up the executive committee.
It is sad over the years when attacks on journalists have increased, as have arrests and detentions, both the PCI and Editors Guild have been diluted to organisations doing little to uphold press freedoms. Kashmir is a case in point, where the Press Council first sought to intervene against the editor seeking press rights, and the EGI only issued a statement when all others had spoken.