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Whose freedom is it?

Print edition : Aug 29, 1998 T+T-

THE Press Council of India's (PCI) censure of The Times of India for its motivated campaign against the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) and the "strong objections" taken to this decision by the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), the association of newspaper publishers, have touched off an intense debate. The E.D. has been probing charges of violations of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) by Ashok Jain, the Chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd, which owns The Times of India.

A press release from the INS said that a resolution criticising the PCI was passed at a meeting of its executive committee in Aurangabad on August 11. It quoted INS president Vijay Darda as saying: "The Ashok Jain case has now become an unsavoury battle in a war against the freedom of the press... and the attempts by the Enforcement Directorate to take him into custody against the formal advice of even government doctors was an instance of malice and vindictiveness which has to be condemned by the whole newspaper industry." Curiously, the INS issued another press release a day later, in which it criticised Justice P.B. Sawant, the Chairman of the PCI, for his "hostile attitude towards the newspaper industry".

Among other things, the press release, claimed to be based on a resolution passed by the INS, took exception to Sawant's statement that newspapers should be run by cooperatives and that the contractual system of employment of journalists came under the purview of the PCI.

The release further says: "The INS also took strong objection to the decision of the Press Council to censure The Times of India for its series of articles on human rights on the ground that the complaint was not made by the E.D. and therefore should not have been entertained." It quoted Vijay Darda as saying that Sawant's statement relating to the communal bias in the articles published by The Times of India "betrayed an unfortunate bias".

According to C.R.Irani, Editor-in-Chief of The Statesman, attempts to get such a resolution passed by the INS were afoot from January this year when the Supreme Court rejected Ashok Jain's petition seeking anticipatory bail. Irani told Frontline that although there was no development since then other than that Jain managed to obtain bail, the matter was raised in the Aurangabad meeting and the resolution got passed without circulating a draft. According to Irani, Darda came to the meeting with a signed press release on the resolution. Not many publishers and owners appear to have attended the meeting, but The Times of India was represented by two of its executives, Ramesh Chandra and P.R. Krishnamoorthy.

The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) has described as unfortunate and uncalled for the outburst of the INS against the PCI and its Chairman.

The censure of The Times of India was in response to complaints from the DUJ, the Indian Journalists' Union (IJU), the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Ashok Mehta, a reader.The complainants said that The Times of India started a column, the Human Rights Watch, in January 1998 a day after the Supreme Court rejected Ashok Jain's petition for anticipatory bail. Mehta alleged that most of the articles and news items published by the newspaper against the E.D. were distorted or one-sided. On the Human Rights Watch column, the Press Council said: "It is difficult to believe that the respondent newspaper did not know its duty not to give adverse publicity to the E.D. in the case/cases where the Chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Company Ltd which runs the newspaper was himself under investigation. The PCI concluded that The Times of India had violated Norm 10 of the Norms of Journalistic Conduct, which said that "publication of news or comments/information on public officials conducting investigations should not have a tendency to help the commission of offences or to impede the prevention or detection of offences or prosecution of the guilty."

The PCI upheld the complaint that The Times of India had sought to give a communal colour to its campaign by publishing two reports from the leaders of the Jain and Tamil communities condemning the E.D.'s alleged high-handed handling of members of their respective communities.