Transition time

Print edition : September 01, 2001

An active, quite positive period in the history of the Press Council of India comes to an end with the retirement of Justice P.B. Sawant as its Chairman. But the debate on its scope and structure and, more important, its future, continues.

WILL the Press Council of India (PCI) remain in its present form or will it be expanded by bringing within its purview the electronic and other media? Will there be two watchdogs - one for the print media and one for the other media? Or will there be an all-inclusive media council? Will the autonomy of the Press Council be eroded? These are some of the questions that are now being debated in media circles. Adding an edge to the debate is a report on the future of the print media prepared by the Council under Justice (retd.) P.B. Sawant, who in August stepped down as its Chairman after completing two successive terms of three years each.

The report expresses concern over the trend of ignoring or suppressing news relating to people's real concerns. It says that many newspapers have no place for the real issues before the nation and the problems faced by the people. Among other issues raised are the "crass commercialisation" of the media, the indecent portrayal of women, the publication of opinion poll and exit poll findings, the glorification of criminals, the devaluation of the office of the Editor, and writings that cause hostility among different social groups. The report also makes some valuable suggestions. These include the setting up of a Third Press Commission (the Second Press Commission submitted its report in 1982), the forming of cooperatives of small newspapers, providing insurance cover for journalists in the context of increasing instances of attacks on the media, encouraging neighbourhood or community newspapers and the creation of companies run by journalists, and providing newsprint to small newspapers at comparatively cheap prices.

The report is a landmark in that it was accepted almost unanimously by the Council, which includes representatives of the managements of big and small newspapers and three organisations of working journalists. There were just two dissenting voices, and these were raised on the issue of contract labour in newspapers. The dissenting note says: "The report has regrettably given short shrift to an extremely crucial matter, that of contract journalists. The issue, which shall have a deep impact on the credibility of the print media in future, had been debated and discussed time and again in the Council." The dissenting note also says that the report has been unfair to the newspaper industry and its owners when it states that "all leading metropolitan newspapers have been converted into society gazettes". The note regrets that the report fails even to mention the harassment of journalists by the government and its agencies. In the past three years, it says, the Council has heard a number of complaints in this regard and, in some cases, indicted the agencies concerned. The note points out that the Council even ensured police protection to many journalists.

The report came as no surprise to observers of the media scene and the functioning of the Press Council during the six-year tenure of Sawant. In this period, the Council did make an impact although its powers are quite limited. Among other things, it succeeded in highlighting the plight of small newspapers, the problem of market forces transforming the character of the newspaper industry and the practice of employing journalists on contract, which was held to infringe on press freedom. A big newspaper chain was censured for having devalued the office of the Editor and for communal propaganda. The Council also debated the question of alternative forms of ownership coexisting with big newspapers. The defects in the structure of the Press Council were discussed and some corrections made. However, the Council continues with the system of drawing lots to nominate members in case there is no unanimity in choosing them - a system resented by bodies representing journalists. Such shortcomings notwithstanding, the Council's overall record in the past six years has been positive. In the face of heavy odds, it succeeded in retaining a fair degree of autonomy.

Significantly, one of the decisions Sawant took before stepping down was to constitute a five-member fact-finding committee with Hari Jai Singh, the Editor of The Tribune, Chandigarh, as convener to go into the complaints of attacks on the press in Tamil Nadu. In the Council's view the attacks prima facie amounted to undermining the freedom of the press. The team is expected to visit Chennai from August 31 to September 2.

OPINIONS vary on the question of expanding the scope of the Press Council. The matter is before the Parliamentary Consultative Committee attached to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It has been discussed by various journalists' organisations and the Editors' Guild. The Indian Journalists Union (IJU) is for the transformation of the Press Council into a media council that will have the electronic media also within in its purview. The Editors' Guild supports the idea of having separate bodies for the print and electronic media. The managements of some media organisations do not want a council at all. Some people in the business of broadcasting want a separate watchdog body as their functions are different from those in the print media. The Parliamentary Committee itself is reportedly divided on the issue, with one section suggesting that the Council should be headed by a retired Judge and another preferring a journalist.

What is intriguing, however, is the haste with which the idea of a media council was sought to be rushed through a few months ago. Also intriguing was the attempt by the Ministry to delay the constitution of a new Press Council by floating the idea of forming a media council and discussing it with a select few. There are reports that the notification with regard to the new Press Council would not have been issued but for the intervention of someone in the Prime Minister's Office. A draft proposal for a media council, which was prepared by Sawant in his personal capacity and submitted to the government over a year ago, was reportedly pulled out of the files after it became clear that some organisations close to the government might not get representation on the Council. There was pressure from some journalists' organisations and editors to prevent the notification.

That the Ministry attempted to delay the constitution of the new Press Council is clear from the letter written by Information and Broad- casting Minister Sushma Swaraj to Sawant. It says:

"I have given a hearing to the representative bodies of the various segments of the print media to elicit their views on the subject. Almost all the organisations consulted so far have expressed dissatisfaction with the present provision of draw of lots, and the fact that, at present, the Council is largely Delhi-based. There is a need to emphasise and ensure the all- India character of the Council. There also appears to be opinion in favour of greater parity in the representation between journalists and proprietors. Some organisations have also highlighted their apprehensions about the procedure for recognition/derecognition.

"I understand that the Council has already started the process of reconstituting the Press Council. Keeping in mind the misgivings expressed about the present procedure for nomination, you may consider placing issues relating to composition and procedure of nomination of members before the full Council at the earliest and before further progressing the process of inviting nominations. In case a consensus regarding changes emerges, the Council may also like to consider whether the process of nominating members to the PCI that has been initiated should be kept on hold until the changes agreed upon are carried through by necessary legislation/amendment in the rules/regulations."

The structure and scope of a watchdog body for the media can be a matter of debate. However, at a time when vested interests, Indian and foreign, are trying to make a foray into the Indian media scene, the need for such a body seems pressing.

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