(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
August 23, 2009
A Need for a Dignified
and Secure New Media Order
AMONG the dangerous trends witnessed during the recent general elections was the 'money for news' syndrome, rampant in sections of the media in many parts of the country. Earlier, we witnessed the 'paid advertorials' which also evoked concern but at least they were delineated from the news through boxes or other such mechanisms. This time, shockingly, money was sought and paid for covering meetings, or for writing on the electoral prospects of candidates! While parties flush with funds found no problem with this, many other parties/journalist bodies expressed serious concerns. This phenomenon raises serious issues of journalistic ethics and independence.
A national convention of journalists is being organised by the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) in mid-September in Delhi to discuss the state of media, including this issue. The problems facing the profession, including the declining standards of journalism would also be spotlighted. A ten-point charter has already been approved by the body (see box).
The DUJ in its Independence Day declaration adopted at a meeting on August 7, 2009 called for a dignified and secure new media order, establishment of a Media Council to replace the present Press Council, amendment to the Working Journalists Act and an autonomous Media Commission to look into all aspects of the media.
The declaration welcomes the increasing unity among journalists’ bodies, particularly the recent Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) initiative for a broad united front of journalists. It called for a more dignified and secure New Media Information Order which cannot be attained immediately but through more and more unity. While calling for setting up of a Newspaper Development Corporation to aid the small and medium newspapers, it expressed grave concern at all attempts to increase foreign equity participation in Indian media houses, which will kill the small and medium newspapers.
The declaration called for a united struggle for a more ‘dignified and secure New Media Information Order’ if not an alternative information order to save journalism. “The right to know cannot be reduced to a docile right. It is of paramount importance that journalists function in an atmosphere free from the fear of job security and physical intimidation”, the declaration noted.
The seminar meeting on August 7 was jointly organised by the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) and the Delhi Media Centre for Research and Publications (DMCRP) with eminent journalists and media personalities. The speakers made a scathing attack against the growing influence of money power on the media in the country, glaringly visible during the Elections 2009.
Setting the tone for the seminar on 'Money-Media Nexus in Elections 2009', S Nihal Singh, eminent journalist, former editor of The Statesman, The Indian Express and several other newspapers and known for his media expertise in bringing the Press Institute of India into focus, stated that ‘it is an accepted fact that money power has come to play an increasing role in the democratic elections in India as in the United States. With the advances and reach of technology and the visual medium becoming increasingly important in reaching out to the electorate, the role of money has grown exponentially. It has reached astronomical proportions in US presidential elections, but India is not far behind in the kind of money that is used to woo voters in general elections.’
The former editor, who initiated the discussion, said it was time for the media to introspect as instances are galore of newspapers allowing news coverage to be influenced by money power. “To sell editorial space for money is a travesty of all that journalism stands for,” Singh opined. Expressing his happiness over the Press Council of India looking into the matter, he said the need of the hour was to promote healthy journalism and failure to do so would spell the end of democracy itself.
Suggesting the launch of a mass campaign against the menace of media yielding to money power, Prabhash Joshi, veteran journalist and former editor of Hindi daily Jansatta mooted the setting up of a “Media Ka Lok Nigrani Abhiyan” (Public Vigilance Campaign on Media). Joshi went to the extent of suggesting that it should be made obligatory for all newspapers to carry a statement detailing the contents of the news reports and who has sponsored them. Like tobacco products which carry a statutory warning, newspapers should also carry a similar warning as such tainted news can be equally injurious to public health, said Joshi.
A note sent to the seminar by Press Council of India member Sheetla Singh of Faizabad opposed crass commercialisation of the press and suggested an end to the grip of big business houses on newspapers. Stressing the paramount need to fight the pernicious trend, Santosh Bhartiya, journalist and activist, advocated a reader boycott of such newspapers which sell themselves for a consideration alongside a mass campaign.
Veteran journalist and activist Kuldip Nayyar made a strong pitch for a Media Commission and opposed the entry of foreign media. The information and broadcasting minister’s contention that increasing foreign equity in the media would result in more jobs being created is wrong, he asserted.
In a paper sent from Andhra by Professor Sridhar Madabhushi, it was stated that ‘opinion rigging in media is worse than ballot rigging in polling booths. Freedom of expression should not become ante-thesis of a free and fair election, where the people exercise their expression right. In the election just concluded, the media in Andhra Pradesh was involved in most unethical 'news selling' activity irrespective of the newspaper's known lenience towards a political party. It was not even news selling, but misrepresentation to voters for a pecuniary consideration. Journalists' organisations criticised this as blatant abuse of freedom of speech and expression to camouflage advertisement as news. Those who indulged in this practice violated norms under Indian Penal Code, Income Tax Act, and Representation of People Act, 1951.
In an introductory paper S K Pande, DUJ president, warned that media embarking on manufacturing consent for elites was dangerous for our democracy. As per reports received from Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, UP and few more states which are expected later, the pattern of this phenomenon varied. In some cases it was politicians bribing the media while in some other it was the media demanding bribe. He called for immediate setting up of a Media Commission on the lines of the earlier press commissions.
A team of women media persons from Andhra Pradesh shared their observations of this phenomenon in their state. They termed it as a subterfuge of selling news space in the guise of news coverage of candidates. Not only did the newspapers indulge in unprofessional, immoral and unethical practice but also cheated the readers and misrepresented the situation regarding the prospects of candidates on the ground. While the candidates circumvented the expenditure limit imposed by the Election Commission, the newspapers committed a financial offence by not accounting for the revenue accrued from these practices.
Leading analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who is part of a two member committee set up by the Press Council of India to look into this issue, said in the run-up to the recent Lok Sabha elections, complaints have been received from DUJ, Andhra Union of Journalists and others about journalists and newspapers writing in favour of or against political parties and candidates for a consideration. There is some documentary evidence of the nefarious nexus between politics and media, he said, adding that is why the PCI felt it necessary to set up a committee to probe the issue. He expressed his inability to say more on this issue as he is part of the committee.
Prabhakar of the Centre for Media Studies gave statistics to prove that there was definite influence of money power on the elections and media coverage.
The speakers decried the decline of journalism, the increasing entry of smut and called for a countrywide introspection. They also expressed deep concern over the virtual blackout of debate and discussion on this issue in the media itself.
The following ten-point charter was released as a draft for discussion among wider sections of journalists in the interest of greater unity.
1) A Newspaper and News Agency Development Corporation for the small and medium newspapers, journals focussing on development issues, literary journals and alternative media serving as watchdogs of society on meagre budgets. The Indian language press should be encouraged without discrimination.
2) The Prasar Bharti should be made more autonomous and community radio encouraged.
3) A firm commitment should be made for setting up a Media Council in place of the present Press Council to cover the entire spectrum of media. It should be more empowered than the Press Council.
4) An autonomous Central Media Commission on the lines of the First and Second Press Commission to look into all aspects of the media after globalisation must immediately be set up. This period has created a few ‘have mores’ and ‘grab mores’ even while the majority of scribes and press workers are struggling to meet their ends.
5) Checks on cross media ownership are needed to prevent the growth of media monopolies and steps to end the entry of foreign direct investment in all categories of media are a necessity.
6) Taking into account sponsored bail out packages by the central government for big monopoly press and select owners, as seen even in DAVP advertisements recently, a genuine bail out stimulus package for the workers, journalist and non journalists affected by globalisation is the need of the hour.
7) The outmoded Working Journalists Act 1955, should be immediately amended by an Act of parliament to ensure fair wages for all those employed in the entire spectrum of media and to make non-implementation of wage boards a cognizable offence. There should be a permanent wage fixation machinery.
8) Social security measures for journalists and press workers, some of which have been arbitrarily withdrawn by various governments, need to be restored while a risk insurance cover has become a necessity along with a pension scheme.
9) There should be a functional machinery at the centre and in all states to deal with the increasing unfair labour practices, contracts of bondage and encroachments on the freedom of the press.
10) An immediate bail out package be implemented in the case of United News of India (UNI) to save the premier news agency from collapse while persons play ducks and drakes with the company’s finances and properties.