An accountable media – The need of the hour

corruption-media  During the last 60 years of Indian Democracy lakhs of corrupt people have been exposed. Corrupt politicians, police officers, social workers, administrative officers, lawyers, accountants and others from all segments of the society have been caught and punished. But there is one profession where corruption has gone unnoticed and unchecked for decades. I am talking about the most trusted and the blindly followed “Media.” I am talking about the newspaper you read every morning, the news channel you watch every day and the news magazines you read week after week.

Have you ever heard a corrupt newspaper been brought to the books or a corrupt journalist being punished for corruption in India? I am sure no and if the present trend continues, you will never hear such news.

It is not that journalists are like saints and don’t indulge in corrupt activities; on the contrary there is a very high level of corruption in the media.

Commonest form of corruption is safeguarding (at all costs) every form of interest of a large advertiser or a major patron. Carrying paid articles and paid misinformation campaigns in the cloak of news is another version of it. Taking care to be politically correct and not upsetting ones allies (even if they are known criminals) is another form. Direct blackmailing and collection of money (and accepting advertisements) to hide facts of public importance is also very common.

Media organizations also indulge in other common forms of corrupt practices and include such basic things as not paying the employees even the minimum wages in defiance of the laws though on the face of it they talk of raising issues of inequality in the society. Many media organizations resell the lands and equipments which they get at subsidized rates and many journalists are too eager to cover favourable stories of politicians and others in return for foreign trips, a plot at special rates, rewards, awards, etc.

Many of the journalists are providing us with wrong news, presenting us false information, pushing totally incorrect and twisted facts and poisoning our minds in a subtle but sure way for years. Why? Most of the times, it is just to serve someone’s commercial or political interest. So that someone may be able to make more money, many of the for-sale media people willingly become a party to rape the psyche of millions. Deliberately misinforming, misquoting and belittling even important facts are a trifle concern for many media people. Dare I say any such news item is not at all a concern for most if they perceive that no one is expected to serve them with a legal notice for that particular news item? Creating sensation with irresponsible and factually incorrect stories is a fast catching trend in the 21st century competitive world.

Now we have reached a stage where many newspapers quite gallantly and frequently misquotes even scientific studies, misquotes international agreements, mix facts with fiction and opinions to serve commercial interests, willingly hide the facts, happily spread superstitions, are ever ready to create communal and ethnic bias, most irresponsibly label anyone as anti-social and willingly give judgments despite having no such powers or even without any understanding of the matter-in-hand. All this goes unaccounted and unchecked in the name of a “Free Press.”

Unfortunately we have no one who can put a check on corrupt media. The politicians, social sector, police, administration, etc. are all too corrupt to act. Most fear exposure if they speak and some fear a boycott by the media and a severe backlash. Moreover there are no effective laws to deal with corruption in the media.

But in the name of freedom of speech and expression does the medium also have a right to spread misinformation and biases. Will the corruption of the media be never punished? Should media continue to enjoy unfettered powers without any responsibility? Do you have any rights as a consumer of a newspaper or a media channel?

While the search for answers can go on; isn’t it of urgent importance that the media be made at least a little bit more accountable in the meantime. The media should at the least be expected to provide sources for their quotes on scientific studies, legal records, international agreements and the basic facts in the premise of their stories. Just like the right to information act, shouldn’t a person have the power to question the source of facts in the media? I again say “FACTS,” lest it be misunderstood that I am advocating the exposure of the NEWS source, which is a statutorily protected right.

I do not suggest that the journalists be divested of the right to keep the source of their investigative stories secret. It is of course necessary for a free press but if a journalist tries to become a cancer experts and writes, “eating tomatoes may cause cancers” or writes as a public health expert that “passive smoking is not harmful” or prescribes “Schedule H” drugs for fighting alcoholics hangover and prescribes some brands of alcoholic drinks too promising that they may cause no hangovers or writes essay on an international theme but omits to mention a presently enforceable international treaty or writes on a public policy touching scientific questions but deliberately omits to mention the actual scientific facts or writes about a legal case but twist the words to distort the meaning of the quoted portion; then he/she must be made answerable to the public and the law. I for sure would like to have answers from the newspapers for such a conduct.

The second important issue which must be given immediate statutory colour is the right to respond through the same media when any news item is found to be incorrect or is in the form of the opinion of the editor or any other writer. Many times the editor and other writer, who have little understanding of even complex issues or out of some commercial or other personal interests use the news media to further their agenda or propagate their ignorant views to the masses. The experts or other people who are better aware of such matters must have a right to respond and get published in the same newspaper with the same quantity and quality of space (and not as a 50 word response in an insignificant letter to editor column, for a 2000 word article). This right has been recognised by the Supreme Court of India in the landmark case of Prof. Manubhai Shah (LIC vs. Manubhai D. Shah, (1992) 3 SCC 637) and also in the Indira Jaisingh’s case against Bombay TV station. But unfortunately every time one wants to exercise this right one can’t approach the court, especially for issues concerning public interest.

Just because someone has a better control over the media should not mean that the person also has the right to spread ignorance, superstitions, tinted opinions and false information among the masses. All such nefarious activities must be strongly countered and for this the journalist and the newspapers must be made accountable. The structure of the press council also requires an urgent change; it needs to be made a much stronger and independent body with more teeth’s and power.

While the other methods of controlling the corruption in media can be worked out and may take some time but in the meanwhile, these two privileges, that of making the press answerable about the quoted or omitted facts and the statutory right of the experts/readers to respond to biased opinions and twisted facts with equal vigour are most urgent requirements.

Yours
Hemant Goswami

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