Beyond sensationalism  

“The problem with the electronic media is all about TRPs, leading to more and more sensationalism, damage reputation of people and masquerade as form of right,” a 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court (SC) reportedly observed during the ongoing hearing on the broadcast of a news series on a private news channel.  

In one of the hearings on September 15, the bench also stayed broadcast of 5 subsequent episodes of the series stating that the "intent and purpose” of the programme was "rabid" vilification of a certain community. 

The observation came following concerns over the no-holds-barred and ethically questionable coverage of issues in electronic as well as digital media; a trend dangerously becoming the norm in recent years.

Most prime-time news channel broadcasting, in recent times, have become more  of a ‘shouting’ platform with agenda-driven debates, instead of informed deliberation on pertaining issues. The primary motive, accordingly, seems to be more on ‘entertainment’ value, not news per se, while debatable methods of reportage are employed.  

Against this backdrop, while espousing its commitment to free speech guaranteed by the constitution, the apex court expressed concerns on how some elements can go “from free speech to hatred” while reaffirming that it does not want to "come in the way of journalism" but has "constitutional duty to protect human dignity."

In its submission, the Solicitor General of India told the court that “freedom of the journalist is supreme and it would be disastrous for any democracy to control the press.”

According to a report by IANS news agency, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has informed the SC that if it is keen to begin an exercise to regulate media, then it should be the digital media instead of mainstream media, as the former has wider viewership and sufficient framework and judicial pronouncements concerning electronic media and print media exist.

However, the matter would not have reached the Bench if these existing mechanisms were effective.  The SC went as far as to say that these mechanisms seem to be “toothless” and “sought to know concrete steps to strengthen the mechanism of self-regulation in the media.” 

The matter is further complicated with the proliferation of digital media, often outside the ambit of any existing regulatory mechanism.

For instance, the Press Council Act, 1978 and subsequent formation of Press Council of India (PCI), as a watchdog for the media in “preserving the freedom of the Press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India”, has been quite effective tackling such issues in print media. 

 “If the Press is to function effectively as the watchdog of public interest, it must have a secure freedom of expression, unfettered and unhindered by any authority, organised bodies or individuals. But, this claim to press freedom has legitimacy only if it is exercised with a due sense of responsibility,” the then Chairman, Press Council of India Justice G.N. Ray noted in a preface to PCI’s “Norms of Journalistic Conduct.”

Among others, the PCI's norms prescribed detailed guidelines for privacy rights, trial by media, election reporting, communal disturbances, crime and health issues etc. 

However, one of the fundamental objectives of journalism - to serve the “people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate, unbiased, sober and decent manner" -  is evidently, being discarded in recent times. 

While  the SC's hearing on the issue continues, the ambit of existing self-mechanisms must be enhanced and expanded  to protect effectively uphold the freedom of the media and its obligations. More importantly, the regulation of digital media should not come at the cost of silencing independent and legitimate entities, questioning the narrative of the powers that be or the government apparatus.

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