JUSTICE KATJU – MEDIA DEBATE : Press freedom must be examined
As I have already mentioned, in this transitional age, the media should help our people move forward into the modern, scientific age. For this purpose the media should propagate rational and scientific ideas, but instead of doing so, a large section of our media propagates superstitions of various kinds. It is true that the intellectual level of the vast majority of Indians is very low — they are steeped in casteism, communalism and superstition. The question, however, is: Should the media try to lift up the intellectual level of our people by propagating rational and scientific ideas, or should it should go down to that low level and seek to perpetuate it? In Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment, the media (which was only the print medium at that time) sought to uplift the mental level of the people and change their mindset by propagating ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity and rational thinking. Voltaire attacked superstition and Dickens criticised the horrible conditions in jails, schools, orphanages, courts etc. Should not our media be doing the same?
At one time, courageous people like Raja Ram Mohun Roy wrote against sati, child marriage and the purdah system in his newspapers Miratul Akhbar and Sambad Kaumudi. Nikhil Chakravartty wrote about the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Munshi Premchand and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote against feudal practices and women’s oppression. Saadat Hasan Manto wrote about the horrors of Partition.
But what do we see in the media today?
Many TV channels show astrology-based programmes. Astrology is not to be confused with astronomy. While astronomy is a science, astrology is pure superstition and humbug. Even a little common sense can tell us that there is no rational connection between the movements of the stars and planets, and whether a person will die at the age of 50 or 80, or whether he will be a doctor or engineer or lawyer. No doubt most people in our country believe in astrology, but that is because their mental level is very low. The media should try to bring up that level, rather than to descend to it and perpetuate it. Many channels mention and show the place where a Hindu god was born, where he lived, etc. Is this is not spreading superstition?
I am not saying that there are no good journalists at all in the media. There are many excellent journalists. P. Sainath is one such, whose name should be written in letters of gold in the history of Indian journalism. Had it not been for his highlighting of farmers’ suicides in certain states, the story (which was suppressed for several years) may never have been told. But such good journalists are the exceptions. The majority consists of people who do not seem to have the desire to serve the public interest.
To remedy this defect in the media, I have done two things. First, I propose to have regular meetings with the media (including the electronic media) every two months or so. These will not be regular meetings of the entire Press Council, but informal get-togethers where we will discuss issues relating to the media and try to resolve them in a democratic way, that is, by discussion, consultation and dialogue. I believe 90 per cent of the problems can be resolved in this way. Second, in extreme cases, where a section of the media proves incorrigible despite trying the democratic method mentioned above, harsher measures may be required. In this connection, I have written to the prime minister requesting him to amend the Press Council Act by bringing the electronic media also under the purview of the Press Council (which may be renamed the Media Council) and by giving it more teeth — for example, the power to suspend government advertisements or in extreme cases, even the licence of the media houses for some time. As Goswami Tulsidas said: “Bin bhaya hot na preet.” This, however, will be resorted to only in extreme cases and after the democratic method has failed.
It may be objected that this is interfering with the freedom of the media. There is no freedom which is absolute. All freedoms are subject to reasonable restrictions, and are also coupled with responsibilities. In a democracy everyone is accountable to the people, and so is the media.
To sum up: The Indian media must now introspect and develop a sense of responsibility and maturity. That does not mean that it cannot be reformed. My belief is that 80 per cent of those who are doing the wrong thing can be made good people by patient persuasion, pointing out their errors and gently leading them to the honourable path which the print media in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment was following.
The writer is a former Supreme Court judge and chairman of the Press Council of India