In a rare show of cross-party unity, Karnataka’s legislators came together on Wednesday to demand that they should be given ‘protection’ from the ‘sensationalist’ media in the state.
Exerting pressure on Speaker KB Koliwad, the legislators managed to secure the formation of a House Committee, which will reportedly be constituted in two days. The Committee will submit its report on measures to regulate the media in the state 15 days hence.
The vehemence and unity of the legislators in their demand, however, have taken senior members of the media by surprise. As Ravi Hegde, Editor-in-Chief, Kannada Prabha, points out, there have been no immediate incidents that could have driven the MLAs’ demand.
“It’s not as if yesterday or day before, there were reports on any television channel or newspaper attacking MLAs or making it difficult for them to work. Suddenly they brought up all the old issues, one-year-old issues, six-month-old issues. The way they have brought these together, it looks like a planned campaign against media,” he says.
And it’s not as if there’s a paucity of laws regarding the media in the country, points out Hameed Palya, Editor-in-Chief, Raj News Kannada.
There are regulatory and government bodies like the Press Council of India and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, observes Hameed, and says that politicians who have been wronged by the media can approach the courts, too.
“The stories that we broadcast, we could not have done them if there was no truth in them. We are not above the law. If we do a false story against someone, or say defamatory things about them, you can question that in a court of law," he notes.
Of course, at issue is the question of press freedom. As editors point out, the freedom of the press, the freedom to raise questions against the government of the day, is one of the most sacred elements of democracy. As Hameed observes, this is crucial since the balance of power is already weighted against journalists.
“Now, the legislators have a lot of protections. But we, who are called the Fourth Estate, what protection is there for us? We work without any social or economic protection. We don’t even have any job security,” he says.
What's most distressing about legislators’ claims regarding the misuse of press freedom, observers allege, is that it is the legislators who often induce the media towards such situations.
Sunil Rajshekhar, CEO of the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation, says that in many cases, politicians themselves use the media.
“They use and misuse the media. Whatever leaks that come in, the charges that come in, whether they are defamatory and all, the media doesn’t make them up. It is their counterparts on the other side of the table, other parties, who would make these charges. And they go to the media with all these handouts and so on," he says.
In that sense, says Sunil, politicians do not have a moral high ground to ask for external regulation of the media. From a practical point of view, he adds that there are enough legal provisions in place, and one more regulation cannot solve the legislators’ problems. “Maybe they can talk to media companies. But there can’t be any control. There can be some kind of discussion happening.”
Even as senior mediapersons balk at the prospect of external controls, however, they agree that there is an urgent need for self-regulation in the Kannada media space. Ravi, for instance, says that 24/7 television channels, are relatively new entrants into the media space (just over 10 years old in the Kannada language) and have been facing intense competition even before they have had time to evolve into mature organisations.
“Due to the high level of competition, there are some practices which are not in tune with journalistic ethics,” admits Ravi, adding that the intense competition has also meant that the younger members of the industry have risen up the ranks too rapidly, before developing the professional maturity needed for higher editorial positions. In such a context, he says, there is an urgent need for media houses to come together and evolve a coherent set of dos and don’ts for all their employees.
“One channel or one media house cannot implement these things. If there is some news that we know is going to catch public attention, but it is not in good taste, it won’t work if only one channel blocks it. All channels should do that. Otherwise unhealthy competition will begin,” says Ravi.
Sunil points out that this task is all the more urgent considering that Kannada channels suffer a lack of credibility among the public, too.
“If you talk to the general public, media credibility is at a low today. And when media credibility is at a low, and people don’t know which channel to believe, it’s important that they come together and come about to some sense of rational coverage.”
However, as Ravi points out, this problem can’t be solved by external regulations which will either be so strong as to gag the media or will fail to set adequate controls for media houses.
“Effectiveness comes from the commitment of the channel itself or the media people themselves. There are hundreds of rules and laws in the country, in spite of that crimes happen because the implementation is bad. Even if we make another Press Council of Karnataka, and the implementation of that is bad, that’s of no use. And if that regulating body is occupied by politicians, then it would be a media gag,” says Ravi.