Media Reforms: Time for a Lesson in Self-Discipline

By: Tarika Jain

In India, the freedom of speech and expression has been widened generously by the Indian judiciary and in turn, exploited relentlessly by the media. As a result, there is information and opinions galore via all forms of mass communication known to mankind. In order to prevent this powerful tool of media from running rogue in the country, various regulatory mechanisms have been put in place.

  • The Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 is the law applicable to broadcast media. However, a self-regulatory body called the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) scrutinizes news and current affairs channels. It has set up the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) to adjudicate complaints in relation to broadcast content on news channels.
  • For the non-news sector, the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) undertakes self-regulation within the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) that oversees channels other than those streaming news and current affairs.
  • Press Council of India is the statutory body constituted under The Press Council Act, 1978 which is responsible for ensuring that at all times the ethical compass of journalism continues to point north. In doing so, however, it cannot penalize any entity which is found to be in violation of its guidelines.
  • The Information Technology Act, 2000 was introduced to watch over the cyber activity so that no computer becomes the device for violation of rights of any citizen. Not long ago, the Supreme Court quashed Section 66A of this Act which penalized sending of ‘offensive’ messages online.

Therefore currently, the Indian media is mostly self-regulated. Having seen the overview of the present mechanism, the only concern is the direction in which the much-needed media reforms in the country should take. Should the existing self-regulatory mechanism be continued within essence and strengthened in practice or should it be completely replaced with an all-encompassing statutory body? This is one of those questions which was raised by the Law Commission of India in its Consultation Paper on Media Laws, released in May 2014, and which continues to be debated upon heavily.

Why is Better Self-Regulation Needed in the First Place?

It has been vehemently argued by the proponents of a statutory regulator that only rules and regulations formulated by the regulator, whose members may or may not be appointed by the government, can filter the content generated free of offensive and unethical material. On the other hand, the popular notion remains that such a mechanism is absolutely unacceptable for the world’s largest democracy; and so it remains with good measure, for compromising the autonomy of the media by creating a strong, statutory regulator would undoubtedly, culminate into restricting its freedom of speech and expression.

The problem with the existing self-regulatory mechanism, such as that of News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), is its inefficiency in taking cognizance of issues, let alone administering strong action against the offenders. Another contamination that seeps in is the conflict of interest which the media-owners face while acting in the capacity of a member of the self-regulatory body.

These deficiencies imply that there is plenty of scope for politics to mar the landscape of Indian media with practices such as that of paid news which diminishes media credibility in the eyes of the public with each passing day. Clearly, India needs to be reminded of the childhood lesson which the Supreme Court of USA reiterated recently – with great power comes great responsibility.  

How Can These Ideas Transform Into Action?

One thing is certain. Within this self-regulatory mechanism, there is an ardent need for penalizing offenders severely in order to deter any malpractices and clean the blotch on media’s reputation.

For this, a two-tier mechanism can be created wherein the first tier provides for relief to the offended from within the media organization. The concerned organization can have the discretion to design the procedure for this purpose, which would be the same for every person – be it an ombudsman or a readers’ editor or a public editor. The second tier would act as a stricter national disciplinarian with provisions for imposing hefty punishments on the person found to be guilty. This would be in consonance with the recommendation given by Lord Justice Leveson in 2012 in the wake of the phone messages scandal in the U.K. This could be a meta-body which would supervise all genres of media.

It is understandable that regulation of social media is a daunting task for media houses as well as the government. There is a fine line between intervention which can be justified and intervention which amounts to tyranny in the name of public interest. For these reasons, extreme care would be needed while effecting reforms in this particular sector.

Finally, provisions advocating arbitration should be introduced in order to facilitate easier and cost-effective dispute resolution mechanism as it would be beneficial for both the common man and the organization.

Lord Justice Leveson hoped for achieving an independent, credible, open and transparent media in the U.K. with his suggested reforms. In India too there is an outcry for reliable sources of information. Even as it provides for the checks and balances of the government, it is imperative that media regularly goes soul searching and engages in self-discipline.

(Tarika is a student at Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar.)