(This article was first published on 14 September 2017 and is being republished given the ongoing debate around media regulation.)
The National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) ordered Zee News to pay a fine for calling poet Gauhar Raza an “Afzal-premi” and ordered the channel to issue a televised apology. Zee News did neither. The NBSA could do nothing about it.
The farce that is self-regulation in the media has been exposed yet again. Is it time India takes another look at the manner and functioning of self-regulatory bodies like the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association?
When Zee News Handed Out Certificates of Afzal-Prem
In March 2016, as part of its primetime coverage, Zee News chose to term eminent poet and scientist Gauhar Raza as an “Afzal-premi” or an admirer of convicted terrorist Afzal Guru.
A year and a half later, the National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), a self-regulatory body for electronic media, ordered Zee News to issue a televised apology, cough up a fine of Rs 1 lakh and remove all online links to the show ‘Afzal Premi Gang ka Mushaira’.
Gauhar Raza welcomed the NBSA’s decision, calling it a historic order.
The NBSA order restores our faith in democratic institutions, and in some sense, in our democracy.Gauhar Raza
Zee News was ordered to air the apology at 9 pm on 8 September, on full screen in large font size with a clearly audible voice-over (in slow speed) expressing regret for their telecast.
Yet, when the time came, programming continued just as usual on the channel. Zee News flatly disregarded the NBSA order.
Zee News had responded to the 31 August order saying that the programming was within the realm of fair comment. It also added that its show was “true and factually correct” and said, “it would be unfair to be punished for speaking the truth."
Zee's Defiance, NBSA's Silence
We asked Annie Joseph, Secretary General of the NBSA, about how Zee News could get away without making the apology and what the NBSA planned to do about it. Joseph was surprisingly curt in her response,
This is an internal issue. We will not discuss this with the media.
We asked Joseph why the NBSA had decided to not speak to the media about an issue that concerns it. She merely repeated her refusal.
So what can the NBSA do about it? Truth be told, nothing. And this isn’t even the first time that TV channels have refused to comply with NBSA orders.
When India TV Walked Out...
In April 2009, NBSA delivered its first ever order since becoming operational in October 2008. It slapped a fine of Rs 1 lakh on the Hindi news channel India TV for a story it ran on Farhana Ali, a lecturer and policy analyst residing in the United States. Ali’s interview to the news agency Reuters was dubbed by India TV in Hindi and aired, giving the false impression that it was given to the channel. The show also referred to Ali as a spy of the US government in the telecast.
Did Rajat Sharma’s India TV pay the fine?
No, it didn’t. Instead, India TV chose to express its displeasure by walking out of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), the parent body of the NBSA.
Three months later, India TV was persuaded to return to the NBA fold, “after continuous back-channel work by various NBA board members”. Rajat Sharma went on to join the NBA Board himself and has even served as its President in the years since.
What is worth noting is that this was the first ever NBSA order, and it was flouted with impunity. Eight years later, has anything changed?
Paid News and a Press Council Cover-Up
Problems with regulation are not exclusive to TV channels. The Press Council of India (PCI), which monitors the print media, has not covered itself in glory either. In 2010, in one of its most controversial decisions, the PCI buried its own report on paid news.
Following widespread allegations of paid news during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, in which reportedly hundreds of crores of rupees had been spent to buy “news” in large dailies and television channels, the Press Council of India had acted suo motu and appointed a two-member subcommittee to probe the issue of paid news.
The subcommittee comprised journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Srinivas Reddy, who duly submitted a detailed report which named and shamed the perpetrators of “paid news”.
The 36,000-word report was titled ‘Paid News: How Corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Democracy’.
As P Sainath wrote in The Hindu, “The report did not carry a single allegation without full attribution. It took no recourse to “sting” journalism, going for a thorough inquiry instead. It spared no effort to obtain the responses of the groups accused of playing the paid news game. Laying the charges squarely before them, it gave them ample right of – and space to – reply. It recorded depositions from scores of individuals.”
Yet in April 2010, the Press Council of India first “deferred” the release of the report, and then referred it to a larger group of Council members who were to decide on how it should be presented because "some council members argued that it would destroy the publishers' credibility and hurt their long-term interest".
Three months later, on 30 July 2010, the PCI came out with a completely watered down version of the report. The original report had explicitly named newspapers and channels – including some of the biggest names in the media – as having indulged in the practice of “paid news”. The new report had no specifics whatsoever.
Reporting on the issue, Outlook Magazine observed:
The original report was reduced to a mere footnote (“The Council decided that the report of the Sub-Committee may remain on record of the Council as reference document”).
This "reference document", which traces the emergence of the paid news phenomenon over years and phases was – despite many of the PCI members in the meeting on 30 July insisting on it – not even annexed to the "final report". It is not available even for "reference" on the PCI’s website.
The Hindu referred to the Press Council’s decision to sideline its own sub-committee's report on paid news as “one of the sorriest chapters in its history.”
In 2011 however, the Central Information Commission ordered the Press Council to publish the entire report on its website. With its hands forced, the PCI had no option but to put the report out in the public domain.
'Self-Regulation a Complete Failure'
Self-regulation by the media has been a complete failure. The media must either get their act together or watch as the situation goes from bad to worse.P Sainath, Veteran Journalist
Sainath, a Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning journalist with more than three decades of experience, slammed the ineffectiveness of the regulatory bodies. “Both the Press Council of India (for print publications) and the NBSA (for TV channels) are toothless bodies ridden with conflicts of interest.”
“Look at the Leveson report on media regulation in the United Kingdom – it recommended that the watchdog or regulatory body should be free of any influence from industry and government. Our regulatory bodies don’t pass that parameter. Editors sitting on these bodies merely represent the causes of their media houses and corporations.”
The Way Forward?
So where does the solution lie?
Sainath responds, “First things first, a regulatory body needs to be given statutory powers. It is time India brings into existence a legislatively set up Media Commission, by an Act of Parliament – an independent, regulatory body that has the power to implement decisions.”
But won’t a regulatory body set up by Parliament run the risk of being vulnerable to political pressures?
Veteran journalist and former Press Council of India member Paranjoy Guha Thakurta does not think that is necessarily true. “We have constitutional authorities such as the Election Commission (EC) and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) which function with autonomy and independence. We need a similar body for media regulation.”
Guha Thakurta adds, “Look, the Press Council has no powers to punish. It may be a quasi-judicial body set up by an Act of Parliament but it can’t even levy a fine. To call the PCI a toothless tiger would be to compliment it. I’m not asking for government control on the media or heavy-handed governmental regulation, but instead for a constitutional authority that functions independently and has punitive powers. There are models for the same across the world including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States and Ofcom in the United Kingdom.”
The Fear of External Regulation
Nidhi Razdan, Executive Editor at NDTV, cautions against an external regulatory body. “We don’t want external regulation. If such a body is set up, we don’t know what biases may come into its functioning. Instead, legally enforceable self-regulation is what is required. Self-regulatory bodies should be vested with statutory powers. For example, punishments handed out by the NBSA should be made legally enforceable and the only way to appeal against them should be by going to court.”
Razdan adds, “Currently, the problem is that punishments are not respected. Even the PCI can only exert moral pressure. But it will take more than that to fix the mess.”
Digital Media: In No Regulator's Land?
The Press Council’s jurisdiction extends only to the print media, the NBSA’s only to TV channels that are part of the News Broadcasters Association. So where does that leave the digital media?
“In no man’s land”, answers Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.
The debate about whether external regulation would work better than self-regulation will go on.
Yet, if there’s consensus about anything, it is that the status quo is not a nice place to be. Ineffective self-regulatory bodies who are disrespected and disobeyed at will by errant media houses have shown us that media regulation exists more on paper than in reality.
It’s time India takes a long, hard look at the mess that passes for media regulation today – and comes up with ways to fix it.
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