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‘Press Council Letter on J&K is Undemocratic, Disgraceful’: N Ram

N Ram, chairman, The Hindu Publishing Group, calls PCI’s letter a ‘dystopian’ vision of media freedom in India.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of The Hindu Publishing Group’s Chairman, N Ram, used for representational purposes.
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(As told to Nishtha Gautam)

It is disgraceful what the Chairperson of the Press Council of India, Justice (retired) CK Prasad, has said about the communication restrictions in Kashmir. We have a dystopian Press Council, it appears. It is unfortunate that the same body, which was abolished during the Emergency, has come up with something as outrageous as this. Clearly, it is the lowest point that the PCI could stoop to.

Listen to the unedited conversation between Nishtha Gautam and N Ram here:

This is not to say that the Press Council has not done any good work in the past. I had received the 2018 Raja Ram Mohan Roy award, instituted by the Press Council. Arun Jaitley presented me that award.

The PCI pulled up the large sections of the Hindi press for its coverage of the Ram janmabhoomi issue in UP. This was a good contribution, and it looked into the details of the case.
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Why the Press Council of India is Important

The Press Council of India is a quasi-judicial and autonomous body with two clear mandates:

  1. to protect the freedom of the press and the journalists
  2. to monitor the ethics and maintain high standards of journalism

Although it is often seen as ‘toothless’, the PCI has blown the whistle on malpractices in the past. Sometimes it has exceeded the brief by sending poorly informed show-cause notices to journalists and newspapers. At other times, however, such notices were justified.

The PCI has the powers of a civil court, asking people to appear before it. But you are under no obligation to implement any of it. It’s a statutory body with some, we hope, moral authority. Its mandates are worthwhile because we do need some checks on unethical practices, and we do need protection for the press. On Punjab, it took a good stand during the years of militancy in the 1990s.

Normally, an independent ombudsman-like body would have independent members, free of both the industry and the government.

The PCI also pulled up the large sections of the Hindi press for its coverage of the Ram janmabhoomi issue in Uttar Pradesh. Both the majority and the minority reports had turned into the utterances of the karsevaks. This was a good contribution, and it looked into the details of the case.

On paid news, too, something significant was done. Although, it was a minority report that named names and blew the whistle on outright corruption in media. We know that in media there is a lot of protection for the delinquent. One of the first things that Justice Markandey Katju did as the Chairperson of the PCI, and he should be given credit for it, was to put that minority report on the website. It got wider circulation thereafter.

Flawed Structure Allows Misdemeanours

The PCI has some worthwhile interventions to its credit. However, its structure is not suited to the present times. If you look at the composition of the PCI, it’s packed with people who should not be there. It’s a completely wrong concept. On the one hand ,it seems it’s packed with the industry people, but there are MPs, other officials, and a retired judge is the chair.

Normally, an independent ombudsman-like body would have independent members, free of both the industry and the government. The same idea was floated in the UK in the Leveson report, although it was not implemented.

Obviously, some elements in the council are trying to curry favour with those who have made decisions for Kashmir. I hope the working journalists and editors have not gone along with this.

The members of the PCI can’t be removed at whim; they can issue a statement condemning this.
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Undemocratic, Arbitrary & Unconstitutional

I can’t vouch for every detail, but nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the PCI. The fact that Indira Gandhi’s government had the press council abolished in the Emergency days, is some kind of a tribute to its potential. The Press Council was seen as a fetter, an unnecessary restriction on Emergency powers.

It’s a dystopian vision of media freedom in India, because the PCI Chairman says that communication restrictions (in J&K) are in the interest of the “integrity and sovereignty” of the nation.

This letter is undemocratic and arbitrary. Such decisions are not for only the Chairman to make. You can question even the very legitimacy of this position taken by the Press Council, because this is not the position of the council as a whole. This is the position of an individual.

I don’t think that it could have been a democratically arrived-at decision of the PCI. The members of the PCI can’t be removed at whim; they can issue a statement condemning this. Even if they are in a minority, they can still express their opinion. Three members of the Press Council of India have criticised the Chairperson’s “blatant violation of the Council rules”; more can follow suit.

It’s a dystopian vision of media freedom in India, because the Chairman says that communication restrictions are in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation. This is blatantly unconstitutional. Article 19(2) of the Constitution allows the government to impose, by law, reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech and expression.

If this is the standard, any censorship act can be justified in the name of “integrity and the sovereignty of the nation”. It is worse than a bogey. It’s disgraceful to use the Press Council in such a way.

(N Ram is Chairman, The Hindu Publishing Group. He tweets at @nramind. Views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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