UPA tenure sees surge in attempts on media curbs

15 May,2012

By A Correspondent

 

Last month, Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan, reportedly close to Rahul Gandhi, the party’s general secretary, proposed a legislation that sought to regulate the media. The private member’s bill, subsequently disowned by the ruling Congress after uproar, sought to empower the government to ban coverage of an event that may pose a threat to national security. The bill also prescribes detailed ‘standards’ that the media should follow.

 

Late last year, communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal famously sought to regulate the social media. The itch to regulate the media is not new but ever since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) returned to power in 2009, attempts to do so have become alarmingly frequent.

 

“The problem started when media organisations across the country began reporting on political issues aggressively,” said IBN7 managing editor Ashutosh. This was in late 2009 and 2010, when a series of scams were exposed by different sections of the media, including the alleged 2G spectrum scam in which former minister A Raja and a clutch of bureaucrats and industrialists are on trial.

 

When questioned, political parties and media groups across the board agree that the government should stay away from media regulation, but that has not stopped the government from trying at various levels.

 

During the time Anna Hazare’s campaign was gathering steam last year, there were reports of impending curbs on the social media, which was being used to garner support by the Anna camp. “At some stage we were told that the mainstream media was instructed not to report on the Anna Hazare campaign,” said former top-cop Kiran Bedi, who is also a member of India Against Corruption. “People voice their opinions through the media and the moment government gags that, you are abusing people’s vote,” she added. However, no such curbs were eventually imposed.

 

For a country that prides itself on its status as the world’s largest democracy, the years under the UPA government, which came to power in 2004, have seen an alarming slippage in press freedom. This is ironical, political observers say, as the Congress-led UPA had benefited from the media’s aggressive exposure of scams during the NDA era. The media’s extensive, and overwhelmingly negative coverage of the Gujarat riots had also helped turn public opinion.

 

The 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders shows that India has dropped on the index from the 80th position held in 2002 to the 131st position in 2011-12 among 179 countries.

 

“There is a complete absence of confidence and lot of insecurity among the elected representatives today, which is adding to the problem,” said Abraham Koshy, professor of marketing at IIM, Ahmedabad.

 

In recent years, a number of politicians have invested in media businesses across the country, which some say, is another way to restrict the media.

 

“The politician-corporate nexus too has grown further over the years and that is also impacting freedom of the media as some of these corporate own parts of the media. The government should not try to impose restrictions on the media,” said Nilotpal Basu, central committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

 

There is a school of thought that politicians and political parties should not be allowed to own media companies under the law as that could lead to media being used as a tool for propaganda.

 

“TV channels and newspapers are watchdogs of the government but if they are owned by the politicians themselves, there is a conflict of interest and that is what should be regulated,” said an editor of a news channel, who did not wish to be named. “We must sit down and discuss these issues,” said Vinod Mehta, former editor-in-chief of Outlook India. While most of those quoted in this story are also concerned about the quality of reporting in the country, which needs to be improved, most prefer self-regulation.

 

Mr Ashutosh said: “Self-regulation within the media is working. Media needs to improve the same way the functioning of the Parliament, the judiciary and the executive need to improve in the country.”

 

Ms Bedi said the media needs to be more independent and non-partisan but it is a fact that “media plays the roles of a visual and verbal Lokpal. Without media exposing the scams, India would have been a Banana Republic.”

 

Source: The Economic Times
Copyright © 2012, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved

 

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