Regulating media in today's world

The ways in which people connect, discuss, debate, argue and express have undergone fundamental changes in terms of speed, ease of access, time zones and geographic distances. But laws and regulations have not kept pace with these changes. As a consequence, enforcement authorities, politicians and autocratic regimes are trying new methods of censorship and experimenting with novel measures of curbing freedom of expression and assembly.

Today, a single individual has the power of starting a blog to express his or her opinion and make it accessible to millions. Tweets are followed by thousands of people almost in real time across the world. Social media like Facebook enables an individual to caricature or lampoon a politician or post scurrilous material on video-sharing sites with the ease and speed unimaginable only a few years ago.

Yesterday, the autocratic reg­i­mes seized printing presses and banned newspapers. Today, they block the internet, disconnect t­he servers and arrest the dissid­ents. In some countries, Faceb­ook cannot be accessed and s­earch engines are restricted and censored. In democratic countries like ours, law enforcement agencies are sometimes giving in to the temptation of using cyber-laws to stifle opposition and hound whistle-blowers by tracking IP addresses. In many cases, they are doing so recklessly, without judicial scrutiny or regulatory restraint and without following due process.

Many years ago Mahatma Gandhi examined the issue of freedom of media. The core issues remain the same even today. He said, "The sole aim of a journalist should be service. The newspaper is a great power, but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.”

It is nobody’s case that even a democratic country should have an unregulated media. However, the regulation should also protect the freedom of expression and regulate in a fair, transparent and open manner. India was one of the first countries to develop regulatory mechanisms after its independence. The Press Council of India was first constituted on July 4, 1966 as an autonomous, statutory, quasi-judicial body, with Justice JR Mudholkar, then a judge of the Supreme Court, as the chairman. The primary objective of the council was to protect the independence of the press and to balance the rights of the citizens and those of the print media within a democratic polity.

The Press Council is headed by a chairman, who, by convent­i­on, is a retired judge of the S­u­preme Court of India. Curre­ntly, t­he chairman is the outspoken

J­ustice Markanday Katju. The c­ouncil consists of 28 other m­embers of whom 20 represent the press and are nominated by the press organisations/news

ag­encies recognised and notified by the council as all India bodies of categories such as editors, working journalists and owners and managers of newspapers, f­i­ve members are nominated f­r­om the two houses of parliam­e­nt and three represent cultural, literary and legal fields as nominees of the Sahitya Academy, University Grants Commission and the Bar Council of India. The members serve on the council for a term of three years.

The council has a prescribed procedure to deal with complaints: “If a newspaper or journalist is aggrieved by any action of any authority that may impinge on the freedom of the press, he can file a complaint with the council. The aggrieved newspaper or journalist may inform the council about the possible reason for the action of the authorities against him, that is, if it is as a reprisal measure taken by the authorities due to critical writings or as a result of the policy that may affect the freedom of the press.”

The Press Council also entertains and processes complaints against newspapers and journalists. “If you have a complaint against a newspaper, for any publication which you find objectionable and effects you personally, or non-publication of a material, you should first take it up with the editor or other representative of the publication concerned. If the complaint is not resolved to your satisfaction, you may refer it to the Press Council of India.”

So far the mechanism of the Press Council has worked well as part of our democratic framework. But as the media through which we disseminate views and opinions have proliferated, the regulatory mechanism has not been allowed to expand its reach. It has not transformed with the changes in technology of content sharing. To be fair, there has been a resistance on the part of the electronic media to come under any regulatory umbrella. In my view this is a shortsighted approach.

A transparent regulatory re­g­i­me that follows a set of rules a­nd has a quasi-judicial appr­o­a­c­h is certainly preferable to kn­e­e-jerk actions and censorship by t­he executive arm of the gove­r­n­ment. The worst scenario is f­o­r the law enforcement agenc­ies and policemen to decide on what is unacceptable, defamat­ory or obscene without any judicial restraint or regulatory oversight. In the absence of such oversight, cyber-laws are being abused to muzzle dissension and criticism in certain cases.

The chairman of the Press Council Justice Katju has already mooted a proposal to expand its reach to all media. The objective is to strengthen and empower the council and to rename the regulatory body as the Media Council of India. He has gone on record to say “I have written to the PM that the electronic media should be brought under Press Council and it should be called Media Council and we should be given more teeth. Those teeth would be used in extreme situations.” I believe the regulatory body should not just regulate television channels but all types of electronic media, including the social media and web-based platforms, which now enable virtual assemblies and modes of expression of opinions.

Submitting to a sensible regulatory regime will shield it against autocratic control. Let us not forget one of the basic tenets of democracy lies in the following assertion often attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)