Why We Need a Press Freedom Bill, Even Though the Government May Not Want One

The sad inevitability of Krishna Prasad’s removal as the editor of Outlook magazine, weeks after he ran the cover story and days after the magazine was taken to court over the piece, says much about the current state of the Indian news media. BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images
15 August, 2016

On 29 July 2016, Outlook magazine digitally released an investigative report called “Operation #BabyLift,” the cover story for its 8 August issue. The story, written by Neha Dixit, an independent journalist, detailed the manner in which outfits that belong to the Sangh Parivar had abducted young girls from Assam to indoctrinate them. Less than a week after it was released, on 4 August, Subhash Chandra Kayal, the assistant solicitor general of India at the Guwahati High Court, Bijon Mahajan, a lawyer and spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and Mominul Awwal from the BJP’s minority cell, filed a complaint at the Latasil police station in Guwahati, alleging that Dixit’s story incited communal hatred. The police registered a first information report against Indranil Roy, the publisher and executive director of the magazine, Krishna Prasad, then its editor-in-chief, and Dixit. Last week, on 13 August, Roy sent an email to the staff at Outlook. In this email, he announced the appointment of Rajesh Ramachandran, a former political editor of TheEconomic Times, as the magazine’s new editor-in-chief.

The sad inevitability of Prasad’s removal as the editor of Outlook, weeks after he ran the cover story and days after the magazine was taken to court over the piece, says much about the current state of the Indian news media. The incumbent editor, Ramachandran has claimed that the process for Prasad’s removal was set in motion long before the story in question was published. But surely the management of the publication had some leeway over when to exercise such a change. The timing they chose speaks for itself.

As is evident from this case, the government rarely needs to arm-twist editors directly. Employees from Outlook have claimed that the magazine’s promoters, the Raheja group—originally a construction and real estate development company—have been under sustained pressure for some time and that Dixit’s story regarding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliate organisations was the last straw. The structures of news media ownership in this country, and the involvement of corporates who have huge stakes in businesses that require the government’s goodwill, ensure that editorial decisions are often tailored to the government’s preferences. While it may be unfair to focus on any one set of promoters, especially the Rahejas, who have, for over two decades backed the magazine despite pressure from successive governments—both the BJP and Congress—the message Prasad’s exit sends out is clear. Editors who take on the establishment run a constant risk, and the advantages of toeing the government line are rather evident in the profession.

Prasad’s removal comes at a time when the news media’s ability to tell uncomfortable truths is under siege by the current dispensation and those who speak on its behalf. In Kashmir, as protests mounted in the valley, newspaper offices were raided, staff detained, and censorship imposed on the local news media, all without any official government sanction. In the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, vigilantes who enjoy close linkages with the local police have successfully hounded journalists, exercising virtual control over news the police does not want to be reported.

Put together, these incidents indicate the absence of norms regarding the structure of news media in this country. The three relationships that define how the media actually functions—between the government and news media organisations; between news media organisations and journalists; and between the government and journalists—are largely unregulated. The lack of regulation allows the government to bring into play laws such as the maintenance of public order, which do not directly deal with the news media to control or regulate news coverage, but impact it nevertheless.

Over the last few years, we have seen varied attempts to bring sense to this news environment. These include the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s recommendations on media ownership, which were published in August 2014 and a standing committee report on paid news in May 2013. The report on paid news does go into many issues regarding media ownership and the rights of journalists, but paid news is hardly the lens needed to look at such issues. In terms of actual legislation, we only have the Working Journalist Act of 1955, which does not include electronic news media in its domain. This actually means that the law does not recognise television or digital media journalists when it speaks of working journalists.

A reappraisal of the current situation must begin with the simple assumption that in our democracy, the freedom of the news media is an end in itself. Given this, it is possible to lay down some core principles (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) that define the three-way relationship between government, news media organisations and journalists. Many of these are simply set out in the European Charter on the Freedom of the Press, 2009.

a) The Government and News Media Organisations: At the moment we have a host of laws that regulate the procedure for setting up news media organisations and almost none for who can set up one. This has to be reversed. The procedure and norms for establishing such organisations have to be eased, and the norms governing who can set them up—including laws regarding big corporates as well as cross-media ownership—must be clearly laid out. The question of regulation, ranging from self-regulation to giving the press council more teeth and extending its jurisdiction to the electronic media needs to clearly discussed and answered. This also requires clear boundaries to be drawn that define when, if at all, the government can censor the media.

b) News Media Organisations and Journalists: Today, the Working Journalist Act, at least in theory, governs the relationship between organisations and employees, despite the contract system that exists in most news media companies. Its implementation, currently overseen by labour courts, has to be simplified and speeded up. Its jurisdiction has to extend to television and online journalists. The division between editorial and business—the kind of commercial interests a news media organisation can pursue—need to be defined and demarcated in an era of paid news and private treaties.

c) Journalists and the Government: From the Right to Information Act (RTI) to the Whistle Blowers Protection Bill, we have a host of legislations that define a citizen’s access to information. There is a need to discuss the sharpening and refinement of such laws where access to information by a journalist is concerned. Moreover, a journalist’s right to protect sources must be enshrined in law.

This is not an exercise the government will undertake on its own. Much like the RTI, we need to construct the climate for such a law. Bodies representing journalists must take the initiative in forming a committee consisting of journalists, media owners, lawyers and representatives of political parties to prepare a draft Freedom of Press Bill in a time-bound and transparent manner. Objections from any quarter must be made public to prevent any backdoor attempt to stymie such a proposal. The final draft should then be the basis for an attempt at legislation.

In an environment in which the government is clearly not interested in the freedom of the news media, such an attempt may seem utopian. But, the very process of setting out such norms will form the basis for any future changes that could be carried out under more conducive circumstances. At the very least, it will alert journalists and lawyers who remain unaware of the extent of the systemic dangers we, the news media face.