JNU row: Rethinking Fetters on the Media

JNU row: Rethinking Fetters on the Media

Much has been said and discussed about the events that unfolded at the JNU campus, the reactions of the police and the politicians, and the propriety thereof. Despite massive media coverage and discourse, it seems that in the entire series of events, a very important aspect has been missed, or perhaps ignored. A rational opinion seems to have lost its relevance between the polarized reactions to the issue.

On the 10th of February left leaning students at JNU planned to organize a cultural program against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru, who was awarded death sentence by the judiciary for involvement in terrorist activities. The event was opposed by students with conflicting political ideologies, who held counter protests. Meanwhile, it was reported that there was sloganeering against the Indian state and its unity, and chaos ensued. To control the situation, the Delhi Police took action and arrested the student leader of JNU and charged him with sedition.

The media, considered as the “fourth pillar” of democracy, is considered to play an integral role in shaping the opinion of the society by providing the actual and true account of the events.

However, the Indian news media, which portrays itself as non-partisan and unbiased, has time and again transgressed its role of reporting facts, by not only adjudicating issues, but at times also directing the nature of reprimand that should be meted out. Media and a substantial part of the civil society has simplified the JNU issue to such a dangerous extent that it has divided the nation into two factions; one supporting JNU and freedom of speech and expression, which is largely considered as anti-national, and the other supporting the Government and the arrest of the student leader on the charges of sedition, in the name of nationalism.

Whether the student president was actually involved in sloganeering and whether the slogans were actually seditious is something that has to be decided by the Courts through a trial, involving examination of evidences and witnesses, according to the procedure established by law. Most of our media outlets not only provided judicial opinion, but also went on to distort crucial facts surrounding this debacle in addition to determining which ideology is national and which is anti-national, thereby causing public outcry and significant undermining of the process of law. At such a time, when the nation is faced with a dilemma about which side is correct, it becomes all the more incumbent upon the media to guide the citizenry by presenting the whole truth and letting the citizens decide for themselves, instead of manufacturing opinions by presenting what they deem to be true.

The televised debates leading to media trial is not a recent phenomenon, however, it has gained a dangerous frequency off late. Infact, the print media is equally guilty of manufacturing opinions, inter alia, by phrasing their headlines in such a way that a neutral reader gets influenced even before he begins with the content of the article. There are multiple instances where media has provided biased and contradictory views to the general public on crucial matters by being the jury, thereby causing prejudice to the persons under trial. Two of the most famous instances are media trials on Aarushi Talwar’s murder case and Indrani Mukherjee’s case. At times, an overly sensationalized reporting leads to media houses making judgment calls on certain sensitive issues, thereby influencing public opinion negatively, for example, as in the sensationalistic reporting on the Juvenile Justice Bill passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2015 whereby the media carelessly reported that all children between the age of 16 to 18 who are accused of crime will be treated as adults (Our article on media sensationalized the Juvenile Justice Bill issue can be found here.

In the present context, the facts involved in the JNU row were not clear and it is apparent in some of the media reports itself. It is alleged that the FIR against the accused in the JNU row was filed based on a video recorded by certain media houses. The said video purportedly shows some of the accused shouting slogans to the effect of undermining the Indian state. It was later alleged that some parts of the said video were doctored. Whatever be the truth, it was clear that the video is not a certain proof of the alleged anti-national activities. However, this did not deter the media houses from passing judgments on the issue.

While some media houses vehemently criticized the role of students, assailing their allegiance and integrity, the others attacked the Government and the police for charging certain JNU students for sedition, accusing the government of repressing free speech and quelling dissent. These media houses also opined that the arrest of the JNU students is a result of the conflicting ideologies of the BJP and other leftist groups. International media houses such as BBC, New York Times, the Guardian and Al-Jazeera were some of the media groups that took this view. Though, it was never clarified that the students of JNU are alleged to have committed the offence of sedition, and that the final verdict by the judiciary is still awaited.

Without taking a normative stand on which side is correct, media houses ought to provide unperturbed facts. Unfortunately, the media does irreparable damage to public discourse by acting like an infallible arbiter instead of being an unbiased reporter.

The above issues prompt us to ask if steps need to be taken to prevent media from venturing into domains of excessive opinionating, sensitization and adjudication, especially since many of us are susceptible to influence, which is often orchestrated through the media. The difficulty in solving this problem is that the solution is likely to be regulation of the media houses. This requires very fine balancing between the fundamental right of free speech and reasonable restrictions on the role of news houses to providing news only. We understand that this regulation is particularly required in situations where most media houses – Print, Online or TV – are owned by corporations whose direct interest is in revenue, which probably is the current scenario with many news houses in India.

Theories of media regulation have been proposed time and again; a brief about the same has been made available by the University of Leicester. Ideally, concerns for the protection of public order and security of the state gives rise to the need for regulation under most of these theories. Similarly, the State ought to regulate the media for protecting and advancing the national economic interest. However, there is a very thin line between those regulations that are based on the aforesaid parameters and regulations that have the effect of suppressing legitimate public opinion. Therefore, stating boundaries for media by the state could easily cross with the fundamental right of speech.

As proponents of free speech and at the same time believing that news houses should maintain some form of abstinence, we believe that self-regulation by the media could be an effective alternative. This was also pointed out in the Communication and Information series of debates on this issue organized by the UNESCO, wherein it was pointed out that self-regulation by the media is more efficient and less complex. Self-regulations involve the media companies themselves acting as regulators of the industry with a view to preserve the sanctity of the news and maintain ethics. Due to little intervention from the State, the self-regulatory policies are free from criticisms on account of free speech regulation.

It should also be highlighted that even self-regulation is not free from drawbacks. To say the least, self-regulation may lack the necessary sanction, with peer exclusion being a possible consequence for breach. Further, there is always a potential for self-regulatory policies to fail on account of improper implementation as the monitoring authorities would be the same as those who are monitored, unless the participants agree to create an independent monitoring institution. Even in that case, there is always an inherent risk of the self-regulatory policies being too liberal.

Choosing the most effective manner of regulating the media is not free from difficulties. In light of these difficulties and till such time as it takes for the experts and academicians to agree on the best manner of media regulation, it is incumbent upon us, the civil society, to be vigilant and not let the propaganda and sensitization influence us. This implies that as responsible citizens, we understand and appreciate the fact that media is only a part of our society but not its representative. The opinions disguised as news only represents a point of view which should not be mistaken for facts. This takes every citizen, to be more aware and not be driven solely by the propaganda news. Such enhanced sense of awareness could help us make this nation, a true participatory democracy. If we could move beyond tamasha and demand more content than directions and decisions, the news media could be brought to its main job – to provide news rationally.