Criminal defamation, Contempt of court, Violation of legislature privileges.

Can the hidden cameras/sting operations justified?

Press Freedom is a much talked about subject. Just now, Mr. N. Ram, the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu has delivered a lecture in Hyderabad  at the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the High Court of  AP had dealt with this much hyped subject. What is new in his lecture? What is not new?

Yes, there have been changes in the media world. Indian press had grown up with the freedom struggle. The Emergency saw the assault of the State against press freedom in its brutal forms. Now?

Now, the newspapers industry had become a big business, circulations are soaring, 79 million, next to China, then come Japan and US. Daily newspaper in India has a combined readership of 204 million, TV 450 million, drawn from 112 million households. Internet is fast spreading, 13 to 35 million, it is the future medium.

Fine, then where comes the rub? Press freedom is just a notion in the minds of stakeholers. In reality, the press is subdued, the government machinery can be ruthless, and the judiciary is the jury judge and the hangman! Such is the interpretation of contempt of court. So too the very finicky legislatures, The Hindu itself was subjected to very brutal treatment, the criminal defamation can take bizarre forms.

Yes, there is now high commercialization, sensationalism and the cut-throat competition among the newspapers and TV channels had led to many undesirable developments, invation of privacy, exposure of the high and mighty in very delicate situations and the hidden cameras have come to stay! So, we need self-regulation or regulation by the government. This is democracy where the citizens need protection as well as the right to get the mighty power structure held in responsibility.

Rajiv Sardesai of CNN- IBN is the latest hero and victim, as Tarun Tejpal was earlier in the Tehelka expose.

Where do we go from here?

Not far!

In India, the public sensitivity to individual freedom is as good as non-existent.There is no such notion at all. We talk of a free country,a free society and a free individual. Yet, the notion of individual freedom is still a Western concept, not integrated in any meaningful way into the Indian way of life. That is the crux of the matter.

Any politician, official or money person thinks and they are right, they can get away given the Indian sense of values. They do in fact routinely get away! So many of the recent acquittals in criminal cases and their retrials is a point. As for the high and mighty they are away from the law’s ambit, no conviction worth its name in political corruption or corporate corruption.This is a contrast in USA where these things are proved in reality.

So, what to do?

We feel that as for press freedom, media freedom, there must be and there will be hidden cameras, sting operations, come what may as long as there is this unaccountability for the powerful and the criminally minded vested interests. Vested interests we can define in so many ways. Politicians and businessmen top the list. Others, the officials come next. The rest in order of one’s own vision of a society, poltiics and economics and in religion and more areas of life.

So, what we believe is there is no point in suggesting one or two options like a code of conduct.But then when the general conditions of governance are deteriorating, when there is this Indian mentality to take the powerful seriously and morally degrading nature of the average Indian citizen, be he or she a common journalist or a teacher or an academic or one who seeks favors with the government, there will be a compromise with values.

So, we have to celebrate the lone heroes, those who fight lonely battles like Sardesai or Tejpal, they are the role models. In a democracy, in the media as in other spheres, there will be role models, no amount of interpretation of the relevant laws on press freedom can be complete and these are the realms where we have to have the needed space, physical space and the intellectual space to articulate the needed ambit within which in a given situation, we can articulate for a role for all the so called negative tools, hidden cameras and sting operators and we can in fact justify and even glorify them.

After all who is he or she, the pressman or presswoman who comment on the relevance or irrelevance of these tools? The media’s role, in our view, has to be neutral, it is for the rest of the society to justify or criticize whether a particular hidden camera had done its job in the larger interest of public good. Yes, it is the public good that would define the scope of press freedom. In a society where there is a weak sense of individual freedom, as it is in India, after some 60 years of Freedom, what else to expect from the press.

Mr.N.Ram seems to speak for big business newspapers. What about the unsung heroes and heroines of the small press, small, tiny newspapers and magazines. Often it is these which have done some bold exposes and also faced the brutal consequences. In such instances, it is the big newspapers who have blacked out the news! It is “Unto the Last” in press freedom as much as to the top brass of the press industry.

Let us also remind ourselves that the newspaper industry, as an industry, has been as much considerate to protect and play down the most sensitive and most high principled news items, just to please the powers that be!

So, let us get back to the basics. It is to the proportion of the sense of outrage that an individual citizen feels about a particular government or official act of high-handedness we can justify the proportion of the freedom of the media. Press freedom is not to be identified with what is good for the big and the powerful media houses. Rather the oppositive, how the last man or woman is served with the vital press freedom that is a sacred principle in our basic structure of the Constitution.

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