Self-regulated media with no regulations

| Updated: 26 March, 2024 2:42 pm IST
TNI Illustration by Aditya Singh

If there’s a profession where quality has completely gone out of it, then it is media. It calls itself the fourth pillar of democracy but works within self-regulated guidelines. Its power can be realized from the fact there’s no Act to govern how it works similar to the Advocates Act, of 1961 which is an ethical code of conduct for the profession of advocacy.

On March 20th, Justice Chandrachud gave an exclusive interview to NDTV India. Though he spoke on benign subjects like delivery and access to justice, it was SAD. First, it was not appropriate for the CJI to give a one-to-one interview. It is unprecedented and would lead to a violation of the custom of “judicial restraint”, gradually but certainly. In its round-the-clock run for exclusivity, the media does not realize that like the judiciary, its power is driven by self-governed guidelines. When you are left with the responsibility to govern yourself, you are deemed to be a profession of utmost importance and intellect.

It was hardly three days after that unfortunate race for exclusivity that another disappointment came from a website on March 23rd wherein it published a report “After Backlash Army Cancels unprecedented seminar on UCC in Kashmir”. The caption for the report read: “This was perhaps the first time that the Army was directly sponsoring an event on a political topic, and that too at Kashmir’s most prestigious higher educational institution.”

The report had all the elements of sensational journalism. On the intellectual front, UCC is not a political topic. It is a secularly and procedurally enacted provision in the Constitution of India under Article 44 which reads: Uniform civil code for the citizens: The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.

It was an intellectual deprivation to call it political by the website. Secondly, the headline read “after backlash” which was misleading and nothing short of running a particular kind of agenda. What is backlash? Oxford Dictionary defines backlash as a strong negative reaction by a large number of people, for example to something that has recently changed in society.

Now look at the bias and sensationalism by the media. A seminar titled ‘Navigating Legal Frontiers: Understanding Indian Penal Code 2023 & the Quest for Uniform Civil Code’ was being organized by Kashmir Jurists, an organization of lawyers from Kashmir Valley, in the University of Kashmir for which it solicited administrative support from the Army. Unlike JNU, the fabric of students of Kashmir is mostly of locals of the state. There was no protest from the students’ side. There was no protest from the general public as well. The website that published the report just picked up the tweet of Omar Abdullah on social media platform X and took a quote from Mehbooba Mufti and published the news report giving it a tone and tenor that the backlash is from the public.

It is ethically questionable to provide a platform for separatists like this and to imply that the general public was clamouring against the Army’s administrative involvement, and hence dubbing it a “backlash” is an intellectual deception. Additionally, calling the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) a political topic when the provision was incorporated in the Constitution after much debate and discussion by the Constituent Assembly, finding favour from none other than BR Ambedkar himself, is misleading.

Most ludicrous is that the same very people who take support of Constitutional provisions as casually as living room chats of retired family members, choose to be evasive and ignorant of the truth that UCC is a Constitutional goal and not a political subject. You can’t pick and choose from the Constitution at your convenience. Either you take it fully or leave it entirely.

The only good this report did is to give a false sense of importance to the separatists who have lost political relevance after the abrogation of Article 370 on which they had managed to mislead the people of J&K long enough to destroy generations by drawing religious faultiness. Like the political advisors, the media too has its own set of arm-chair journalists who are never on the ground but pick up a quote or two from the “favourites” and associate it with the general public.

Back in 2018, the then 4 judges Justices Chalameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur, and Kurian Joseph had gone to the media about the administration of the Supreme Court. This garnered criticism from all sides and eminent jurist Fali S Nariman went on to dedicate a complete chapter on this in his book ‘God Save the Supreme Court’. The incident is specifically mentioned here to contextualize how Justice Chandrachud’s unprecedented and tangibly harmless exclusive interview didn’t get the kind of reaction and comments from the intelligentsia that the 4 judges’ conference had got. The point to be made here is when self-restraint is broken once, its acceptability increases, gradually but certainly.

The judiciary should restrain itself from falling prey to the 24×7 news hunting of media. But at the same time, the media also has the onus to restrain itself from inventing news that is not and using words loosely and carelessly because it has the onus very heavy on it, it is self-governed. Not to mention that the freedom of speech and expression of media is not unbridled. It derived its freedom from judicial decisions of interpretation of Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution which is not an absolute right, but a qualified right bridled with reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19(2) which reads:

Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality or about contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

It would lie well with the media to introspect whether the news report dated 23 March qualifies for the protection given under Article 19. Whether the news report was not in violation of the reasonable restriction of the sovereignty and integrity of India? Whether its news hunt is not legitimizing the judges who are supposed to maintain judicial restraint? Is it not eroding a sacrosanct pillar of governance? It is the time to debate and discuss the self-governed functioning of Media, at least with some reasonable restrictions.

The writer is a Delhi-based lawyer. She tweets on X, formerly Twitter, from @SeemaSindhu

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