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One Way Street

By Arvind Lavakare
November 18, 2003 14:04 IST
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The Hindu of Chennai, India, has probably set a world record in print journalism. Its editions of 10th, 11th and 12th November 2003 published a total of 163 letters to the editor! Included in that aggregate was a record of 67 letters in just one single edition (of 11th November) that were accommodated at the cost of two lengthy articles which customarily adorn that newspaper's edit page. And here's the last statistic: 158 of those 163 letters were centred on or around just one topic --- another world record probably.

The leitmotif of that unprecedented correspondence in The Hindu was tea and sympathy and support --- for The Hindu, naturally. The cause celebre was that on 7th November 2003 the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly accepted the findings of its Privileges Committee that the newspaper's editorial of 25th April 2003 affected the entire functioning of the assembly besides amounting to contempt of the House, and therefore sentenced the newspaper's editor, executive editor, publisher, chief of bureau and the writer of that editorial to 15 days simple imprisonment.

The Hindu very quickly challenged the legality of the TN assembly's decision in the Supreme Court. On 10th November, anyone scanning The Hindu editorials were confronted with 52 tea and sympathy letters to the editor --- probably a new one-day record for any newspaper. The second article on the edit page was axed for creating that record. And when, on 10th November, the Supreme Court stayed the arrest the fivesome of The Hindu, the next day's issue of the newspaper bombarded its edit page with 67 letters, thereby breaking the record set just the previous day. But it had not had enough. Its issue of 12th November had 39 letters on the subject.

Point to note is that all this unabashed use of the 'letters to the editor' section was by a 125-year-old newspaper that freely labels the Hindutvawadis with such tags as 'communalists,' 'fascists' and 'Nazis' without letting through a single letter of rejoinder. Even in its 11th November report on the proceedings before the Supreme Court, The Hindu correspondent detailed the arguments of the counsel for his newspaper as well as of the counsel of Murasoli, the other newspaper similarly charged by the TN assembly, but wrote not a word on the TN assembly counsel's point of view. That, dear readers, is one facet of the much-touted 'freedom of the press.'

Be that as it may, 'freedom of the press' was the flavour of those three November days. Anybody who was anyone in the field of politics, journalism or human rights was proclaiming 'freedom of the press' and condemning the action of the TN assembly. 'Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution,' they said; 'the free press of a vibrant democracy,' they shouted; 'how dare Amma throttle it?' they thundered. Nobody cared to go deep; the old Indian trait of superficiality was at play once again.

Thus few of us are aware that in India freedom of the press is a part of the freedom of speech and expression granted by Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution. There is no specific Constitutional provision ensuring freedom of the press. According to the Supreme Court judgment in Sakal Papers v Union of India, (AIR 1962 SC 305) the freedom of the press is regarded as a 'species of which freedom of expression is a genus.' Being only a right flowing from the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press in India therefore stands on no higher footing than the freedom of speech of a citizen, and the press enjoys no privilege as such distinct from the freedom of the citizen. (M P Jain in Indian Constitutional Law, Wadhwa And Company, Nagpur, Fourth Edition, Reprint 2002, page 527).

Further, there is the view of P M Bakshi, former director, Indian Law Institute and former member of the Law Commission of India. Commenting on trial by media on page 37 of his book The Constitution of India (Universal Law Publishing Co Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, Fourth Edition, 2000), Bakshi says while the law does not prohibit investigative journalism in the abstract, the law does require the players to stay within the limits flowing primarily from a. the right to reputation b. the right to privacy and c. the law of contempt of court.

Most of us who talk of 'freedom of the press' at the mere drop of a hat are not aware that, as per a Supreme Court judgment, telephone tapping would infringe Article 21 ('Protection of life and personal liberty') of our Constitution unless it is permitted 'under procedure established by law.' (People's Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India, AIR 1997 SC 538).

Furthermore, in the immediate case of The Hindu, there is the matter of Keshav Singh v Speaker, Legislative Assembly where the Supreme Court ruled that in a conflict between the freedom of speech and a legislative assembly's privileges under Article 194, the former will yield to the latter. (AIR, 1965 All. 349).

However, theoretical legal roadblocks hardly worry our press excepting when the judiciary is involved. The rest of the time, freedom of the press is construed to mean doing what it wants to do and chooses to do.

Meanwhile, what about the accountability of the press that questions the accountability of everyone else? There are a number of cases where the press has got it horribly wrong but has gone scot-free --- without offering even a 'clarification' or a 'regret,' leave alone an 'unconditional apology' and a stick to the guilty reporter. The most convenient escape is to be specious and say 'We stand by our report' or, best of all, just refuse to rebut the rebuttal, leaving the onus on the offended party to file a defamation case that never quite comes to an end.

Just two incidents should suffice to prove the point.

After the murder of Graham Staines and his two children in Orissa, a nun, Sister Jacqueline Mary, filed an FIR with the police in Baripada in Orissa that after being offered a lift by two men dressed in women's clothing she had been raped by one of them in the back of the car. The Indian Express said 'Orissa's second stain: nun raped.' The Telegraph of Kolkata announced: 'Nun gang raped by men in sari in Orissa.' This and more got highlighted all over the world and got projected as an attack on Christians; the Indian nation's image plunged shamefully. Later investigations revealed that Sister Mary's FIR was just a made-up story.

Again, of the four Christian teenagers who went to collect broom sticks in Mandasaru village in Kandamal district in Orissa, two were subsequently found killed and one unconscious. The newspapers treated that incident as an attack on the Christians. Once again, our national image suffered. Investigations ultimately proved that, like the victims, the killers too were Christians.

In both cases, no newspaper was pulled up in any way. And it's not known whether the mandated confessional in the church was deemed as adequate penalty for Sister Mary's guilt of filing a false FIR with the police.

Then there was Dara Singh, murderer of Graham Staines, being indicted by the press from day one as a Bajrang Dal/RSS man. The conclusions of the investigation team appointed by the D P Wadhwa Commission stated, 'There is no documentary evidence to prove that he is a member of or office-bearer of (the) Bajrang Dal.' Once more, no newspaper was pulled up.

Lastly, there's the fall-out of the mayhem and murders in Gujarat following the carnage of 59 Hindu kar sevaks at the Godhra railway station. The zenith of the vilification of the BJP government of Narendra Modi, of the VHP and of the Hindu community in Gujarat was an article by Harsh Mander, IAS, published by The Times of India on its edit page of 20th March 2002 under the title 'Hindustan Hamara --- I can never sing that song again.' The article was then circulated over the web under the title 'Cry My Beloved Country.' The Indian nation was once again portrayed as being ruled by fanatic Hindus who thought nothing of a pogrom against the Muslims.

One Krishen Kak, IAS (retired) of New Delhi, complained to the Press Council of India that Mander's article was highly irresponsible, inflammatory, blatantly biased and damaging to public morale, and that there was nothing in it to show that the author had verified the stories that he had passed off as facts. What happened to that complaint is a commentary on the 'freedom of the press' in India.

Let the Press Council's decision of 30th June 2003 tell it to you. It recorded that 'the Inquiry Committee expressed its deep concern over the indifferent and irresponsible attitude of The Times of India in not filing its comments in response to the Council's letter and in not being represented before the Inquiry Committee to present its defence in a matter of grave public importance.'

On the merits of the case, the Council's Inquiry Committee noted 'the article at several points reiterated rumours that were being circulated at the relevant time. The truthfulness of the facts mentioned therein had not been established at any point of time till then but Shri Mander had chosen to base his views and sentiments on them, and put pen to the opinion thus formed by him…it was expected of the author as a responsible serving officer as well as of the respondent paper of repute like The Times of India to be more restrained and circumspect in pronouncing a denouement of the whole system in a communally surcharged atmosphere.'

Worse was that though the Press Council's guidelines require the publication concerned to publish the Council's decision, The Times of India has not done so till now.

The unkindest cut was that Krishen Kak's press note incorporating the Press Council's decision on his complaint was universally ignored by the free press of India.

Free to hurt others without being man enough to suffer hurt oneself --- that's the one-way street of India's 'freedom of the press.' Instead, a two-way traffic would be the best for a true democracy.

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Arvind Lavakare