The Indian Supreme Court on August 18 declared that it intends to lay down norms for media coverage of ongoing criminal investigations.
According to media reports, India’s highest court, hearing a public interest petition filed by an independent lawyer, determined that media coverage of the investigations into the murder of a teenage girl, Aarushi Talwar, in the township of Noida neighbouring Delhi, had seriously breached all norms of responsible journalism.
As The Hindu (Delhi edition, August 19) reported the court’s observations: “Nobody is trying to gag the media. They must play a responsible role. By investigation, the media must not do anything which will prejudice either the prosecution or the accused. Sometimes the entire focus is lost. A person is found guilty even before the trial takes place”.
The Supreme Court has issued notices seeking an opinion from the Press Council of India and explanations from two newspapers (The Times of India and the Hindustan Times) and three major 24-hour news channels (Aaj Tak, NDTV and CNN-IBN).
The higher judiciary’s attempt to write rules for journalism represents a new threat to the autonomy of India’s robust media industry. Most media houses already have well-considered norms in place covering every such journalistic contingency.
It is another matter though, that these norms are seldom honoured and that new entrants into the profession rarely benefit from mentoring procedures that would attune them to best journalistic practices. The judiciary’s current initiative is in this sense, symptomatic of a wider crisis of standards in the Indian media: one occasioned by the rampant commercialism that has followed the boom in cable television and the new media.
Since Aarushi Talwar was discovered murdered at her family home in Noida on May 16, there has been considerable public disquiet over the spectacular incompetence of the police investigation and the shocking abdication of responsibility by vast sections of the Indian media. These two in a sense, reinforced each other, ensuring that the truth remained obscure for an inordinate length of time. For the Talwar family and for all those who knew Aarushi, it was a deeply truamatic experience to see her being denied dignity even in death.
The media in other words, abandoned its truth-telling role in favour of crass sensationalism. Where it could have, potentially, served as a window for the public to keep themselves informed about the investigations, it chose instead, to reproduce and regurgitate every half-formed explanation put out by the police force.
Media ethics is all about sound internal scrutiny in the newsroom and editorial department, as also, of accountability to the readership or audience. A code of conduct that is externally imposed, even if it pertains to the specific area of ongoing criminal investigations, is not guaranteed either to be effective or to best serve the public interest.
Credible self-regulation on the basis of internally evolved norms, requires that the autonomy of journalism within the media industry be honoured. The increasing encroachment of the marketing and advertising functions into content decisions is responsible for many of the ethical breaches recently manifest in the Indian media.
The Aarushi Talwar case is only the most recent instance involving the use of governmental or judicial authority to restrain the media. On August 14, according to media reports, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued notices to three TV channels, to show cause why they should not be penalised for violating the “programme code”.
It is another matter that the “programme code” is a fairly loosely worded text drawn up in 1995 as an annexure to the sole existing law on cable TV broadcasting. It has never been subject to any form of public scrutiny, or won the explicit endorsement of journalists or the media industry. Indeed, efforts by the Ministry since 2006 to evolve a “content code” in consultation with the industry have so far failed to produce an agreed text, in part, because they have not involved media professionals in any significant way.
Despite an understanding on content being a distant prospect, the Ministry in February this year notified the creation of a number of state and district-level “monitoring bodies” that will assess non-governmental broadcast entities for conformity with the programme code. These committees as first constituted, were made up overwhelmingly of bureaucrats and police personnel. It was only in July, almost as an afterthought, that the Ministry mandated the participation of the journalism profession within these committees.
The media has also had to face the prospect of the judiciary often seeking to get involved in content decisions. In disposing of a public interest petition arising from the “sting” operation that wrongly implicated a teacher in a non-existent prostitution racket, the Delhi High Court held in December 2007, that any channel planning to broadcast programs involving a “sting” should be legally obliged to obtain prior permission from a government-appointed committee. It recommended that the Ministry should appoint a retired judge of a High Court to chair the committee, which should also comprise two others drawn from the bureaucracy.
The fake sting was a canonical case of non-existent editorial processes, which should be tackled through credible norms of self-regulation. In this respect, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) – the organisation this writer works with -- recently launched in association with affiliate unions in India, a series of broad-ranging discussions under the rubric of its “Ethical Journalism Initiative”. The IFJ believes that with the active engagement of journalists, the challenge of ethics in the newsroom can be adequately faced and dealt with.