Freedom of Media: For Profit Making or For Public Good

Dr. Gopal Singh*

It is pertinent today to raise some questions about media and its freedom: Mass media for whom and for what? Mass media for classes or for masses? Mass media for education, awareness and dissemination of information or for entertainment, or both? Again, for public service with social responsibility or for corporate interest and profit making? Champions of Media freedom clamour for unrestricted freedom for press, and talk less about their accountability and responsibility to society. Mc Quail (1994) says, “The media have obligations to society, and media ownership is a public trust”.

We as a democratic state are yet to decide whether we need freedom of press or a free press. Again, some basic questions about media have been raised from time to time.

‘Are the media free and independent to present views, news and entertainment just as they want? Are they free indeed to be diverse from each other, not just in format, but in expression of opinions as well? Are journalists free and empowered to write and present what they themselves feel they should?’

We must do away with the notion that press freedom is the same thing as freedom of expression. In the US freedom of the press arises from the First Amendment, in our case it emanates from Article 19(1) about the Freedom of Expression. This mix up between news and views is at the center and helps many inefficient and non-deserving persons to pose as editors; under this dispensation even a totally illiterate man can declare himself as the editor and publisher (Prabhu, 1995).

Ng’wanakilala (1981) draws a distinction between a free press and press freedom, while it is possible for the latter to exist, the former may not if the press is rented and in bondage and depends on foreign patronage and domestic interests. In this case the media operate through the contexts of foreign and domestic contracts and bonds and not through media objectivity and the available facts.

The Kenyan editor-publisher Hilary Ng’weno in 1968 observed that in condition of poverty, illiteracy and disease, such as to be found throughout the developing countries (even in the 21st century), “it would be sacrilegious to talk about press freedom, for freedom loses meaning when human survival is the only operative principle on which a people live” (as quoted in Mytton 1983:63)

In this context a Supreme Court of India ruling is relevant. Holding that the protective cover of press freedom cannot be used for wrong doing, the Supreme Court of India while disposing of a contempt of court case (September, 1996) said that press freedom which is the part of freedom of speech and expression as envisaged under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, was not absolute, unlimited and unfettered at all times and in all circumstances as giving unrestricted freedom of speech and expression would amount to an uncontrolled license.

The court observed, “The freedom is not to be misunderstood as being free to disregard its duty to be responsible. In fact, the element of responsibility must be present in the conscience of the journalists” (“Editor is responsible…” 1996).

The court further observed that in an organized society, the rights of the press have to be recognized with its duties and responsibilities towards the society.

On the other hand, the US President Thomas Jefferson declared, “Where the press is free, all is safe”(Christians, 1993:30). He further asserted:”No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, … the fact that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be to leave open to him all avenues to truth. The most effective hitherto found is the freedom of the press” (Christians, 1993:89).

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed said in a speech in 1985 that the media must be given freedom, but this must be exercised with responsibility (Rampal, 1995:156)

Freedom of the press has become integral to a democratic society. As once the US Supreme Court Judge Justice Felix Frankfurter (1946) pronounced, “Freedom of the press… is not an end in itself but means to be the end of a free society”.

But who watches the watchers?

Davis Shaw, the reputed media reporter for the Los Angeles Times, raised important issues in these words:

“If, as we frequently argue, a free vigilant press helps keep our other institutions honest, just what does keep us honest? Our professionalism? Our sense of duty? Our innate goodness? Does the decision to become a journalist automatically render one immune to such otherwise human failings as carelessness, irresponsibility, avarice and egotism? Obviously not.” (Shaw, 1981)

In this context Charles Beared’s (1947) argument is relevant: “… in its origin, freedom of the press had little or nothing to do with truth-telling… Freedom of the press means the right to be just or unjust, partisan or non-partisan, true or false, in news column or editorial column.”

As Theodore Peterson has put it, “It was enough to remove all but a minimum of restriction of the press; for if the press were unhampered, it would feed information and ideas into the market place and from their interchange truth would emerge triumphant” (Siebert, et al. 1956:73).

John Milton, the great English poet, in his Aeropagitica, (published in 1644), pronounced the concept of an ‘ open market place of ideas’ in which all would be free to express (sell!) ideas. He was confident ‘self-righting process’ would enable truth to survive while false and unsound ideas would be vanquished.

Milton went on to say, “Let all with something to say be free to express them. The true and sound will survive, the false and unsound will be vanquished”  (John Milton, Aeropagitica, 1644). In him we hear the echo of our Upanishadic axiom ‘Satyameva jayate’ (Truth alone Triumphs).

The First Amendment to US Constitution

The first Amendment to the US Constitution (1791) is for many media specialists the jewel in the crown of the U.S. media system (Downing, et al., eds.’1990).

The first Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

However, Demac and Downing(1990), examining its actual impact, along with laws (in the US) such as the freedom of the information act and relevant presidential orders opine:

“The First Amendment is often trumpeted as an impregnable guarantee. However, the story of the Sedition Act suggests that the First Amendment actually resembles a battle ground on which freedom of speech (of the press….) must continually be fought for in the face of attempts by the state to punish those with dissident views”( Demac & Downing,1990)

Demac and Downing further say that the actual decisions that have to be made about information are often confronted by the claim that government experts know best what people should or should not be allowed to know.

The code of ethics of the American society of professional Journalists (Sigma Delta Chi, 1987) lays down:” Freedom of the press is to be guarded as an inalienable right of people in a free society. It carries with it the freedom and the responsibility to discuss, question and challenge actions and utterances of our government and of our public and private institutions. Journalists uphold the right to speak unpopular opinions and the privilege to agree with the majority.” (Mencher, 1993: 457)

Freedom belongs to the people and journalists must make sure public business is conducted in public. They must be vigilant against those who exploit the press for their purposes.

A new ethos needs to be evolved, where issues like balance, objectivity and credibility will get due appreciation, and also freedom to report freely the news and views, of the day.

The 1947 US Commission on the Freedom of the Press ( popularly known as Hutchins Commission) while reaffirming the principle of freedom of press also emphasized the added notion of social responsibility, which the press was called upon to accept, in recognition of its essential role in political and social life (Blanchard,1977). If private ownership was irresponsible the commission pronounced the government could regulate the press. It further said the First Amendment was intended to guarantee free expression, not create a privileged industry, and the press was accountable to people.

While delivering a lecture in Parliament annexe, our former President late Mr. K. R. Narayanan commented:” …the old preeminence of the editor has become extinct. The proprietor and not the editor formulates policy, and the editors execute the policies. In this context it is the proprietor who really enjoys the freedom of the press”(Narayanan 1997)

What we need today is a free and vibrant media that shoulders the responsibility of a watchdog. This is possible only if freedom of press percolates to the lowest rung of the media hierarchy and where every member of the Fourth Estate keeps himself or herself away from his or her personal biases and partisan attitudes.

India and Freedom of Media

In a developing country like ours, Freedom of Press means freedom to perform social responsibility of watchdog and not to publish and show only what is saleable.

Freedom carries with it accountability. While exercising media freedom one should be cautions that individual freedoms and rights and at the same time national security are not jeopardized.

In the age of information revolution, freedom of media needs to be established and ensured along with the Right to Information Act, Contempt Law, Information Technology Act, Broadcasting or Convergence Bills.

In order to raise their TRPs, TV channels have resorted to all sorts of promotional gimmicks. The so-called investigative reports and some recent sting operations and court reports can be seen as examples that reflect more of corporate interests and less of public good. Even mail-pulling devises like SMS polls to maneuver public opinion can be seen in this perspective.

The most dangerous aspect of all this is that commercial interests of media houses are presented subtly cloaked in the aura of public interest.

While interpreting public interest in the context of defamation law, the House of Lords, the highest judicial body in the UK, expressed the view that newspapers could publish without attracting libel anything in the name of “public interest”, provided they acted in good faith and with responsibility (Mohd. Jameel Vs The Wall Street Journal, 2006)

Even the editors of SAARC countries (Conference of Editors from the SAARC-10/11 Feb, 2007, New Delhi), realized the need for newspapers to evolve effective internal mechanisms to ensure that the integrity, independence, credibility, and trustworthiness expected by the people of the media were maintained (The Hindu, Feb. 11, 2007). They further felt that media should ‘practice accountability by instituting mechanisms such as internal news ombudsmen with an independent mandate to keep the values of accuracy, fairness, trustworthiness, and journalistic ethics in constant focus, and to reflect the legitimate demands made by the public on the functioning of the new media'(The Hindu, Feb.11, 2007).

The participants also felt concerned about ‘the trend towards tabloidization, trivialization, dumbing down, and sensationalism in sections of the news media’. In their resolution they stressed the need for “media criticism and serious and periodic self-reflection and self-regulatory codes of practice” (The Hindu, Feb.11, ’07).

The Prasar Bharati Act 1990 gives a clear mandate for public service broadcasting in India, saying that the Prasar Bharati “may take such steps as it thinks fit to ensure that broadcasting is conducted as a public service” (Kak, 1996).

Freedom for media can be a prerogative given to and enjoyed by the fourth estate or the watchdog in order to perform their genuine and assigned duties towards the public in a democracy, but it cannot be used by media houses as a tool for promoting their corporate interests. Further, the buck stops at the top but freedom must percolate to the lowest rung of the hierarchy in the media organizations.

Media cannot shirk its social responsibility. They have to play a constructive and positive role and focus on issues related to vital aspects of society and detract themselves from the trivialities. Apart from being the fourth estate and watchdog, media persons are also ‘social lubricators aiding the smooth running of a technologically advanced society’ (Hoggart, 1770).

Delivering the inaugural address at an international conference on media and governance, the former Chief Justice of India, Justice J.S. Verma said that corruption free governance is a basic human right and the media has a big role in helping citizens getting this right. He referred to ‘seven principles’ of conduct enumerated by the Lord Nolan committee in England (i.e., selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership) and said they were applicable to anyone in public life “whether they belong to the First, Second, Third or Fourth Estate”, [The Hindu, 18.02.2007].

The journalists are always subjected to pressures by the proprietors. In this context Magnus Linklater of The Times, London, is worth quoting: “A businessman who buys a newspaper does so because he can use the newspaper to further his own personal interests”. [As quoted in The Hindu, 18.02.2007].

Once the late proprietor of the Mirror group, declared, “You editors are an inconvenience”. Quoting this, Mr. Linklater exhorted the journalists, “Editors should continue to be as inconvenient as we can be”. [As quoted in The Hindu, 18.02.2007].

Speaking on the same occasion and venue, H.K. Dua, Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune and presently Member of Parliament, lamented ‘the excessive influence of the corporate sector on the media and said that issues of concern for millions of ordinary Indians were routinely blanked out of the media’,(The Hindu, 18.02.2007).

The responsibility and accountability goes upward and stops at the top; but the freedom and autonomy moves downwards, it percolates to the lowest rung of the hierarchy working at the grass root level.

Today media has, on the one hand, to play a leading role towards strengthening the cause of freedom of expression and on the other to fight and ensure its own freedom.

References

  1. Beard, Charles(1947), Commission on the Freedom of the Press, A Free and Responsible Press; University of Chicago Press P-131.
  2. Blanchard, M.A. (1977), The Hutchins Commission, The press and responsibility concept, journalism monographs, 49
  3. Christians, Clifford G; Ferre, John P; Fackler, P.Mark(1993), Good News, Social Ethics and the Press, Oxford University Press, New York.
  4. Demac, Donna A.; Downing, John(1990), The Tug of War over the First Amendment, in Downing, John; Mohammadi Ali; Sreberny- Mohammadi, Annabella (eds.) Questioning the Media: A critical Introduction, Sage, PP 100-112
  5. Downing, John; Mohamaddi, Ali; Sreberny Mohammadi, Annabelle (1990).eds., Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction, Sage.
  6. Hoggart, Richad (1770), Speaking to each other, Chatto & Windus, UK
  7. Kak, Sanjay (1996). ‘TV Viewers Suffer Ennui of Excess’, The Times of India, 24 July
  8. Mc Quail, D.(1994),Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction, London, Sage Publications.
  9. Mencher, Melvin (1993), Basic News Writing, Universal Book Stall, New Delhi, P-108.
  10. Mytton, Graham (1983), Mass Communication in Africa, London: Edward Arnold.
  11. Narayanan Flays Fourth Estate… (1997),(the second Durga Das Memorial lecture at the parliament Annex, 23 April’1997), the Hindustan times, 24 April
  12. Ng’ wanakilala, NKwabi (1981), Mass Communication and Development of Socialism in Tanjania Dar as Salaam: Tanjania Publishing House.
  13. Prabhu, R.(1995), Truth or Toothpaste: What does media want to be? ; A lecture delivered in a seminar organized by the Forum for National Initiative at the Constitution Club, New Delhi, March, 26.
  14. Shaw, David(1981), Watching the Watchers; The Quill, December, P-12.
  15. Siebert, Fred S, Theodore Peterson, and Wilsur Sehramm(1956), Four Theories of the Press, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, P-73.

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