There were two messages for the media on the occasion of National Press Day: the government clearly signalled a hands-off policy, even while the outspoken chief of the Press Council of India (PCI) warned that the freedom of the press must be “crushed” if it did not help raise the standard of living of the masses.

“As a country, we believe in complete independence of the media from external control,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a message to the members of the press. “It is true that sometimes irresponsible journalism can have serious consequences for social harmony and public order, which the public authorities have an obligation to maintain, but censorship is no answer.”

Instead, the Prime Minister said it was for the press itself to “collectively ensure that objectivity is promoted and sensationalism is curbed” and to introspect how they could best serve the country.

On the other hand, PCI Chairman Justice Markandey Katju seemed to indicate that press freedom was conditional, depending on how the media did its job.

“Freedom of press is not an absolute right. The absolute right is the improvement of standard of living of the masses,” he said at a function held to mark National Press Day, which commemorates the establishment of the Press Council on November 16, 1956. “If freedom of press helps the improvement of standard of living of masses, then it’s a good thing. But if freedom of press lowers the standard of living of people, makes people poorer, then we must crush freedom of press.”

Justice Katju reiterated his long-running complaint that the media focussed too much on the latest Bollywood film or Tendulkar century, rather than unemployment or farmers’ suicides.

Speaking at the same event, Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari echoed the Prime Minister in emphasising need for self-regulation by the media itself. He made it clear that the government had no intention of acting as a “big brother” or policing the media.

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