It has been a challenge guiding the Editors Guild of India over two years, in what are difficult times for the Indian media.
Two years ago, when I was asked to become the President of the Editors Guild of India, I did so with some trepidation. The Guild had a formidable reputation of having been at the forefront of editorial integrity and independence. Set up in the Emergency years, it emerged stronger through the trial of fire. The members of the Guild comprise the grey eminences of the profession. As one of the youngest members of the Guild, I was both a little awed and certainly very honoured to be president of the august body. Two years later, as I end my term as president, I feel privileged to have been given the challenge of guiding the Guild through difficult times for the Indian media.
Perhaps, the biggest challenge we have been confronted with is the menace of ‘paid news'. That paid news existed across media organisations is one of the profession's worst-kept secrets. It required a journalist of P. Sainath's repute to put it on the front page of The Hindu and force a national debate on the issue. At the Guild, we decided to make ‘paid news' the focus of our activities in 2010. We may not have succeeded in erasing it from the media landscape, but at least there seems to be a greater consciousness now than ever before of the need to control ‘paid news' journalism.
We have worked together in the last 12 months with other journalist bodies — most notably the Indian Women's Press Corps and the Press Association — to create an atmosphere which rejects ‘paid news' as a journalistic malpractice that erodes the very foundation of our professional integrity. It hasn't been easy. While a number of editors support a move that will not allow news space to be sold as advertising without proper disclosure norms, many proprietors seem reluctant to abandon what is seen as a lucrative business opportunity. It should come as no surprise that it was the newspaper owners who were unwilling to allow the Press Council of India report on ‘paid news' to be made public in its entirety.
But where the Press Council has had a limited role, the Election Commission has shown enormous resolve in stepping in to act against ‘paid news'. During the last 12 months, the Guild's senior members have interacted with the Election Commission in an effort to find a solution. During the recent Bihar elections, the Commission appointed specific media monitoring officials who worked under expenditure committees in every district. The Commission says it received 86 complaints which were immediately acted upon, forcing candidates to declare any expenses on ‘paid news' as part of their election expenses. According to Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, this constant monitoring of ‘paid news' during the Bihar elections has had a positive effect: candidates were much more careful in their attempts to misuse the media in this campaign than was the case in the 2009 general elections.
The problem hasn't disappeared: ‘paid news' during elections is only one aspect of the issue. Corporates through ‘private treaties' continue to manipulate news coverage as do other interest groups. Moreover, in a country with over 35,000 newspapers and over 100 news channels, there is an obvious limitation to any policing of ‘paid news'. In fact, we need to take the campaign against paid news to every corner of the country and empower journalists and editors to feel confident of resisting attempts to allow news to be ‘bought'.
Issue of intimidation
The other big challenge for us at the Guild has been the need to protect journalists against attempts by the state to intimidate them. In Manipur, for example, newspapers have found it extremely difficult to function in an atmosphere of fear and violence.
In January this year, a two-member fact finding team of senior journalists, B.G. Verghese and Sumit Chakravarty, visited Imphal, met editors and other stakeholders, and came up with a detailed report. The report was presented to the Prime Minister's Office and the Home Ministry and appears to have had the desired effect of ensuring some minimum accountability on the part of the state machinery. In Kashmir too, during the summer violence, newspapers and news channels were once again in the line of fire. Again, the Guild attempted to convince the political establishment of the need to allow the media to function independently.
It's not just the militancy affected states where the media finds itself being muzzled. There have been instances of attacks on journalists reported from Karnataka and Maharashtra too. In both States, we have received complaints of state power being used to silence journalists who are critical of government. In Karnataka, the Guild stepped in to prevent the jailing of a journalist who was targeted only because he had got on the wrong side of the authorities in the State.
As the year draws to a close, the media finds itself facing a serious credibility crisis in the light of the Niira Radia tapes. Like the paid news expose, the Radia tapes too confirm what has been known for some time: journalists and editors share a rather cosy relationship with political and corporate India. This raises troubling questions for a profession whose self-image is rooted in its ability to confront those in power. The easy co-option of the media into the power elite and its consequent manipulation is worrying for those who see the primary role of the media to be that of a watchdog.
Facing up to the moral crisis in the prevailing media environment is the next big challenge before the Editors Guild as we enter a new year with a new team.
(The writer is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 and outgoing president of the Editors Guild of India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)