Separating the wheat from the chaff in journalism

Journalism will suffer irreparable damage if legal relief is denied to those who provide us the wheat

The Press Council of India’s (PCI) statement against the attack on the Editor of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, reminded me of a recent Twitter crowd-sourcing effort by Alan Rusbridger, Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and former Editor of The Guardian. Mr. Rusbridger wanted readers to provide “examples of chaff”. He was referring to American politician Adlai Ewing Stevenson II’s assertion that “newspaper editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.” An interesting sentence of the PCI’s statement read: “Violence is not the answer even against bad journalism.” It is important that not only the PCI but also the government and the courts notice the difference between editors who put out the chaff in the public domain and those who strive to deliver the wheat.

Mr. Goswami moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the FIRs filed against him for allegedly defaming Congress President Sonia Gandhi. He approached the apex court a day after at least 16 complaints were filed against him in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Chhattisgarh. His plea was filed on April 23 evening, and the Supreme Court, on April 24, granted him a reprieve for three weeks. One yearns for the courts to display the same swiftness in hearing journalists who, against multiple odds, try to give their readers and the audience substantive news and credible analysis.

A case languishing in the court

Let us first see the fate of a case in the Supreme Court. A PIL sought permission for private FM and community radio stations to air news. In my column, “Liberating the radio?” (October 21, 2013), I pointed out that news is not permitted and politics is proscribed under clause 5 (vi) of the Policy Guidelines for setting up Community Radio Stations. Many community radio stations have had to confine themselves to broadcasting the developmental agenda of the NGO concerned or the donor agency. The irony is that while several of them have ‘community radio reporters’, these reporters are not expected to produce and broadcast any news. The only news that is permitted is All India Radio’s bulletin without any modification whatsoever. When the case came up for hearing before the first Bench of the apex court in 2013, comprising then Chief Justice of India (CJI) P. Sathasivam and Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the judges said, “You rightly mentioned that radio is accessible to everybody. There is no problem in case of TV channels. Only TV channels are allowed to broadcast news. Radio channels have access to every village, nook and corner. We will examine the issue. We will impose some conditions…. (before granting permission).” Justice Sathasivam went on to complete a full term as Governor of Kerala after retiring as CJI, and Justice Gogoi, who was elevated later as the CJI, is now a Member of Parliament. But there is no progress in this case.

Providing little relief

The Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin, moved the Supreme Court in August 2019 seeking directions to ensure that mediapersons and journalists from Jammu and Kashmir are able to freely practise their profession. “The information blackout set in motion is a direct and grave violation of the right of the people to know about the decisions that directly impact their lives and their future. The Internet and telecommunication shutdown also means that the media cannot report on the aforesaid developments, and the residents of Kashmir thus don’t get access to information that is otherwise publicly available to the rest of India,” she said.

Early this year, the court came up with some progressive observations but little in terms of relief. The declarations of the Bench of Justices N.V. Ramana, R. Subhash Reddy and B.R. Gavai, on the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession, and about the medium of the Internet, were commendable. However, the Bench did not accept the plea of the petitioners to quash government orders suspending and later shutting down Internet, mobile and fixed-line telecommunication services.

It is ethical to protect the rights of even those who provide the chaff. Journalism will suffer irreparable damage if legal relief is denied to those who provide us the wheat.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 3:40:32 PM |

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