When I read the advisory issued by the Press Council of India (PCI) on November 25, I was reminded of Nina MacLaughlin’s latest four-part column in the Paris Review “Inhale the Darkness”. Among multiple questions from this Cambridge, Massachusetts-based writer, some reflected my own fears, “will it keep getting darker, will the darkness swallow me, will it swallow us all together?”
In its wisdom, the Press Council of India issued an advisory that read, “The Press Council of India has considered references received from various quarters by the Government about the responsibility of Indian Newspapers in publishing foreign contents. The Council is of the view that unregulated circulation of the foreign content is not desirable. Hence, it advises the media to publish foreign extracts in Indian newspapers with due verification as the Reporter, Publisher and Editor of such newspaper shall be responsible for the contents irrespective of the source from which it is received.”
The Emergency years
Before addressing the stark nature of the advisory, it is important to understand the two roles assigned to the PCI: while it will remain a watchdog of journalistic ethics, it will also function as a shield to the freedom of the press. During the Emergency, the PCI was abolished and the Act that led to the constitution of the Council was repealed because the then government felt that the Council had taken the role of a shield to the freedom of press seriously. When the gory stories of Emergency’s excesses and its onslaught on independent press came out, the Janata Government decided to re-convene the PCI, to protect the right to freedom of press. In fact, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, spoke at length about the need for an independent and unfettered press when he introduced the Bill to re-establish the Council.
If Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Information Minister during the Emergency, V.C. Shukla, had known that the PCI would issue advisories on the basis of complaints received from the government, without fully examining them and with zero consultations with news organisations, they would not have even abolished the Council. They felt that the Council will never surrender its shield-role. They felt that the Council, in a sense, exemplified the separation of powers. In order to implement the will of the Executive, the Council was abolished.
The advisory from the Council not only undermines the freedom of expression and the independent media, it also reveals how little thinking has gone into the process before issuing an advisory that is impossible to comply with. The term ‘foreign’ has a wide connotation, and it includes even international news agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press and the Agence France-Presse . It also covers a range of news organisations with which many Indian newspapers and magazines have syndicated arrangements. The fact is, newsgathering is an expensive exercise. By having an international arrangement, a newspaper not only manages to defray the cost, but also fulfils its fundamental goal of informing its readers without being hampered by the resource crunch. The act of verification is central to any credible news organisation. The editorial assumption of an Indian newspaper, when it subscribes to or gets into a syndication arrangement with a foreign news organisation, is that the source agency has verified and authenticated an item before it is put out in the public domain. If a newspaper has the resources to verify and fact-check every statement put out by the agencies, it would very well, in the first place, have appointed more correspondents rather than depending on an external source. It is fair to say that the PCI’s advisory has very little understanding of the political economy of the news gathering and news dissemination business.
One of the benchmarks for the independent functioning of any watchdog is to maintain a critical distance from all stakeholders. And, in the case of complaints against one arm, it is incumbent on the watchdog to share the details of the nature of the complaints. What does the PCI mean when it says ‘various quarters by the Government’? It is vital for the Council to understand the difference between an advisory and a gag order. Gag orders often become tools for prior restraint and have serious consequences for both free speech and a citizen’s right to receive information. Only a meaningful regulation exhales darkness.