On the wrong side: On PCI backing Kashmir restrictions

The Press Council of India (PCI)’s support of government restrictions on communication last week was brazenly contrary to its mandate and purpose. It has sought to intervene in a petition by Kashmir Times executive editor Anuradha Bhasin, pending before the apex court, seeking an end to the restrictions on communication in Jammu and Kashmir that were imposed before the Government’s decision on August 5 to revoke the special constitutional status of the erstwhile State. The petitioner has cited Articles 14 (equality before the law) and 19 (freedom of speech and expression) of the Constitution of India, and the PCI’s intervention, if any, should have been on the side of the petitioner. Instead, it has justified restrictions on communication “in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation”. The notion that an open society, and an independent media, are somehow a threat to the nation’s integrity and sovereignty is nothing less than a rationale for despotism. That it is coming from a statutory, quasi-judicial, autonomous body whose mandate it is to protect and reinforce a professional and objective media is shocking.

The PCI explains its raison d’tetre as “rooted in the concept that in a democratic society the press needs at once to be free and responsible”. Of course, freedom of expression like any other freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions. But the operative word is ‘reasonable’. “Where the norms are breached and the freedom is defiled by unprofessional conduct, a way must exist to check and control it. But, control by Government or official authorities may prove destructive of this freedom... Hence, the Press Council,” it says. The PCI’s stance in the instant case goes against the letter and spirit of this claim. Its track record may not have been stellar; nevertheless, its interventions occasionally held the mirror to deviant journalists and publications and, at the same time, sought to shield the profession and professionals from the highhandedness of the state and non-state actors. It supported the Punjab Press in its “efforts to inform the people truthfully and impartially” during the years of militancy in the early 1990s; around the same period, it pulled up several publications that showed communal bias in coverage of the Ayodhya agitation. In fact, the PCI considers “defaming a community a serious matter” and believes “ascribing to it a vile, anti-national activity is reprehensible and amounts to journalistic impropriety”. India is currently witnessing a disturbing debasement of standards in journalism, and the PCI’s legal and ethical obligation has never been so critical. Media is often called upon by the state to privilege a narrowly defined national interest over truthful reporting; professional media in a democracy must view truthful reporting in itself as in national interest. The PCI must play its mandated role and not kowtow to the government of the day.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2022 5:31:24 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/on-the-wrong-side/article29254013.ece