Gaurav Pandey

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Media freedom: the boundaries?

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The media has gained great momentum in the last decade due to some revolutionary activities and has implanted an imposing image in the minds of people. From uncovering scandals to reporting live events, reporters have fearlessly taken those few daring steps to give the common man news that he deserves.
The various channels and medium operate on the single foundation of Right to Information, a.k.a., democracy. However, there are some invisible lines drawn by human morals that prevent us from taking this right too literally. These invisible limits are defined by each individual depending on their levels of comfort in exposing themselves. The Indian law since age old has respected this demand of privacy and granted it without much ado in the name of Right to Privacy. Some individuals have used this right lawfully, while many have taken it for granted. However, unless escalated, the Indian law has respected it the same.
Lately, it has occurred many a times that the media has overstepped on to this personal space causing an outcry or a silent resentment. They, however, this time took it too far by prying into the matters of the Supreme Court and not just publishing but also mocking at the integrity of Supreme Court judgements, reducing the institution to mediocrity.
A report was published in all newspapers and tabloids on 13 September 2007. The report spoke of how the former Chief Justice of India Y K Sabharwal used the highest court of law to favour the business of his sons. It claimed that the Delhi sealing drive was declared so that the small time shop owners were forced to shut down and people would rely on the expensive shopping malls and outlets to meet their requirements. As Justice Sabharwal’s sons were in partnership with one of the mall owners in Delhi, this rule was brought in place.
However, the report does not provide any proof for the authenticity of these claims and presents it more in terms of a “guess” rather than confirmed facts. Therefore, the matter was taken up with the High Court who then called for the arrest of the journalists involved. This event brought forward a very important aspect of society. This feature is the governance of media activities by the state, especially with respect to the freedom exercised by them.
What makes the Indian scenario much more complex than a China or Singapore is that the Indian public opinion is vociferous: whether it is clumsy Internet censorship gone wrong or a foolishly heavy-handed broadcast bill. And in every case, the state backs off. That would not happen either in China or Singapore. Free speech is too ingrained here to be curtailed by broad-brush censorship or regulation though individual repression still happens.
For example, in this Midday editors’ case, the High Court sentenced the contemnors to four months in prison. However, following public outcry and a demand for justice from fellow reporters, the Supreme Court stayed the judgement until another hearing in January 2008. In dealing with the media, India’s democratic polity backs off from repression when there is publicity and pressure. Those who doubt it should look at some examples from other democracies.
We didn’t hear much in India about Tayseer Allouni, the Spanish journalist of Syrian origin who was sentenced to seven years in prison in Spain. He’s an Al Jazeera correspondent who was the first to interview Osama Bin Laden (in Afghanistan) after 9/11. A Spanish court convicted him of collaborating with the Al Qaeda. As a journalist, Allouni had a reputation for unflinching frontline coverage from Afghanistan. Nonetheless, last year the Spanish Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling sentencing him to jail.
His first sentence drew widespread condemnation and last year international pressure made the Spanish government move him to house arrest. But in the long run the Spanish courts and government have remained unmoved and he is now back in prison, serving a seven year sentence for having got an amazing scoop.
So, the question would be – is this kind of state apathy good or bad? Well, it may seem wrong to call it apathy, but when there is lack of interest in regulating any activity that poses a threat to the smooth running of a state or government, then we would call it apathy, in general.
It can be said that there are two sides to this coin. Allowing a considerable amount of media freedom definitely brings the marauders to books and gives an “all’s well that ends well” feeling to the society. It reassures the common man of justice and that any wrong doing is watched and monitored. A feeling of fear always instils discipline and a disciplined society definitely elevates the growth of the country, in all aspects.
On the contrary, allowing freedom to an unmanageable extent would mean that the chances of the media themselves taking advantage of their premium position and assisting wrong-doings within a society.
For example, the case of 3 reporters being arrested for a staging fake sting operation to apparently bust a prostitution racket was an obvious case of avarice for publicity and popularity. Or the fact that accessibility to media through easier channels allows for some anti-social elements to misuse it and poses greater risk to humanity.
The Right to Privacy should be respected by all and any action should be done for the greater good, not for an individual disadvantage. For this, the media should be allowed to operate within a regulated spectrum that allows enough freedom but at the same time objects to unlawful and anti-social engagement for personal gain.
If, as a thinking section of society, the media wants to raise these issues, they may go right ahead, but while doing so, let’s hope they will not unnecessarily confuse themselves with the concept of Press Freedom, and reserve the last for something more worthy. After all, the media belongs to the common man. 


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