Code Of Milking Holy Mammaries
In a cow worshipping country, the democratic high priests have a herd of their own to boast of and protect. It has holiness bestowed on some of its entitlements. Freedom of the Press (or simply a free media), which is an inferred right under The Right to Expression enshrined in Article 19 (1)(a), is one of them. Like all bovine deities, this freedom is revered but milked to the last drop which the generous mammaries have to offer. Any intervention in the milking has to be that of a Leviathan (sometimes Hobbesian and sometimes Orwellian), the all-pervasive State. And what if someone seen close to the ruling coterie comes up with an idea of having a state-ordained code for milking?
Well, then you have someone playing the vet as did Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan by moving a private member’s Bill in Parliament carrying the title – Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012. Even vets have to preface their prescriptions with a reaffirmation of the sanctity of the cow. And what does the vet say? “The rights conferred by the Constitution are sacrosanct and should be respected… the freedom of speech and expression has to be respected”. (So the vet agrees that the milking rights of the priests of liberal space are non-negotiable). But then comes her diagnosis: “News value has been dwindling every passing day”. And the lady has the remedial prescription ready: “There appears no other option but to regulate the print and electronic media and impose on it certain crucial reasonable restrictions, which are needed for the purpose of protecting national interest”. As reported in the press (The Indian Express, May 1, 2012), the prescription includes:
- Regulatory authority to be notified by the central government; exempt from RTI; can ban coverage of an event.
- Selection committee to have three members selected by the central government.
- Among “standards”: “Prohibition of reporting of any news item based in unverified and dubious material”; “prohibition of publication or broadcast of any material that is defamatory; clear “segregation of opinions from facts”; prohibition of reporting a news item which is obscene, vulgar or “offensive”.
- Power to “search and seize” any document “kept secretly at some secluded place”. Authority can suspend operations of the media organisation for a period of up to 11 months.
- No civil court will have jurisdiction of any matter which the Authority is empowered to determine.
(The vet has chosen to hide under the state’s sanctum sanctorum of Article 19. Article 19 (2) says that the Right to Expression is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, state security, public order, decency, morality or in relation to defamation or incitement to an offence.)
So the vet has uttered the r********* word. The Republic of Democratic Milking of Entitlements seems under threat, and you can see the residents of Planet Liberalism fuming. The priests are anxious about ‘persecution’ and rhetoric these days. Jehangir Pocha of News X sees an insidious subtext in the regulatory script.
There are other assembly line metaphors too for slapping the charges of persecution against an infringing state. The litany list includes the invocation of memories of the Emergency clampdown, censorship (see Outlook raising the bogey in its latest issue). R can’t meet D here, as Chandan Mitra says Regulation can’t co-exist with Democracy, and describes how the Bill is a damp squib for more reasons than one.
Interestingly, the vet’s prescription is neither consequential nor new. What is new and more disturbing for the milkmen and milkmaids is the realisation that a significant section of readers and viewers don’t share their sense of injury and that they are increasingly losing trust as shepherds of democratic citizenship – credible purveyors of news and views and platforms for public discourse.
The myth of self-regulation stands exposed in times when market forces drive the core of media operations, and ‘commerce of information and views’ was hardly the thing which Article 19 sought to protect. Driven by market mechanics, media houses have made themselves vulnerable to be regulated as commercial manufacturers of any other consumer product. There are some voices which realise this, despite being vocal about the urgency of cow protection. Ravish Kumar, NDTV, identifies the larger demon.
The milky mammaries of democracy are constitutionally holy. Like singing virtues of motherhood, the rhetoric of protection of media rights is convenient escapism and shows a reluctance to introspect. Self-regulation became an idea whose time never came in the Indian media sphere. At the same time, the State can never be an arbiter in the entrenched non-negotiables of liberal and democratic society. That’s a given and constitutionally incontrovertible. But the market forces have warped the zone of entitlements and the stark question is: who will straighten the crooked timbre? Who needs to bark at the watchdogs of democracy?
With inputs from Aastha Minocha.