Eight days after Zee News, the flagship property of Zee Media Corporation Limited (ZMCL), was to telecast an apology on prime time on September 8 by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) — a self-regulatory organisation tasked with fostering high standards and ethical practices in news broadcasting, the national news channel wilfully ignored the self-regulatory body’s mandate.
What’s the case?
On August 01, 2017, the NBSA, a nine-member authority comprising a jurist — currently, former Supreme Court Judge, Justice RV Raveendran — four people with knowledge and/or experience in fields such as law, education, medicine, science, literature and four editors (employed with a broadcaster), had ordered Zee News to telecast an apology on prime time for malicious coverage against scientist and poet Gauhar Raza.
The order was issued following a complaint by Raza who had said Zee News’ March 9, 2016, coverage of him was “defamatory and derogatory”.
Broadcasting visuals of Raza reciting poems at the 51st Annual Shankar Shad Mushaira, Zee News ran a programme called ‘Afzal premi gang ka mushaira’ (Poetry symposium of a gang of Afzal [Guru] admirers) and labelled Raza as a desh-virodhi shaayar (an anti-national poet). In his complaint, Raza also stated that the same was repeatedly telecast by the channel from March 9 to March 12.
Giving specifics to the way the apology should be issued, the regulatory authority asked Zee News to run a full-screen, large font, slow-scroll apology expressing its regret about the views stated during the show and the tag lines used.
Nevertheless, on September 8, Zee News went ahead with its prime-time discussion on why journalists should not peddle propaganda. The show was calling to account Congress leader Digvijay Singh for using ‘abhadra’ (indecent) and ‘aapati janak’ (questionable) language for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Newslaundry reached out to Sudhir Chaudhary, editor-in-chief of Zee News, to ask him why the channel ignored NBSA’s order. This was his response.
“I have given a quote on this topic to various other media houses, however, I would not extend the same courtesy to a website like Newslaundry that has continuously been unfair in presenting and reporting stories about my organisation or me. You may pick the quotes given to other media platforms for this story. Thank you.”
In a report in Chaudhary had defended the programme on Raza, stating that, “We follow all journalistic principles and guidelines issued by NBA while telecast of news stories.” Denying any violation of NBSA guidelines, Zee News had responded to the August 31 order saying that the programming was “within the realm of fair comment”. It also added that its show was “true and factually correct” and said, “It would be unfair to be punished for speaking the truth.”
What will Raza do now?
Newslaundry reached out to Raza and asked him what he’d do next. He said, “I am yet to explore my next course of action. I will have to talk to my lawyer for that.” Nevertheless, he added, “It is very unfortunate that the channel has completely trampled upon the rule of law. It is completely unheard of in a democratic society that an order passed by a democratic authority is completely disregarded.” Further, Raza said, “The NBSA was created democratically. Therefore, disregarding the rule of such an authority, which one is itself part of, when the rules become inconvenient, is a complete disregard for democracy and disregard of a citizen’s right to react.”
Echoing Raza’s thoughts, lawyer Vrinda Grover, also Raza’s counsel in the case, said a self-regulatory authority like the NBSA was formed to ensure independence of the media and avoid interference by the state. “Therefore, a brazen disregard of such regulations and guidelines—which they themselves adopted—by one of the most prominent channels like Zee lead to a peculiar situation, where the media house is acting in both an archaic and authoritarian manner.”
“When as a media channel you want to hold the state accountable, you want to hold the rich accountable but you yourself refuse to be accountable then it leaves us with this peculiar situation,” Grover added. Talking about the next course of action, Grover said, “I am a lawyer, I am not going to reveal my legal strategy to the media.”
Nevertheless, she added, “We are not going to advocate that the state should tell the media what to do.”
In response to if the next course of action could include approaching the NBSA, Grover said, “It is a self-regulatory body, which Zee decide to join on its own will and it decided to abide by. And that is how media should be. NBSA is not supposed to run after them to make them abide. The responsibility is with Zee and the question is whether it is a responsible media channel or not.” While Grover declined to comment on whether they would take the matter to court, she said people will decided if Zee is to be treated as a responsible media channel.
Could the NBSA step up?
Newslaundry also reached out to Annie Joseph, NBSA’s secretary general for comments. Joseph disconnected the call stating that she doesn’t give comments to the media. The call lasted 25 seconds with no response to follow-up texts and calls.
That still left us unclear about NBSA’s effectiveness as a self-regulatory body. So, we reached out to Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist, author and political commentator, to understand alternatives available to self-regulatory bodies such as the NBSA and if such bodies were anything more than toothless organisations.
Thakurta, who has written a book on media ethics, said, “If you are part of an organisation and you have agreed to abide by the rules and regulations set up by the organisation, then it is most unfortunate that you don’t adhere to it now that it doesn’t suit you so.”
Thakurta added, “Media regulation in India is completely anarchic and in a state of chaos with multiple bodies, most of them highly ineffective. The time has come for a body that could draw on models like the Federal Communications Commission of the US or the Office of Communications of the UK or other regulatory bodies from other parts of the world.” Thakurta, nevertheless, added that he is not in favour of “heavy-handed statutory regulation for the media but the other extreme which is regulations with a light touch also doesn’t work”. “We need to devise our own regulatory body,” he added.
“For a regulatory body to be effective it needs to have two things. One, it needs to have a constitutional status like the Supreme Court of India or the Election Commission of India or the Auditor and Comptroller General, which can only be set up by Parliament. And more importantly as and when it is set up, such a body needs to have punitive powers. Because it is not enough to have individuals who believe in the right to free expression,” Thakurta said.
Giving the example of the Press Council of India, he added, “The Press Council has no punitive powers, the maximum it can do is admonish. It can’t do anything [to punish] not even impose a fine. What’s the use of having a statutory body when it has only powers to admonish and no powers to punish,” Thakurta said in conclusion.
Commenting on this, Hartosh Singh Bal, The Caravan’s political editor, said, “All attempts at self-regulation by the television news sector have totally failed. Something has to change.” It cannot be government intervention, Bal said, adding, “A statutory body, like the Press Council, whose mandate even though weak has the power to listen to complaints and give directions to people.” Speaking about the current status of self-regulatory bodies for television, Bal said, the least of “what is needed is a body like the Press Council, even though the Press Council itself is a body with huge problems”.
Nevertheless, will the limitations of NBSA’s powers deter it from holding a member accountable to the same moral binding as it preaches? There’s not much to be hopeful about given previous incidents like with India TV’s Rajat Sharma.
The author can be contacted on Twitter at @quilledwords.