November 28, 2020
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Freedom and Responsibility

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Freedom and Responsibility

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Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report

Freedom and Responsibility  

Freedom of the press is a derivative of the citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. It is, however, subject to “reasonable restrictions” under Art. 19(2). While the media enjoy the right to freedom and independence in the discharge of their duties, they are essentially trustees for the larger freedom of speech and expression. Through judicial pronouncements and international covenants to which India is a signatory, this includes the citizen’s right to inform and be informed. The right to know is a precious democratic right and is through this means that the citizen is ensured participation, transparency and accountability.  

The Indian media is privileged to enjoy a wide measure of freedom By this very token, it must exercise this freedom with responsibility in matters relating to public order, decency and morality, defamation and incitement to an offence. It is incumbent on the media to strive for objectivity, fairness and balance, to avoid sensationalism or anything that is liable to inflame passions, especially during periods of stress and tension. It is also obligated to make corrections and afford injured parties the right of reply. In situations of communal strife, the Indian tradition has been to avoid naming the communities involved so as not to exacerbate tensions.  

These conventions were evolved in the 1950s and 1960s when the media was far more limited in terms of reach and circulation. There was no TV and even radio was largely confined to more affluent homes (until the transistor revolution). News bulletins were few and by and large there was a 6 to 24-hour news cycle. No more. The information revolution and new technologies have created an instant, interconnected world intricately and extensively networked by large, small and inter-personal means of communication. The new media does not respect 24-hour deadlines. News is disseminated in real time. The 24-hour TV news channels enter homes and work places with immediate announcements and updates of “breaking news”. Email, the web and mobile phone are ubiquitous.  

Despite the speed with which electronic news moves, rumour travels faster, like greased lightning. There are many voices, big and little, formal as well as personal carrying it here, there and everywhere. So truth and authenticated information are in constant competition with disinformation. To use the terminology of nuclear warfare, the legitimate media must therefore enjoy first-strike capability. Else it will trail behind disinformation, speculation and rumour, never quite catching up and merely reacting to the agenda set by master manipulators and vested interests. Technology has critically altered the rules of engagement between truth or objective news reportage and falsehood or concoction. Old norms therefore require careful review and revalidation or amendment.    

This is obviously a complex and delicate issue that requires extensive debate and reflection so that appropriate norms are devised for the future.  

It is in this context that modern media coverage and the reportage of Gujarat must be evaluated. It might be irresponsible not to portray the facts as they are with all dispatch. Like war, riots too begin in the minds of men and truth can be a defence against “information terrorism”, incitement and panic. Sensationalism, horror and excitement of passions can be moderated, if not averted, by the manner of presentation, the choice of words and commentary, the editing of footage and pictures, the headlines, positioning and general treatment. This is where professionalism, experienced “gatekeepers” like chief reporters, news editors and chief sub-editors or page editors and anchors can exercise discretion under overall top editorial control not merely during “office hours” but in anticipation of major deadlines around the clock.  

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