Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
Media Codes and Ethics
The media has long been subject to formal and informal media codes. Foremost among these are constitutional and statutory injunctions. Article 19(2) permits imposition of reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in relation to “the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.
On the onset of the latest communal outbreak in Gujarat, the Chairman of the Press Council, Justice K. Jayachandra Reddy issued an appeal calling upon the media “to mould public opinion on correct lines in regard to the need of friendly and harmonious relations between various communities and religious groups and thus promote national solidarity…”.
On April 3 Mr Reddy noted with deep anguish “that a large number of newspapers and news channels in the country and, in particular, a large section of the print and electronic media in Gujarat has, instead of alleviating communal unrest, played an ignoble role in inciting communal passions leading to large scale rioting, arson and pillage in the State concerned.” He called once more on the media to observe “proper norms and standards … and not to distort or exaggerate (and) not to employ intemperate, inciting and unrestrained language”. The local papers were particularly enjoined to strict adherence of this norm.
The Press Council Chairman asked the media “to be peace makers and not abettors, to be trouble shooters and not trouble makers” in the present situation. He concluded by reminding the media that contravention of ethical norms in reporting or commenting on matters pertaining to communal harmony is likely to invite penal action under provisions of Section 295-A of the Indian penal Code and allied provisions”. Section 295-A is akin to Section 153 and relates to speech and writings which wilfully injure religious sentiments and maliciously incite communal hatred.
In its Report to the National Human Rights Commission, the Gujarat Government insisted that “the major acts of violence were contained within 72 hours”. It asserts, however, that “on account of widespread reporting both in the visual as well as the electronic media, incidents of violence on a large scale started occurring in Ahmedabad (and) Baroda cities and some towns of Panchmahals, Sabarkantha, Mehsana, etc”. The NHRC was not greatly impressed. It referred to Articles 19(1)(a) and I9(2) and went on to express itself “clearly in favour of a courageous and investigative role for the media”. At the same time, it added, “the Commission is of the view that there is need for all concerned to reflect on possible guidelines that the media should adopt, on a ‘self-policing’ basis, to govern its conduct in volatile situations, including those of inter-communal violence, with a view to ensuring that passions are not inflamed and further violence perpetrated”.
Mr L.K.Advani, Home Minister, urged the media to practice “responsible journalism” when he addressed the National Union of Journalists at Tirupati on April 6. He deplored the general decline in media values he sensed in the coverage of the December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament and the more recent events in Gujarat. The age-old convention of not mentioning the names of communities involved had been abandoned by a section of the media.
The question of naming the religious identity of riot victims was the subject of considerable deliberation in the Second Press Commission, the National Integration Council and the Press Council. The Editors Guild is seized of the matter. The issue is undoubtedly highly sensitive and complex. Technology has introduced a new dimension to the debate, though this by itself cannot be a reason to ignore content. A balance has to be struck and where it is struck will vary with circumstances. Barkha Dutt puts it pithily: “Naming the community under siege in Gujarat was moot to the story. In fact it was the story”. Rajdeep Sardesai adds: “It was the mob that was determining the pace of events, and not the channels who were merely reporting what was happening on the ground”.