June 22, 2021
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Soul searching? Hardly. The "emergency protocol" that some news channels rolled out in a hurry is just a pithy reconstruction of a code that the government itself had put together two years ago. Why the hysteria then? And why the hurried embrace now?

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Quick Fix Solutions

Can people in the business of disseminating information on television occasionally stand up and say: Sorry, we may have transgressed? 

In this case, a mere "sorry" to the people who, in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Mumbai, were obliged to relate their traumatic ordeal for the world to soak in, nanoseconds after they were rescued from the bowels of their hideouts, forced as they were in captivity for three days? A "sorry" for putting out news that was way off the mark? An audible apology for almost bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of war--when newscasters hysterically announced a complete freeze on communication, troop mobilisation and much else besides? 

How about an anchor apologising for allowing a hysterical actress/guest to get away with gibberish? How about educating the audience that there is more to life than just saying no to taxes? How about some acknowledgement that there are millions, staying in shanties who pay indirect taxes each time they buy the essentials that are many times the direct taxes paid by these beautiful people?  How about some caution when bashing elected representatives of state?

Sixty hours of non-stop television can impact people in different ways. Speaking for viewers, the surfeit of information can be exhausting and nerve-wracking. For some of those whose business it is to provide news, perhaps it's a high that cannot be put in words. And so it was that November 26, and three days thereafter, impacted people in different ways. 

There's no denying the sheer scale of horror and tragedy that unravelled before the eyes, courtesy television.  Television was the messenger, getting us more and more horrific news with each passing minute. And clearly, the messenger wasn't always reliable. Sometimes, it seemed to get so carried away by the message that its delivery is now being questioned. And it's the viewer and the government who are asking questions. The anchors can apologise to the viewers, but how do they get past the government which did not hide its intentions of coming out with a watch-out or we-will-gag-you message?

So, when the News Broadcasting Association, with 14 news channels on its rolls, rolled out an "emergency protocol" yesterday, more by way of pre-empting the ministry of information and broadcasting from framing guidelines, and embraced it at the blink of an eye, it just turned out to be a pithy reconstruction of a code that the government itself had put together two years ago, rather than some serious atama chintan. That code too was meant to be broad guidelines and was not exhaustive. Only, the very mention of  a code drew had drawn hysterical responses. But this time, the "emergency protocol"  has been embraced without a murmur.

The government-sponsored code, of course, does not mention armed conflict. It states that while reporting violent events, natural calamities and accidents, appropriate regard must be paid to the feelings of relatives and viewers. Inclusion of images of dead or seriously wounded people or gruesome or gory scenes which may seriously distress or offend substantial number of viewers should not be included in the telecast. The feelings and sensitivities of grieving relatives or the injured must be respected and interviews avoided.

And what does the emergency protocol say? Pretty much the same, but it's pithier.  The dead should be treated with dignity and their visuals should not be shows. Special care should be taken in the broadcast of any distressing visuals and graphics showing grief and emotional scenes of victims and relatives which could cause distress to children and families.

The code says that news should be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality. The protocol states that the media has the responsibility to disseminate information which is factually accurate and objective

The code says news should not jeopardize the security of the nation and care should be taken that news sessions are in the interest of the nation. All plans for a broadcast which explores and exposes the views of people who use or advocate violence for the achievement of political ends must be considered carefully by senior editorial/management before any arrangements for broadcasting are made.

While the code appears to be a little more liberal, the protocol says no live reporting should be made that facilitates publicity of any terrorist or militant outfit or its ideology or tends to evoke sympathy for the perpetrators or glamorizes them or their cause or advances the illegal agenda or objectives of the perpetrators.

The point is, reading of the code framed by the government two years ago with all stake holders in mind may not be a bad thing to do since it also prescribes the filters required to allow news to pass through. The filters are the stringent conditions that distinguish news from hearsay. And the code is an act of faith, a compact that television has with the viewer --much like the protocol.

It goes without saying that the government should have had a structure in place to provide information to the media by the hour, through its appointed representatives. Again, it was the duty of the government to have put "reasonable restrictions" when it was waging a war on terror.

True, freedom of expression is paramount and must be guarded against any intervention from the government, but information needs to be handled with care and responsibility. Because the message is often fragile and the damage done cannot be undone post facto.

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