Media hardly a watchdog; a flawed fourth pillar  

While lauded as the fourth pillar of democracy, a large section of the media today appears as the ‘fifth column’, corroding our democracy from within

Photo by Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images
Photo by Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images

S Y Quraishi

India, the largest democracy on the planet, is highly regarded as vibrant, safeguarded by the most credible institutions like the Election Commission, an independent judiciary and the media.

Media in fact is supposed to be the most important watchdog of democracy and its freedom the biggest critical indicator of the quality of a democracy. The role of the media in playing its vital role has, however, been coming in for sharp criticism lately, thanks to its own irresponsible conduct.

In the latest report of World Press Freedom Index 2017, India is ranked at 136 out of 180 nations, slipping from the 105th position back in 2010. There has been continuous slide ever since. Ironically, according to the report, even countries like Palestine, Afghanistan

and Uganda have more freedom than India. Even the Freedom House Index 2017 classifies the Indian Press as ‘partly free’ which is a matter of shame.

Media’s own lack of integrity, strong arm of the government and the vigilantism of a section of the public have all contributed to this dismal situation. The India Freedom Report 2016-17 (the has observed that in the period of 16 months under report, 54 attacks and 25 serious threats to journalists in India were reported.

This low rating, along with issues like corruption, mass illiteracy and poor status of women etc have caused India to be consistently listed among ‘Flawed Democracies’ in the Global Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit published annually.

Paid News

In recent years, corruption within the Indian media has gone far beyond the corruption of individual journalists and specific media organisations. From ‘planting’ information and views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind, to more institutionalised and organised forms of corruption, wherein newspapers and television channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information in favour of particular individuals, corporate entities, film producers and actors, you have it all.

Although the media was used in the past to manipulate stock and the real estate markets, the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ acquired a new and more pernicious dimension by entering the sphere of political ‘news’ or ‘reporting’ on candidates contesting elections over the last few years.

The malpractice of paid news has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country. Alarmingly, these illegal operations have become ‘organised’ and involve advertising agencies and public relations firms, besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies.

So-called ‘rate cards’ or ‘packages’ that include ‘rates’ for publishing ‘news’ items in a predetermined manner, not merely praising particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents, are distributed. Candidates who do not go along with such ‘extortionist’ practices are blacked out, if not tarnished brutally.

Given the illegal and clandestine nature of malpractices, it is not easy to find clinching evidence in the area of political ‘paid news’ that pins responsibility for such corrupt practices on particular persons and organisations. All we have is circumstantial evidence that points towards the growing use of the media for publishing ‘paid news’.

A sub-committee appointed by the Press Council of India, comprising K. Sreenivas Reddy and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, documented instances of identical articles with photographs and headlines appearing in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors around the same time.

You could even find articles praising competing candidates, claiming that both are likely to win the same elections, both on the same page of a newspaper, since both had bought the package !

Another modus operandi is that advertisement tariff is ‘officially’ slashed to suit a candidate’s expenditure ceiling, but the actual rates are in fact increased, with the difference being paid in cash.

Besides, last-minute poll surveys are sometimes organised predicting the victory of whichever candidate pays more than the others. Over and above this, expensive poll packages are offered by some media organisations to promote a particular candidate and black-out others.

The Press Council defined ‘paid news’ as ‘any news or analysis appearing in any media (print and electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.’ Paid news not only seeks to circumvent election laws relating to ceilings on expenditure that can be incurred by a candidate, but such advertising, masquerading as news, has the potential to exercise undue influence on voters and adversely affect their right to factually correct information. There has been widespread condemnation of this phenomenon within and outside Parliament.

Appointing ombudsmen in media organisations and better self regulation are ways to check the ‘paid news’ phenomenon. However, self-regulation, though ideal, could just be wishful thinking and could at best offer partial solutions to the problem, since there will always be offenders who will refuse to abide by voluntary codes of conduct and ethical norms that are not legally mandated. The owners of media companies need to realise that in the long term such malpractices undermine not just the credibility of the media but imperil democracy itself.

Two of India’s renowned journalists, (the late) Prabhash Joshi and Kuldeep Nayar were the first crusaders against ‘paid news’. P Sainath of the Hindu took it as a mission to expose the malaise. Mrinal Pande even resigned the editorship of a national daily when she was confronted with the ugly reality of bypassing the editorial department and the introduction of ‘lethal and invisible viruses within the system that may corrode and finally kill the newspaper.’

Election Commission and Media

The Election Commission has always accepted the media as its ally. With its wide reach in every nook and corner of the country, the media is more vigilant and often quicker in noticing and highlighting malpractices resorted to by candidates and political parties in their political campaigns.

Quite often, it is through the media that the Commission observes or becomes aware

of violations of the Model Code of Conduct or other corrupt or illegal practices being indulged in by certain candidates and their supporters and workers. In all such cases the Commission promptly directs urgent remedial action.

That apart, the Commission heavily depends on the media’s power to inform and educate all stakeholders about its directions and instructions as well as its programmes, election schedules and awareness campaigns. It is because of the media that the Commission effectively implements the Model Code of Conduct, as it is the fear of adverse publicity that makes political parties and candidates wary of violations of the Code. Public censure through the media is the sanction behind the Model Code of Conduct.

The Commission decided that a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) in each district would keep an eye on all the advertisements and news published about candidates during the election process. They are tasked to report any suspected paid news published during this period to the returning officer and expenditure observer. Based on these reports, notices are given to candidates for not showing expenses on such advertisements or paid news. In 2013 there were 396 confirmed cases of paid news during Elections. However, in 2014 General Elections, these went up to 1009 and it seems to be reflecting upon the democracy index.

The Umlesh Yadav case

The most famous paid news case surfaced in 2007 before the Press Council of India (PCI) against two major dailies, Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala, for publishing paid news on 17 April 2007, that is, on the eve of UP Vidhan sabha elections, with a view to furthering the prospects of Umlesh Yadav, a BSP candidate. The Council held the respondent newspapers Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran guilty of ethical violations and, adopting the observations of the Inquiry Committee, it cautioned the media to refrain from publishing news masquerading as advertisements and vice versa. For action against the candidate, it referred the case to the Election Commission of India.

The Election Commission found Ms Yadav guilty and, in for the first time ever, disqualified her for a period of three years for failure to submit correct accounts in the manner prescribed, under Section 10A of The Representation of the People Act, 1951. Her appeal in the High Court was dismissed. The case is now in the Supreme Court.

It’s a pity that media which was always considered the fourth pillar of democracy is now becoming the fifth column of democracy! This is an urgent wake up call.

The author is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder - The Making of the Great Indian Election

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