Madras HC Order on Forming Press Council May Have Unintended Consequences: Media Bodies

The court gave sweeping powers to the proposed Press Council of Tamil Nadu to tackle the problem of fake news and fake journalists.

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New Delhi: Newspapers and journalists’ bodies have expressed concern that a sweeping order by the Madras high court to clamp down on the ‘fake journalists’ who participate in illegal practices like blackmailing may have unintended consequences and could hamper press freedom and harm the rights of genuine journalists.

In an order dated August 19, the high court had ordered the formation of a Press Council of Tamil Nadu, which the state government was asked to form within three months. The proposed body would be headed by a retired Supreme Court or high court judge and would have experienced journalists, both working and retired, retired IAS and IPS officers as members.

The high court gave sweeping powers to the proposed body, including sole authority to recognise press clubs and journalists’ associations or unions in the state. “The council shall conduct and approve elections to these clubs, unions and associations,” the court ordered, according to The Hindu.

Elections to each association should be held within a period stipulated by the press council, failing which any body will “automatically be brought under the administration of the council”. The government will henceforth not be allowed to allot houses or grant bus passes directly to journalists. These applications will be routed through the council, which after due diligence, can issue such benefits”.

“The PCTN shall have the power to identify fake journalists and lodge complaints against them to the jurisdictional police. Members of the public can send their complaints regarding fake journalists to the welfare board, which will inquire and initiate criminal action against such fake journalists, because they are a menace and a threat to the civil society,” the bench wrote, according to The Hindu.

Additionally, the state government was disallowed from issuing press stickers, identity cards or other benefits to media organisations until they disclose the number of employees, salaries paid to them, details of tax deducted at source and tax paid to the government.

“The State government/PCTN shall not issue press ID cards or stickers to print media, magazines or dailies, unless there is proof of circulation of at least 10,000 copies of their daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly, and the number of ID cards shall be increased or decreased proportionate to their circulation,” the judgment says.

The state government was asked to comply with the directions and file a report in four weeks, the court said.

Journalists, bodies express concern

While agreeing that the problem of journalists who engage in illegal and unethical practices is a real one, The Hindu in an editorial said that the court, by “creating a body and clothing it with powers and functions” has done something that is “normally done by law and after wider consultations”. The editorial said that while the order is well-intentioned, “it is quite surprising that such a far-reaching measure has sought to be created by judicial direction while disposing of public interest litigation somewhat unrelated to the case at hand”.

“A separate body created by executive order may act over-zealously and end up eliminating bona fide journalists,” The Hindu said, adding that the state government needs to “weigh its options carefully, including an appeal”.

Senior journalist A.S. Paneerselvam told The News Minute that it is concerning that the order “does not clearly define the terms ‘fake journalists,’ ‘agenda based news,’ etc and therefore complicates the process of filtering out fake news even more”.

He also appreciated the court’s intent but said the order “conflates external factors such as distribution of benefits to journalists and management of journalist bodies with core journalist concerns such as quality of journalism and its content”. He said it the purpose is to weed out fake journalism, then a “different approach should be followed and not by creating a larger and stringent regulatory framework for the media which focuses on the above-mentioned external factors”.

The Indian Journalists Union said in a statement that while it can understand the “anxiety of judges to curb the menace of fake news and fake journalists but the prescribed cure shouldn’t kill the patient”.