Is the Press Council Being Selective in Upholding Media Freedom? 

While the body intervened to seek a report on the alleged attack on Arnab Goswami, this swiftness has been missing in other cases of attack on journalists and gross violations of journalistic conduct.

Taking suo motu cognisance of the alleged attack on TV anchor Arnab Goswami, the Press Council of India (PCI) on Thursday asked the Maharashtra government, through the chief secretary and the Mumbai police commissioner, to submit a report on the facts related to the case at the earliest.

“The council condemns this attack and expects from the state government that it will apprehend the perpetrators of crime and bring them to justice immediately,” stated the press statement released by the council. “Violence is not the answer even against bad journalism,” it added. The PCI also noted, “Every citizen in the country, including a journalist, has the right to express their opinion which may not be palatable to many but this does not give anybody the authority to strangulate such a voice.”

According to the FIR filed by Goswami, soon after he was attacked, the two bike-borne men were overpowered by his security team – he has ‘Y Category’ police protection – who were following him in a separate vehicle, and later arrested for the alleged assault. He also claimed that the men told his security guards that they belonged to the Youth Congress and that the attack was being done on the “orders of the higher ups”.

On the face of it, there is nothing out of place when the PCI expresses concern about the rights of a journalist or asking the state government to submit a report. After all, the PCI was established “for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the Press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India.” However, what is important to underline here is that, as far as the mandate of the council is concerned, as per the Press Council Act, 1978, it is only bound to perform its duties in connection with newspapers and news agencies.

Also Read: SC Allows Hate Speech Probe Against Arnab Goswami to Proceed, Stays Multiple FIRs

Hence, the obvious question is, if the PCI is not the body to intervene in this matter, why did it choose to do so? This question assumes importance because generally, the council does not act in matters like these, especially if it has something to do with TV (electronic) media. In recent months and years, several journalists have been attacked, intimidated and targeted by the state as well as non-state actors. But one hardly recalls the council intervening in these matters as swiftly as in the case of Goswami. In fact, the PCI has rarely acted in matters like these.

It can be noted that only recently, the PCI clarified, “Electronic media, TV news channels, social media i.e. Whatsapp/ twitter/Facebook do not come under the jurisdiction of the Press Council of India.” It can be underlined that the clarification was issued by the council just a day after a bench of the Supreme Court declined to pass any interim order on the plea of a Muslim organisation seeking to restrain a section of media from allegedly spreading bigotry and communal hatred by linking the spread of the coronavirus to the Tablighi Jamaat meeting. Observing, “We will not gag the press,” the apex court asked the petitioner to approach the PCI in this matter, stating, “Implead them and thereafter we will hear this.”

Representative image. Credit: Karnika Kohli/The Wire

The council was well within its rights to issue the clarification and there was nothing technically wrong in it. However, its latest intervention smacks of double standard and indicates that in practice, the council is less concerned about its jurisdiction and procedures stated in the Press Council Act, and maybe more driven by its personal preferences.

Remarkably, the last we heard of the council taking suo moto cognizance of a matter was against English daily The Telegraph, a newspaper which is known for its anti-establishment stance. Last month, the council issued a notice to the newspaper for its front-page headline which read “Kovind, not Covid, did it”, about former CJI Ranjan Gogoi being nominated to the Rajya Sabha. According to the council, such headlines “violated norms of journalistic conduct.”

In the case of several other newspapers which have “violated norms of journalistic conduct” by spreading fake news or misinformation, the council has hardly bothered to intervene. In the past few weeks, there has been a spike in fake news, misinformation and propaganda against the Tablighi Jamaat event and Muslims in general in relation with COVID-19. This misinformation has not just been on TV channels and social media but also in newspapers. For example, on April 5, Amar Ujala,  a widely circulated Hindi daily, on its front page published a story claiming in Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh) “members of the Tablighi Jamaat demanded non-vegetarian food and defecated in the open inside a quarantine facility.” The local police refuted this claim. Similarly, in Meerut, a communally-charged advertisement was published in Dainik Jagran. In other languages too, the content published by newspapers “violated norms of journalistic conduct” regularly. It is interesting to note that the PCI would not bother to take cognizance of those issues.

Also Read: Coimbatore: Founder of News Portal Arrested for Reporting on Government’s Handling of COVID-19

The PCI has also remained silent over the issue of police filing FIRs against three journalists in Kashmir and invoking charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). One of the journalists is a reporter for The Hindu, which falls under the direct jurisdiction of the council.

This even though, as per the council’s admission, section 14 of the Press Council Act, 1978, empowers it “to warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist concerned or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist if it finds that a newspaper or a news agency has offended against the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or a working journalist has committed any professional misconduct, on the receipt of complaint or otherwise.”

In this context, it appears that the council is being selective in upholding rights of the journalists and ensuring that the norms of journalistic conduct are not flouted, which is not just unfair but akin to defeating the very purpose for which PCI was established. The council needs to act as swiftly as it did in the matter of Goswami, at least to set the record straight. After all, as an old legal maxim goes, “not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.”