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Katju: Need for judicial introspection

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It would be churlish to deny the merit of some scathing observations made about the print and electronic media by the new chairman of the Press Council of India, in a recent television interview. Justice Markandey Katju speaks for a large segment of readers and viewers when he expresses disappointment at media functioning, and its poor intellectual standards. Some humility on our part is in order, as is introspection.

Justice Katju is right when he says that critical national problems are poverty, unemployment, price rise and health care; while media devotes unconscionable energy to trivia about film stars, fashion parades, and above all, cricket, which has emerged as the new opium of the masses. This insight suggests that religion is no longer solacing people in these troubled times; this calls for soul-searching by traditional mathams and globe-trotting sanyasis.

Perhaps his outdated ‘Aryan invasion’ education has led Justice Katju to call India a country of immigrants; but we shall focus on his core critique. The first is a disquieting assertion that media demonizes Muslims whenever terror attacks takes place by reporting that X or Y (Muslim) terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility for the act. The charge that this is a deliberate ploy to divide people on religious lines is fatuous given the myriad terrorist cells waging jihad for over two decades. After assaults on Parliament (2001) and the Mumbai 2008 mini-war, to mention only the most sensational, any insinuation that terror has a secular face is simply non-application of the judicial mind.

Justice Katju seeks awesome powers to curb the excesses of the electronic media, and lambasts the scandal of ‘paid news’ in the 2009 parliamentary and assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana.We may therefore ask the learned judge how he intends, as new chairman, to make amends for PCI’s treatment of its own ‘paid news’ investigation report.

When the ‘paid news’ scam erupted, a journalists union complained that some journalists were targetted by managements for opposing this misconduct. Then chairman Justice G.N. Ray appointed a sub-committee of journalists to examine the matter; the report, submitted in April 2010, was not accepted by the Council. Indeed, PCI uploaded the report on its website only after an order from the Central Information Commission in September 2011, with a disclaimer.

Actually, the Sub Committee Report was the first serious introspection into the decline of media values in the past three decades, with random deviant behaviour by individual journalists giving way to organised corruption by managements, to sharply escalate profits. Certain news pages were reserved for ‘paid content’ and publicity given to commercial product launches or personal events. Next, advertising space was offered in exchange for allotment of equity shares to the media house (‘private treaties’), which were valued at several thousand crores of rupees.

The Securities and Exchange Board of India informed the Press Council that ‘private treaties’ between media companies and corporate entities listed on the stock exchanges or coming out with public offer of shares, required disclosure to protect the shareholders; PCI framed guidelines in 1996. SEBI warned that media publicity in exchange for shares ‘may give rise to conflict of interest’ and affect the news/editorials relating to such firms.

The report linked the proliferation of ‘paid news’ to the diminution of the role and status of editors, and erosion of freedom enjoyed by journalists under the Working Journalists Act, as a result of the pervasive ‘contract’ system. Witnesses appearing before the sub-committee named several reputed media houses which gave ‘rate cards’ and ‘packages’ to candidates for favourable coverage about themselves, and/or harmful coverage about their rivals; those who did not fall in line were blacked out.

‘Paid news’ deceives the reader/viewer to believe that a disguised advertisement is actually an independently produced news item. It does not reflect in a candidates’ election expense statement and violates the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. The concerned media companies do not show such monies as official income and violate the Companies Act, 1956 and Income Tax Act, 1961.

One politician was summoned by the PCI and presented with circumstantial evidence of having made such a financial transaction. Three rival newspapers of his state carried the same article about him, word for word, by different reporters! Clearly the reports were ‘ad copy’ from a PR firm.

Senior journalists feel that ‘paid news’ is criminalization of elections and should be made a punishable offence. The sub-committee made many valuable suggestions; it is now for the new chairman PCI to explain how he proposes to act upon them, and if not, why not. A man seeking powers to shut down news channels should be able to curb malpractices at least within the print media which is his jurisdiction.

May we now turn the spotlight on the Judiciary? At the time of writing, a news channel reported that several former and sitting judges of Orissa had, over the years, received flats from the government’s discretionary quota. Many judges took flats out of turn and at cheaper rates, in prime locations in Cuttack and Bhubaneswar. Many judges already owned ancestral property in Cuttack, and were ineligible for the discretionary quota.

These revelations come in the wake of scandals embroiling judges all over the country. A former Chief Justice of India is battling charges of disproportionate wealth accumulation by his close kin while he was in office; he has resisted an RTI appeal to disclose his income tax returns for this period. His very last judgment hugely benefitted a corporate entity that was later indicted by the Comptroller & Auditor General. A former Chief Justice of a High Court is denying officially established allegations of land grab.

Curiously, judges appear to have a special propensity for property, much of which is registered below the prevailing market price. Recently, the Lokayukta of a state resigned soon after his appointment when some of his land deals were questioned by the media. He was quickly followed by a deputy Lokayukta in the same state, who reputedly feared scrutiny of his land holdings.

Who will judge the judges? How shall justice be done? So far, there have been no satisfactory steps to investigate prima facie cases of judicial misconduct, even as allegations of corruption in the higher judiciary assume grim proportions. Please rise to the occasion, Justice Katju. Introspection, like charity, must begin at home.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this writing are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of League of India, its Editorial Board or the business and socio-political interests that they might represent.

This article was first published on Vijayvaani website here


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