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PCI: Ageing Watchdog of the Press

Arghya Bhaskar |
Self-regulation under a press council is contradictory. That is why such bodies have been abolished in many countries.
Press Council of India

Last month, the Press Council of India said in a notification published on its website that “unregulated circulation of foreign content is not desirable”. It also advised the media to “publish foreign extracts in Indian newspapers with due verification” and said that irrespective of the source of the news, the responsibility of verifying it lies with the reporter, editor and publisher of the newspaper.

The PCI said its notification is merely in response to the “references” the government has received about the responsibility of Indian newspapers that publish foreign content. One of the functions of the PCI, mentioned in Press Council Act of 1966, is to “keep under review such cases of assistance received by any newspaper or news agency in India from foreign sources, as are referred to it by the central government.”

Three days later, the Editor’s Guild of India issued a statement saying the notification is “ominous-sounding” and unprovoked: that no “unregulated foreign extracts” have been published by the media which contaminate the nature of news. The guild urged the PCI to withdraw its notification immediately to demonstrate its commitment towards press freedom. The PCI notification did not attract major media coverage; rather it was the reaction of the Editors Guild of India that brought the PCI advisory to attention.

This sequence of events is a reflection of journalism and its relation to representative media bodies of the country. To understand this more clearly, it is imperative to explore the history of the PCI, which shows how it is essentially a government—and not journalistic—body.

Press Councils” are an outdated, contested and protested phenomenon in many so-called First World countries. Self-regulation under a Press Council is itself a contradictory situation and, for this reason, many countries have abolished such previously-existing organisations. There existed a General Council in the 1950s in the United Kingdom, which was later renamed the Press Council in 1962 and given the job of governing print publications. But it was abolished in 1991 and replaced by the Press Complaints Commission. It is associations of journalists who had protested against the existence of a Press Council in the United Kingdom, which resulted in its being abolished. In the United States of America, all existing “press bodies” were abolished. France, too, has abolished its Press Council. The country’s government itself regulates the media.

These facts make it clear that press councils are mediatory bodies, unrequired in both the possible extreme cases—where the government sides with self-regulation of media and where it explicitly wants state regulation of media. The PCI’s past in India has been reflective of both these circumstances. The history of its establishment lies in the reports of the first two Press Commissions of India. The first was constituted by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in 1952 under the chairmanship of Justice GS Rajadhyaksha of the Bombay High Court and had members such as Dr. CP Ramaswamy Iyer, Acharya Narendra Deo, Dr. Zakir Hussain and Dr. VKRV Rao. The commission submitted its report in 1954. Its main suggestions centered around the issue of foreign ownership of Indian newspapers, and therefore the very first reform it proposed was that the “proprietorial interests in daily and weekly newspapers should vest predominately in Indian hands”. Then, too, the main concern was dilution of Indian media by external influence. In 1955, the Jawaharlal Nehru government passed a resolution that, till date, bars any foreign newspapers or magazines from being published in India or to have an Indian version of their imprint.

Another famous recommendation was actually a conglomeration of suggestions: their upshot was that a number of bodies would have to come into existence in order to maintain and establish high standards of journalism in India. It advocated the establishment of a Press Council, a Registrar of Newspapers (RNI) for record-keeping purposes and a Press Consultative Committee to maintain a cordial relationship between the central government and the press. The creation of all three was accepted. The RNI was the first one to be formed, in 1956. The Press Consultative Committee also came into being in 1962, even though it is an accepted general principle of journalism that the “relationship between the press and government must be an interrogative one and not a cordial one”.

The Lal Bahadur Shastri-led Cabinet passed the Press Council Act in 1965. It is a small legislation that defines and states the functions of the PCI, which started functioning on 16 November 1966, the day on which national press day is celebrated in India.

Acting as a body that would protect the rights of journalists, the commission recommended the legislation now known as the Working Journalists Act, 1955. The commission insisted on treating journalism as a kind of job. In a recent speech at Christ University, Bangalore, the executive editor of Caravan magazine, Vinod K Jose, said in the present circumstances, young journalists must consider their profession a “calling” rather than a “job”, or it would not really matter to them what they end up doing—follow the narratives, maybe even become an ally [of those who wield power and influence]. 

But the commission advocated the reverse in order to maintain “high standards” of journalism in its suggestions, which resemble the activities of a trade union advocating for industry-related demands. The committee consisted of renowned journalists of the freedom struggle, but failed to understand that a journalist requires concessions in publishing a variety of content and not in his or her daily activities. 

The PCI, too, states that its elementary belief is in media “self-regulation”, and cites Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on its website: “The sole aim of journalists should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, just as unchained torrents of water submerge the whole countryside and devastate crops, and even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.” The PCI, therefore, assumes that it is self-regulation that is uncontrollable and acts as less poisonous want of control. 

According to the PCI Act, the council must have 25 members (who are journalists and bureaucrats), led by a retired High Court judge, while the Chief Justice of India appoints the chairman. The first chairman was Justice JR Mudholkar and the current chairman is Justice CK Prasad. The fact that a journalist cannot head the council has never been protested or questioned officially. 

The functions of the council lie in between two thought processes, the first is to try and maintain general media independence and second is try to control this independence. The idea appears balanced from the outside, but any extreme regulatory step from the government’s end can have dangerous implications for this independence. For example, in the initial regulations, the PCI Act states that the council must “help newspapers to maintain their independence” yet the very next point it makes is that the council must “build up a code of conduct for newspapers and journalists in accordance with highest professional standards”. This is like having independence in rigid form, but the absence of flexibility can contaminate the nature of this freedom. Such methods can succeed in arenas that require policing on the whole, but to apply it in selective arenas can damage the structure of independence. 

During the Emergency, on 1 January 1975, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister at the time, repealed the PCI Act and abolished the council. As soon as the council refused to follow its statues of “cordiality” with the Centre, the government decided it no longer required this body. The council learned a very important lesson during its three-years exile: that it is predominantly a parliamentary body. First, because it had parliamentarians in it, and second, because it was formed by an Act of the Parliament. Obviously, Parliament would want it to put its wishes into action if it wanted to continue as a council.

The council got another chance when LK Advani, the minister of information and broadcasting in the Morarji Desai government, revived the Act in original form in 1979, giving it two added functions. The new roles called for it to study the impact of circulation of newspapers published by an embassy or a representative of foreign state, and to provide studies and opinions in matters referred to it by the central government.

Previous notifications by the council:

On 9 April, 2019 the PCI issued an advisory to the media on how to handle the “election process” during the general election. It had ten particular behavioural guidelines for journalists such as discouraging vulgar and communal news and advertising in the guise of news. The eleventh guideline said that the media must work in accordance with the guidelines of the Election Commission of India. It is a known fact that bureaucrats constitute the ECI and the corrupt nature of Indian bureaucracy is also a known fact. Therefore, working selectively in accordance with the ECI would be a direct offence by the media organisation towards the people they are most responsible to—the general public.

On 17 March this year, the PCI issued another notification taking suo moto cognizance of a satirical headline in The Telegraph newspaper. The headline, referring to the President, said, “Ram Nath Kovind, not Covid, did it”. The chairman of the PCI noted the incident himself and issued a show-cause notice to the editor of the newspaper which said that “satirical comments, ridiculing and denigrating the first citizen of the country are uncalled for and beyond the call of fair journalistic comment”. This shows how important official posts and bodies are to the PCI. To compare satire with ridicule and denigration is to raise a direct question on press freedom. The incident also shows it views the media’s functions from a very restricted prism. 

On 28 April, the PCI issued a notification on attacks on print journalists, which have taken place in various parts of the country. The notification first swears by the freedom of press and lists nine such attacks that have taken place between 2019 and 2020. It mentions, in passing, that it has “dealt” with three such attacks which were complained about. In situations like this, only one section is the sufferer—the journalists and the organisations they represent. Therefore, they require justice from their representative body and not to be “dealt” with, because their suffering has already been caused. If it has taken any action in these instances, the PCI should have elaborated what exactly it did: for example, to whom it issued a show-cause notice. And it should have noted what impact the attacks had on the journalists and their media organisation. To cite another instance, the PCI recently demanded the title of “Corona Warriors” for journalists working during the pandemic.

While these serve as references to what the PCI considers important, we also notice its stoic silence on matters like the arrest of Kerala reporter Siddique Kappan, who was booked under UAPA on his way to Hathras to report on the family of the 19-year-old Dalit woman who was allegedly gangraped by four Thakur men. Also, when the media falsely painted the farmers participating in the ongoing mass protest against the new farm bills as “Khalistani”, the council remained gagged and did not lead the media towards “high professional standards” and “ethics”. 

Its ineffectiveness was perhaps best highlighted when one of its members, BR Gupta, resigned in June and thereafter told the media that “...we [the PCI] are pressurized, it means that there is something wrong with us—either the media or the controlling body or the system. We are in a crisis...”. 

After the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991 and the advent of TV journalism, the PCI has become a less-referred-to body. The setbacks suffered by newspapers have also implicated themselves on the status of the council, and with the coming of the BJP-led government in 2014, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has become the primary body in terms of government-media relations. The PCI now mostly deals with notifications that only invite reactions. Clearly, they are struggling to provide journalism the stature of a dignified profession in the country. 

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal

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