Freedom of the press has been substituted by freedom of the owner of the press: Manish Tiwari

Published: May 3, 2013 - 17:07 Updated: May 3, 2013 - 17:17

Face to Face with Manish Tiwari, Union Information and Broadcasting  (I&B) Minister
Poornima Joshi Delhi

For a party that once reduced journalists to a state whereby “they crawled when they were asked to bend”, the Congress seems to have become uncharacteristically paralyzed in the face of the continuing media onslaught on the party and the government. As the ruling coalition is continually caricaturized and undermined, there is a simultaneous, corporate-backed build-up of Narendra Modi as a strong political alternative. This largely uncritical image makeover of Modi is only inadvertently undermined by the rapidly eroding credibility of the corporate media even though instances of “paid news” are largely unreported. It took Nitish Kumar’s mention of the ‘hawa/mahaul’ (wave/atmosphere) being created in favour of Modi to underline the disproportionate and biased media coverage. Union Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Manish Tiwari speaks to Hardnews on why the government has adopted a hands-off approach and what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told him when he joined the cabinet besides self-regulation, the role of the public broadcaster and much else in an exclusive interview. Excerpts: 

Nitish Kumar talked about the creation of a favourable atmosphere for Narendra Modi. How do you, as the I&B minister as well as a politician, analyze the media’s role in building up the Gujarat chief minister’s national profile through largely uncritical reportage?

Having handled the front-end of the media coverage as Congress spokesperson and, for the past five months, examined operations at the backend as I&B minister, a large part of my time is spent thinking about where the golden mean lies between Article 19 and reasonable restrictions to Article 19. The reason why I am foregrounding the answer to your question is that the government is often accused of playing Big Brother. But, if you look at the track record of the UPA in the past nine years, notwithstanding the criticism that we may have received, we have not made any attempt to guide the discourse. However, this should not mean that the media should stop introspecting. After all, there are 24-odd states in the country, there are nine Union Territories. There are different development models; what works for Himachal Pradesh may not work for Gujarat and vice versa. Therefore, for the media to project a specific model, which is, incidentally, quite flawed, and superimpose it on the national narrative is extremely unfortunate.

One of the reasons why this uncritical coverage continues is that, across the media space, the institution of the editor is diminished and, in most cases, eliminated altogether. The result is that the freedom of the press has been substituted by the freedom of the owner of the press; certain individuals in the media are candidates of political parties or representatives of certain sections of industry. There is an urgent need for right-thinking people in the media to get together and analyze how this process will impact the media, its credibility and democracy.

Politically, the RSS has invaded the media as much as it has penetrated other institutions. Do you think that the Congress’s past, the experience of the Emergency, has made you so circumspect that you have deliberately avoided looking at the mass media’s role in politics? Haven’t you let the BJP completely dominate the public discourse?

You’re right. I’d be lying if I denied that; unfortunately, we do carry a certain historical baggage which makes us extremely cautious and circumspect. But it is also important to understand that the UPA operates on a certain set of principles. When I became I&B minister, the first thing that the prime minister told me was that our relationship with the media has to be an essay in persuasion and not an essay in regulation. Fundamentally and philosophically, we have a head of the government and a chairperson of the ruling alliance who do not believe in regulation.

In most countries where the freedom of the press index is very high, liable laws are equally strong. There is a correlation between strong media and strong liable and defamation laws. The time has come to either start thinking of these things seriously or fear the loss of credibility and impact

That does not mean that regulation is not coming. Regulation will not come out of the executive, it will emerge from the judiciary. The first step in this direction was taken by the Supreme Court when it gave citizens access to the constitutional court and stay what I called a ‘media trial’. The progression in this line of thinking is evident from a recent judgment of a division bench of the Delhi High Court that held that a statutory regulator should be appointed in the broadcasting space as it exists in the form of the Press Council and in the Film Certification Board in the cinema space.

One is not advocating regulation or censorship but how does one impart a sense of fairness, impartiality and objectivity in a public discourse that is steered by representatives of industry and political parties who masquerade as journalists and owners for whom a newspaper or a TV channel is just another shop?

Look, let’scut the chase and accept that, for a large number of people, media is just another business and the broadsheet or the 24/7 operations have to be monetized. I’ll give two substantive instances — the first is this business of ‘paid news’. We are examining whether, in addition to the person who paid for the news, the journalist who published it should also be held to be equally accountable under the Representation of People’s Act. It is an amendment under consideration and we may move it in the budget session itself. The other is a statutory limit of 12 minutes an hour that could be imposed on advertisements on air despite the strong resistance to these guidelines from TRAI.

 If the media is a business then how does one distinguish between ethical and unethical practices? We follow the West blindly except where they impose strict ethical standards in journalism…the unravelling of the News of the World scandal is a case in point. We, in India, hardly ever see anyone being held accountable for unethical practices, for instance, even after the Radia Tapes expose’.

Democratic institutions in India have strong systems for self-regulation. Parliament is a self-regulating institution and rightly so. This is the case of the judiciary as well and we have seen the resistance to the Judicial Accountability Bill. The media too wants to self-regulate and we know how staunch the opposition is to the appointment of a statutory regulator. ‘Civil society’ also wants to self-regulate. And they all want to regulate the executive. I have never been able to understand this contradiction.

Coming back to thequestion about News of the World, I think it is important for all political parties to realize that we cannot allow unethical practices to continue. Like in England after the Lord Leveson report, when the three principal political parties got together and a Royal Charter was received, I think in India too the political system will need to come together. So, while no one is advocating censorship or dilution of the mandate of Article 19, there is a strong case for reasonable restrictions that are entrenched in the spirit of Article 19. In most countries where the freedom of the press index is very high, the liable laws are equally strong. Therefore, there is a correlation between strong media and strong liable and defamation laws. The time has come for the media to either start thinking of these things seriously or fear the loss of credibility and impact.

Do you really believe India needs a public broadcaster? What do you think is the role of the public broadcaster?

There is a pre-question to this, is there a need for an information and broadcasting ministry and an I&B minister at all? Are these totally antiquated institutions? Personally, I do not think that you do not really require an I&B minister. Now we come to whether you require a public broadcaster. In 1990, you had one TV channel so you came up with a Prasar Bharati Act. Today, you have 833 channels of which 405 are news channels. This is not plurality of the market. This is fragmentation of the market and that is why there is no one revenue model. By the time the UPA finishes its term, these 833 channels will become 1,000 channels… I’m signing licences at the rate of one-a-day. Anyone who feels he should be a broadcaster is free to come and get a licence.

In this scenario, if there is to be a public broadcaster, its mandate should be clearly defined. Now, why should the public broadcaster be running soap operas? With the kind of reach it has, the public broadcaster can become the golden mean in the case of news or play a critical role where you require strategic communication — in Kashmir, in the Maoist-affected areas or the Northeast.

About the financial autonomy of the public broadcaster, I am happy with the finance ministry and CAG model whereby the finance ministry is the administrative apparatus but the CAG’s budgetary appropriations come from Parliament. So, let the budgetary appropriations of the public broadcaster come from Parliament and let them be accountable to a parliamentary committee, just like the CAG is accountable to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

One of the reasons why this uncritical coverage continues is that, across the media space, the institution of the editor is diminished and, in most cases, eliminated altogether

Let the government have a full spectrum communications agency which is print, electronic, online and covers all forms of new media. I cannot have a situation where Prasar Bharati takes away two-thirds of my budget. I am the recruiting authority, I am the disciplinary authority, I am the one who sanctions leave and I am accountable for them in Parliament, and then I’m told that I should have a hands-off approach. I am not God.

We are now in an election year. I may want to effect systemic changes but my priority would be to communicate and disseminate information about the government’s initiatives. But, at some point, systemic issues have to be examined. That’s why we have adopted the Sam Pitroda Committee with regard to Prasar Bharati, and the Justice Mudgal Committee to look at the Cinematograph Act. Then, there is the issue of the regulator in the broadcasting space which the courts have now thrown into the public domain etc... . 

So the Congress will counter the BJP’s ‘triumph of will’ with the language of understatement, Modi’s ‘knight in shining armour’ versus the aam admi’s humility… .

I think the people in India have time and again demonstrated the wisdom to see through window-rattling demagoguery. They realise that this kind of politics, that makes 25 per cent of this country’s population actually, physically insecure, can be allowed no space. Democracy is not only about how we treat our majority, democracy is also about how well we treat our minorities. This is the deep-rooted belief in India that will spell the death knell for this orchestrated campaign by certain interests outside the political system. I would say, let it run its course, let people make their judgement.

We believe in the wisdom of the people.  

This story is from print issue of HardNews