Will the proposed emergency protocol on media coverage work?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Before the week is through, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) — a collective of leading private news and current affairs channels — hopes to have in place an emergency protocol for coverage of situations like the Mumbai terror attack. Indeed, a welcome step but will it meet the same fate as the NBA’s self-regulation guidelines and advisory to channels, in the midst of the attack, to exercise restraint? The NBA administration hopes not; arguing that the self-regulation guidelines were just over a month old when the terrorists struck in Mumbai and this was the first test case. Fair enough, the guidelines were adopted only on Gandhi Jayanti day this year. But, can the NBA forget that the member channels decided in April itself to self-regulate and come out with a set of guidelines? Forget 26/11. That was unprecedented. India — for all its experience with terrorism — has never had to deal with a hostage situation of this magnitude and the television medium was as ill prepared as was the security establishment.

But, did the media — particularly those channels which came together in April to form the NBA — show any restraint or sensitivity while covering the Noida double murder case involving schoolgirl Aarushi Talwar a month later? Surely, had they been committed to self-regulation, they could have begun making some effort to tune in their functioning to the self-regulation regime they planned to put in place. As the murder coverage showed, that was too much to expect.

Then, why should anyone be convinced that the emergency protocol will work? And, what about channels outside the NBA fold? When heads of news networks have gone back on their word — much like the politicians they have been lashing out at over the past fortnight — before, can they be trusted to exercise restraint? Even the reminder from the NBA through its November 27 advisory was ignored.

Here’s what the advisory said: “Considering the extremely precarious situation editors/members are advised that it is vital that no coverage be made which would in any way affect the operations…or…endanger the safety of persons who are involved in the terror attacks.

“Accordingly, as a measure of self-restraint and self-regulation and to demonstrate our sense of responsibility all editors/members are requested to ensure not to cover this episode in any manner that may tend to interfere in the operations of the security agencies or impede the terrorists being brought to justice or endanger the lives of persons who are in the midst of the terror attacks.

“We emphasise that this advisory be taken with the utmost seriousness since these are matters which are far above the other interests of any broadcaster.”

An editor of a leading magazine recently said the media had been able to get away with a lot because they had public opinion in their favour. That began eroding with the Mumbai coverage, thereby providing enough ground to the executive to step in. Work has already begun in this direction.

Under pressure from the security agencies to keep the media at bay during operations and cashing in on the public ire, the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry is planning to amend the Cable Television Networks Rules (CTNR) to prohibit live coverage of such crises; live telecast of phone-ins with perpetrators of a crime during the course of the action; audiovisuals of a narco-analysis/lie-detector test, judicial confession or any other method of investigation;….

Since earlier attempts to regulate the electronic media through the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill had to be withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition from the entire fourth estate, the Ministry is considering the CTNR amendment route as it requires only an executive order.

Again, just like in the case of the proposed emergency protocol of NBA, will this tweaking CTNR work when laws in this country are observed more in the breach? The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act (CNTRA) and the Programme Code for all channels already empower the government to step in in the national interest. Why weren’t these invoked?

Or for that matter, was Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.PC), which bars assembly of more than five persons in an area, used? In fact, according to the Mumbai Police, Section 37(3) of the Bombay Police Act — which, like Section 144 Cr.PC, prohibits by order any assembly of people — was in place and an exception was made only for journalists. So, at any point the journalists could have been herded out had the government so desired. Or, plain and simple, why isn’t the scene of crime –— the Mumbai terror attack or any murder spot — ever cordoned off? Why should journalists — print and electronic are equally guilty – be walking all over a crime scene disturbing and, in turn, destroying evidence, and in this case possibly impacting the operation? Again, India does have a law — Section 2(h) of the Cr.PC which provides for collection of evidence from the scene of crime. Destruction of evidence is an offence under Section 201 of the Indian Penal Code. Officials of the I&B Ministry insist that even if they tried to invoke the CNTRA, there was always the danger of its being revoked as per orders from the “top.” With public anger already directed against it, the government was wary of interfering with the media and attracting the charge of smothering freedom of expression and opening another front in a “war-like” situation.

This when the Supreme Court observed that freedom of the press is subject to reasonable restrictions enumerated in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. These restrictions include the sovereignty and integrity of India, and the security of the state. So, it was not as if the government was ill-equipped to rein in the media during the 60 hours of “riveting action” as one journalist put it. Just like the media chose to turn a Nelson’s eye to the self-regulation guidelines and the advisory sent by the NBA and the Ministry in the midst of the operation, the government — for reasons best known to it — decided not to invoke any of the powers it has to even regulate what was being aired. Then, do we need another law or more lip service to self-regulation?


Ria said...

media role surely needs 2 be checked...well written

Er. Nidhi Mishra said...

media some time crosses limits so protocol is necessary

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