VMFT Speeches

Do We Need an Institutional Mechanism to Control the Media? Dr. Sebastian Paul

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Dr.Sebastian Paul, MP and Social Activist delivered the Vakkom Moulavi Memorial lecture on 7th November 2005. The topic of the lecture was “Do we need an institutional mechanism to control the media?”

Dr N.A.Karim, President-Trustee, VMFT welcomed the speaker and the gathering. In his welcome speech Dr. Karim narrated the story of journalism in the early part of 20th century. During the days of Vakkom Moulavi printing and publishing a newspaper was considered to be a social duty with no expectation of a profit. Vakkom Moulavi sold his ancestral property and purchased the printing machinery for the ‘Swadeshabhimani’. He was the managing editor and publisher of Swadeshabhimani. We must remember the fact that the name Swadeshabhimani was given to the paper far before the word ‘Swaraj’ was coined by Gopalakrishna Gokhale. In the very first issue of this paper Vakkom Moulavi made an Oath. ‘We will strive to bring out the problems and difficulties faced by the common man and threat from any quarters will not deter us from this’. All the newspapers published in the early decades of journalism did not work with any profit motivation.

 Excerpts of the lecture of Dr. Sebastian Paul

The print media in India has a long history. It was introduced to our country initially for propagating religious ideology. The colonial power needed to communicate with people on various issues like taxes, the reformation measures being introduced from time to time and several other matters.  Being the colony of a democratic country, India enjoyed some amount of freedom of press.

  When we study the evolution of press in India we can see that many newspapers started as philanthropical ventures to promote social awareness and to inculcate the spirit of freedom from the colonial rulers. Gradually most of the newspapers evolved into industrial ventures.  Self-sacrificing proprietors and editors like Vakkom Moulavi and Ramakrishna Pillai became progressively rare. If we look at the history of any newspaper of long standing like the ‘Amrithabazaar Patrika’,’The Hindu’ or ‘The Times of India’ we can realize this pattern of evolution.

After India became independent and adopted a democratic constitution, freedom of press became written guarantee. Article 19 (1) A of the constitution guarantees the freedom of press.  Any kind of freedom is to be exercised and enjoyed with a sense of responsibility.  Governmental control in this regard would have led to misuse of the rule, favoritism or victimization. In view of this and to avoid anarchy the press itself realized the need for some amount of self-discipline. It is in this context that the PRESS COUNCIL was formed.  The Press council is a body of press representative who keep a vigil on the quality and standard of press. There are provisions in the Press Council regulations under which members of public, governmental agencies or people from any walk of life, can approach the press council with any complaint against any journal or any suggestion for correcting any transgressions. It was only about a month ago that His Excellency the president of India, in a speech, made a suggestion that we must make better use of the press council.

   The electronic media have of late attained more importance than the print media. The proliferation of TV channels has led to acute competition amongst them. In the desperate attempt to increase the number of viewers, many channels go to the extent of being obscene and transgress boundaries of morality. It is high time; we had a watchdog like the press council, for the electronic media.   

Institutional mechanism for controlling the media

In view of the occasional vagaries seen in the print media in the form of publishing obscene advertisements and news items violating the privacy and personal affairs of individuals it is often felt that there has to be an institutional control on them. In the case of electronic media, such transgressions are even more frequent and often tend to be vulgar and obscene. These are totally opposed to the cultural ethos of the country. When we contemplate on an institutional control, the first and foremost question that would arise is the type of control. A governmental control mechanism would be tantamount to press censorship. In our own country we have seen the effects of press censorship during the period of emergency 1975-1977.  No citizen in this country would ever wish to have all those draconian laws including press censorship again. So, press censorship is out of reckoning as an institutional control mechanism to regulate the media.

We already have the Press Council. This must be made more active and there has to be more widespread knowledge among the people about it. In regard to the electronic media there is no such self-regulatory mechanism. This is a field of acute competition. In order to attract viewers they go to any extent, often crossing the boundaries of ethics, decency and morality. The result is that the viewers get an assortment of programs some of which are indeed substandard and frequently obscene. Here again, it is not advisable to introduce governmental control. It is indeed high time we thought of a regulatory mechanism like the Press Council. However, since the electronic media is more visual, it is essential that the regulatory conditions be specified more rigidly. More important is the need to install a body fully charged with the responsibility of monitoring the programs aired by these. If any program is found to have crossed the prescribed limits, it should instantly be pointed out to the concerned media owner and also brought to the attention of people. This arrangement is definite to have salutary effect on maintaining the quality of the programs carried by the electronic media.

The speaker summarized his presentation by reiterating the following points: –

  1. There should be no institutional control by the government on the media-both print and electronic.
  2. The self-regulatory mechanism of Press Council of the print media should be strengthened and made more active.
  3. The electronic media with virtually no self-regulatory mechanism in place now must create such a mechanism without delay. This has to be more vigilant and should have the power to highlight the lapses for the knowledge of the people and the government.

The speech was followed by a lively question-answer session. The discussion mostly centered around the censorship prevalent during the dark period of emergency. The audience was unanimous on the point that under no circumstance governmental censorship should be thought of as a means to regulate the media.

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