Editorial Freedom: What Does It Mean

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The live coverage of the annual address of Rashtriya Sawayamseval Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat at Pune has raked the issue of the autonomy of Prasar Bharti- the public broadcaster in India that has been living as the government’s stooge in the public’s imagination.

The call for freedom of media from government intervention and oraganisational re-structuring of the Prasar Bharati had been recommended by Chanda committee report (1966), Verghese Committee or the Akash Bharti report (1978) and the Joshi Committee report (1985). Consequently,the Prasa Bharati, comprising the All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan, came into being as an autonomous body under the 1990 Prasar Bharti Act that ultimately came into force seven years later in 1997. The Act provides for Prasar Bharati to define its composition, functions and powers and other related matters.

The issue regarding the editorial freedom of Prasar Bharati employees and the recruitment process remains contentious as it continues to be beyond the purview of the body since appointments are made through deputations from various ministries. Therefore, government intervention in the recruitment process and the content of the circulation is certainly against the ideal of a free and fair media as envisioned by the Prasar Bharti Act and preceding reports that emphasised on the need for an independent media. Another factor that makes it under the control of the government is the provision that makes the government bear 50 percent of the cost of workforce. In other words, employees at Prasar Bharati are half-government employees, making them inextricably dependent on the government structurally.

Coming back to whether the live coverage of the RSS event should be seen as Prasar Bharati exercising its autonomy or being controlled by a government with a new regime, one might ask as to the nature of the event and the affiliated body or institution being covered.  Of course there have been elaborate and extensive coverage of other leaders when other parties have in power. One of the examples cited was that of Indira Gandhi’s speeches. The issue with juxtaposing these two is that the latter, that is Indira Gandhi, was a government official and was covered because of her association with the political process. That is the reason why Doordarshan, even if the editor feels like, does not cover, say, a Baba Ramdev’s session on pranayama. This is not to say that news reports cannot engage with these issues. But the contention is with the nature of engagement.

There arise two problems with the live coverage of the RSS event. One is that it was an internal affair; an annual meeting of a private organization to address its cadres and re-instate its philosophy. The public interest is, if not absent, very value-loaded and biased since it does not include differing perspectives that is an integral element of free and fair reporting. By public interest, one might always note that it means the social value and need of the information and not pandering to demand-driven trends and wishes of the consumers.

The second problem is that of the degree and extent of coverage of an event. While there exists a well-known tendency to create and reproduce news value everyday by a mirroring process, where all media houses choose to stream the same event, discuss the same issues and present similar arguments. This means by covering the full event, Doordarshan has contributed in making an otherwise internal and private event as a national and public event. Again, ethics demand that a news report or coverage gives space to alternate and conflicting views in order to uphold its own integrity in neutrality. Therefore, while Doordarshan has all the freedom in the world to cover any event under the sun, provided it covers varying and contesting views as well with equal zeal and fairness. Thus, editorial freedom does not mean unrestrained authority to act as one may wish, but to act with all fairness and responsibility that necessarily entails giving equal importance to diverging viewpoints.

Pallavi Ghosh

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