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Trial by Media, Is it fair?

There are two ways of looking at the role of the media, which is a double-edged weapon. Essentially, the mass media plays an important role in strengthening democracy. However, the same weapon could be misused by those with vested interest.

A recent phenomenon in this context is the so-called paid news through which politicians seek to destroy their rivals by planting negative stories through the media. That was how Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari was in the news for wrong reasons following the publication of a report that he and his family enjoyed a Mediterranean cruise in February this year, for which the Ruias had provided a family-owned yacht.

Gadkari sought to play down the news by declaring that the trip was just out of curiosity and had no business angle. It is widely believed that many media companies 'sell' news space as part of a deal with politicians and business executives. These shady transactions have drawn the attention of the Press Council of India, which described them as 'advertisements' in the form of 'news.'

In some cases the news media has gone beyond its call of duty by reporting on sensitive matters that could jeopardise national security. This aspect was highlighted by Union Defence Minister Arun Jaitley while delivering a lecture on 'Freedom & Responsibility of Media.'

Calling it the "desire of the media to be an actor," Jaitley asked: "How do you report instances where insurgent action is on where a security operation is in full swing? Should the media go into the midst of the scene and therefore report from the spot as to what is happening. Or, should the media have some constraints?"

He observed: "We've have intelligence information to say that because Indian television had decided to bring the 26/11 reporting almost in real-time as to what action was being taken, the terrorists inside the hotels were being informed on their satellite phones by their handlers as to what the Indian security forces were doing."

In the developed countries, too, the press has been accused of playing a negative role in league with political bigwigs. The situation is more or less the same in India, where business and political interests have ganged up to promote their own agenda at the cost of public interest.

In this tussle between politicians and the press, says former Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju, the losers are the people of India - the hundreds of millions who are economically deprived. Their problems get sidelined by political rivals crossing swords in the Legislature or Parliament, with the press giving a sensational account of the unfolding drama.

According to Katju, the Indian media should play a role similar to its counterpart in Europe when it was going through a transitional period. "In other words, the Indian media should help our country get over the transition period and become a modern industrial state. This it can do by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices e.g. casteism, communalism and superstitions, and promoting modern scientific and rational ideas."

He points out that a large section of the Indian media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve public interest, while in some cases it acts against the people's interest. This point was highlighted by well-known film actor-turned politician Shatrugan Sinha recently when he accused his BJP party of planting stories in the media against him.

Sinha, BJP MP from Patna Saheb, has been accused of ignoring the needs of people of his constituency-a charge which he described as the handiwork of some vested interest in his own party.

"I am not fly by night kind of politicians which film stars and other popular personalities who enter into politics are generally accused of...it's a baseless allegation levelled by some vested interest in my party BJP for political reasons," Sinha told PTI.

He said he was being ignored within his party because of his personality and popularity which some leaders would not accept. "But I have never ignored people of Patna Saheb who voted for me heavily in the last general elections," Sinha observed.

In the ultimate analysis, there is a general perception that Indian media tends to hype up a lot of things just to boost its readership. Its code of conduct is dictated by what serves it best.

Javid Hassan