• What Do Manifestos Speak About Press Freedom?

    Kanwaljeet Singh

    May 21, 2019

    Image Courtesy : Livemint

    Manifestos of political parties are full of pseudo promises, repeated unfulfilled promises, unimplementable promises and no promises.

    The Congress party, in its manifesto, had announced this year that it will curb monopolies, cross-ownership and control of media by business organisations and that it will amend various rules and laws to unshackle the media, as it has to be free and self-regulated.

    But their Information and Broadcasting Minister S Jaipal Reddy, who had tried bringing in such reforms in the business of media was shunned out in 2005 – the second year of UPA-1 government led by Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. An affable Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi had replaced Reddy then.

    Congress plans to reduce the size of big media houses monopolising and dominating the media space. It does not want a media house to own different segments like print, radio, and television. The controlling and manipulation of media by the business organisation for their business interests will not be permitted by the new law which is proposed to be passed by the Congress party.

    The existing media houses, which are too big and have become monopolies, will be referred for action to the Competition Commission for India, as per the promise made by the Congress.

    Speaking to this reporter on the issue, Reddy said, “I contemplated these [reforms in media] when I first became the I&B Minister in 1997. But the government did not last. [I] then again contemplated curbing of the cross-holdings and monopolies in the media in 2004 as an I&B minister. I was holding consultations, but there was no consensus. They [the media barons] had their own viewpoints. Now, this suggestion [in Congress manifesto] is good; it will increase the freedom of media and curb monopolies. We have to evolve consensus [so that] no government can temper with the press.”

    A senior Congress leader accepted that Reddy was removed from his position at the behest of “vested interests”, who did not want these reforms as they were a threat to the “monopolies” and “business interests” in the media.

    A former top-level official of the I&B Ministry, on the condition of anonymity, said the freedom of media section of the Congress manifesto was “very unimaginative, backward looking [which has] failed to even understand the future of media”.

    “The Congress does not understand the new news media, internet-based web news portals that print news on the websites and telecast/broadcast the news via podcasts. Now, here, the different segments cannot be separated in practice,” he added.

    The Congress manifesto states: “Congress will amend the Press Council of India

    Act to empower the Council to deal with the menace of fake news and paid news. We will work with the Press Council of India and associations of newspapers and media to formulate and enforce a Code of Conduct on reporting in situations of natural disaster, communal conflict, riots, terrorist attacks and war in order to ensure a balance between the need to inform, need for restraint, maintenance of law and order, and interest of national security.”

    This was actually the need of the hour after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, where the handlers from Pakistan were informing and directing terrorists after looking at live 24X7 broadcast by news channels. However, both the Congress-led UPA government and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government have till now failed to amend and bring effective enforceable rules and laws.

    For the protection of journalists working and reporting from conflict areas or investigating matters of public interest in a risky environment, the Congress party will work with “state governments to formulate rules to require the police to extend protection to journalists”. However, journalists have been demanding a separate law for the protection of journalists.

    By amending the Cinematography Act, 1927 the manifesto promises to streamline the functioning of the Censor Board, and making certification of films more transparent with reasonable criteria and “to restrict the censorship of films to the ground of national security and obscenity”.

    However, the section on the media failed to address the unregulated and uncensored content streamed live on the internet via channels like Netflix, Amazon Prime etc.

    On being questioned, senior Congress party leader and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram said, “The anti-Competition act defines what is a monopoly. The suspected monopolies will be referred to the Competition Commission. This [reforms in media business] has been on the request of the media.”

    Chidambaram, however, did not answer whether a particular business media house, controlling 30% of the media space, is a monopoly.

    A senior journalist said this move by Congress will “immensely annoy” the media barons and there can be consequences for the good old party.

    However, this will certainly gladden the hearts of journalists.

    Samajwadi Party does not say a word about media in its manifesto, and the Bahujan Samaj Party does not believe in releasing a manifesto.

    The ruling BJP’s 46-page manifesto or ‘Sankalp Patra’ does not mention anything about freedom of media as well.

    Both the CPI(M) and CPI manifestos promise to amend the Working Journalists Act to ensure decent wages and security for journalists and create a regulatory body to check the spread of fake news. CPI (M) also promises prohibiting cross-ownership of media to prevent monopolies and reversing the entry of foreign direct investment in the print and electronic media.

    It remains to be seen if any of these promises can ever become a reality.


    The writer is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.

    First published in Newsclick.

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