In the Interest of National Safety and Security, It is Necessary to Regulate the Media
I believe that in the modern world with new technologies and millions becoming involved in Journalism through social networks, the weight of ensuring the ethics of the profession should be on the shoulders of editors and other gate-keepers of the news. I call on editors and publishers; I call on governmental authorities wherever they own media outlets directly or by proxy, to stop corrupting the profession, to stop making money and stop gaining influence on blood, hate speech and narrow-mindedness. History is repeating itself as a farce. Stories of conspiracy theories, tortured children, mass graves, rapes and mail parcels with heads of insurgents fill the television screens, all proven by fake testimonies and online videos.
Some media are in dire need of self-examination. I believe that propaganda is yet another ugly scar on the face of modern journalism. In the absence of critical journalism, democracy suffers and deliberate misinformation becomes the standard. There is a need to cleanse journalism of fear, propaganda and routine frustration.
January 2016 : Pathankot Attacks
When Pakistani terrorists attacked at IAF base at Pathankot, media swarmed the place. However, learning from the previous mistakes army did not allow them in while the counter-terrorism operation was on. Some news channels and media houses gave away information about number of terrorists held up in a building situated in an area meant for Air Force Personnel and details about how the army was planning to take them down. The news coverage also revealed details of an arms cache, the ammunition stock piled at the airbase, of MIGs and fighter-planes, and fuel tanks that the terrorists could attack. These details were not provided in the government briefing given during the attack. There are innumerable instances where News channels have compromised national interests, especially in Kashmir. But they did not learn.
“It’s not they had not been given warnings before. The UPA government issued ‘advisories’ to TV channels twice in 2008 and once in 2009 telling them to desist from reporting details that would give away the location and movement of security forces during anti-terror operations.”
The present government came up with similar do’s and don’ts during March 2015 anti-terror operations. But it seems some News Channels did not care and they think they are above the system.
At all times, and especially in difficult times, blocking is not an answer because it leads to arbitrary and politically motivated actions. Limit on media freedom for the sake of political expediency lead to censorship and when begun, censorship never stops.
The answer lies in more debate and media pluralism which is in danger in societies with dominant state-owned and state-controlled media that can be easily used to promulgate state propaganda.
Only a well-functioning, open, diverse and dynamic media environment can effectively neutralize the effect of propaganda. At the same time, government counter-propaganda, which is often viewed as programming that rebuffs falsehoods in an authoritative way, is neither essentially different from propaganda itself nor an answer to it.
Where a government protects freedom of the media and does not control or influence its output or reduce it to mere propaganda, then the existence of free exchange of views, both domestically and across borders, can help reduce international tensions and prevent conflicts based on rumour or false information. These tools, taken together, make-up professional, courageous and investigative journalism. There is no democracy without such journalism, and there is no future without democracy.
In India, as we well know, media plays a very important role both as the transmitter of news and information and also as the protector of democracy. It is often being hailed as the third pillar of democracy because it spreads the valuable information regarding political activities among the masses. Media has done well to expose political corruption, human Rights violations, injustice and other wrong doings of politicians. In this way media helps to keep a check on politicians who otherwise could have misused their political power even more. Therefore we all wish for a free media that could report to us without any fear or favour.
But at the same time, there are legitimate concerns about the possibility of media reports that could potentially be harmful to national security and safety. The concerns regarding national security and national safety cannot be under-stated. We do have a very challenging security scenario where security threats are both internal and external, ranging from Terrorism Naxalism, Drug trafficking, Hawala etc. Therefore a small security breach could effectively lead to very bad results. This was already witnessed during 2008 Mumbai Terror attack when News Channels reported live cove-rage of anti-terror operation. This live information was used by terror masterminds to guide the terrorists involved. Recently also, a News Channel released a video showing internal security arrangements of Pathankot Airbase. Also, the upload of video on social media showing Parliament’s security arrangements by a Lok Sabha M.P. raised many eyebrows. All this has lent voice to the people calling for strict regulation of the media in order to ensure National security. Appropriate it may seem initially, but on a greater scrutiny we will find that regulating media would not only be a set back for democracy but also impractical.
First of all let us analyse the impracticability in regulation of media. Today, media is not just about traditional broadcast and print media. In today’s world the first break of a news is on the internet. Every main news channel has a website broadcasting news online and this news can thus be recorded, downloaded and shared online any number of times. Earlier, the major online sharing platforms were Youtube and Facebook. The media on Youtube and Facebook could even be regulated as they are controlled by private companies which manually sift the media. Also, on Facebook, when videos and articles are shared the main source file remains at the source website only, which could for instance be youtube, any news channel website etc. So, if the video is blocked at the main website, the shared video or article becomes unavailable on Facebook also. But with coming of Whatsapp messenger App and other similar Apps, every individual is now an effective News Channel. On Whatsapp the source website is nothing but an individual’s own phone, through which the video is shared. So there is not blocking mechanism. Communication through Whatsapp messenger is akin to private posting of letters, the only difference being that through Whatsapp any video or news can reach thousands of people within matter of minutes. The government cannot know what is being shared as this is private communication and the government surveillance is not allowed by the companies who own these messenger applications. The only way could be that government bans the use of Whatsapp messenger. But then there are tens of other similar messenger Apps in the market now. And of course, it is beyond argument to say that no decent nation, leave alone a democratic nation can block Internet during peace time. It is a simple fact that online form of communication is impossible to be regulated in a democratic country that guarantees its citizens freedom of speech. Therefore any attempt by the Government at controlling the media online will be only to get its own fingers burnt.
I have already stated earlier news media has a very important role in a democracy. In fact, in a democracy it is being called as ‘people’s court’ because it is media only that holds politicians accountable to the larger pool of public opinion. It can ask certain tough and uncomfortable questions, raise issues concerning the public, expose malpractices, and even rally public opinion to force the ruling classes to fulfill their responsibility. At the same time, it is through media only that both the government and the opposition communicate with the public. Therefore any kind of compromise on the freedom of media will put our democracy in peril.
The formation of rules and laws in order to regulate media in the name of National Security will give government a stick to beat media with. The Media will live in fear of government and this well also result in self censorship by the Media. Also, the problem is that National Security and National Safety are not clearly defined terms. For example, the negative coverage of demonetisation drive by the Media can also be categorised as a threat to National Security if one wants to, as some people can say that negative reports are actually instigating people against the system and causing them to turn violent. In a similar way government can use any pretest to punish the News Channels and Newspapers it doesn’t like. Bigger News mediums may even give a fight for once but the smaller ones—the online blogs, news websites, small local newspapers, the ones with limited viewership will be left in the lurch.
It is a known fact that rules and laws are misused by those in power. There is a real danger that rules made to regulate media for security purposes can be used to strangulate our media and freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean that National Security and safety is given a miss. Actually we do not need any new rules to curb media. This is because Article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression also provides for various grounds on which freedom of speech and expression can be constrained. Constitutionally, Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. Thus, in India we already have such specific laws made to put constraints on freedom of expression as provided by the Constitution. Like we have sedition law, National Security Act, Defamation laws etc. Freedom of Media is already constrained by these existing laws. Therefore to form a new set of comprehensive regulations for Media is not a good idea.
In a democracy, freedom of Media is pious. As far as National Security is concerned, we have to deal it through intelligence. The real solution lies in building on our intelligence capabilities rather than opt for over the top but ineffective options like regulation of media.