The wrong counsel
The First Press Commission recommended the establishment of a Press Council of India (PCI) in the 1950s. It was in response to a survey of yellow journalism, but the first element of the commission’s mandate for the proposed statutory body was to secure the freedom of the press. The problematics of media bias were secondary, since only a free press could be called upon to be responsible. The PCI has been on the side of the angels in some of the most disturbing periods in contemporary history, like the insurgency in Punjab and the violent polarisation triggered by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It produced a good report on the media in Kashmir in 2017. But now, it has actually gone against the mandate set for it well before its inception in 1966. The PCI has sought to intervene in the matter of a petition filed by Kashmir Times in the Supreme Court, seeking removal of press curbs which have crippled reporting from Jammu and Kashmir in the wake of the Centre’s decision to abrogate Article 370. The PCI’s mandate would place it on the side of the petitioner, but it has sought to balance the priority of press freedom against the “national interest of integrity and sovereignty”. Chairman Justice CK Prasad appears to have overridden the dissent of members representing the press on the ground that freedom is contingent upon responsibility.
Responsibility to whom? The PCI’s move appeals to the imperative of national interest, and extraordinary circumstances may indeed demand emergency interventions. But national interest, at all the times, is served by the truth. And especially in times when it is contested, by reporting, fairly and accurately, without fear or favour. The job of the press in a democracy is to keep the public accurately informed as the situation unfolds in Jammu and Kashmir. The PCI does not need to remind the Indian press about its responsibilities in this matter — from the time when lethal insurgency broke out in Kashmir in 1990, the mainstream press has reported from the region very responsibly, serving the interests of both security and human rights.
There is room for a meaningful intervention in Kashmir, where local media has not been allowed to function at all, while national and international media have found it hard to get their stories out. And there has been a rash of sunny stories, especially on television, depicting a Kashmir that is surreally normal. By calling for curbs that effectively suppress the freedom of expression of a local publication, the PCI undermines itself as the institution charged with the responsibility of safeguarding one of the pillars of Indian democracy.