Monday, February 16, 2009

Media Coverage, Mumbai Attacks and Censorship

The February issue of Halsbury’s Law monthly deals with the media coverage of the recent Mumbai attacks and more broadly with freedom of speech and censorship. As previous posts on this blog (here, here and here) and elsewhere have pointed out, there has been much criticism of the way the attacks were covered on television. M.G.Divan puts this in perspective when she notes that neither the media nor the government was prepared with a code of conduct for such situations. She says:
…[T]he problem that we faced during the Mumbai attacks was not just that the media was unprepared with a code of conduct for such situations, but more importantly, the government was as clueless about the consequences of live coverage and indiscreet information volunteered by its officers, including security personnel, all being aired while the siege was on. It appears that the government was unmindful of the necessity to issue basic directives to the media and it is highly unlikely that in a situation of such gravity, news channels would not have co-operated with reasonable requests in the interest of public security.

Culpability of the government in letting its personnel give freewheeling interviews to all and sundry and the role it played in this tragedy have not attracted the attention they deserve. Having seen how conflicting assertions by different people played its part in the recent Jamia encounter controversy, the same question needs to be asked about our investigating agencies as well.

She points out that the wide ambit of the Cable TV Act, 1995 renders any proposed amendment redundant and the government could order blackouts or censorship as per existing provisions. She argues that a code of conduct by the broadcasters association may not be of much help because (1) it only binds organizations that choose to be bound by it and (2) other forms of media such as blogs can easily circumvent such restrictions – we saw this happen during the recent Burmese uprising (before the junta shut down access to the internet). She prefers an independent media commission or tribunal set up by the government but manned by ‘independent’ media and law experts empowered to adjudicate media related complaints and order payment of damages.

Justice P.B.Sawant talks generally about the role of freedom of speech in a democracy, role of mass media and the press council and the need for responsible reporting. R. Hazari reviews case law pertaining to censorship of motion pictures on ground of obscenity and how the norms of acceptability have undergone a shift since the early decades. He concludes by pointing out that movies with social messages have been given wide latitude. It would have been more informative to read about more recent cases which he unfortunately does not discuss. Dr.S.Sivakumar reviews freedom of speech briefly in the UK and the US and provides examples of where the Supreme Court has upheld censorship on the ground of offensive or hate speech. He also talks of the dangers of commercialization, trials conducted by the press and the importance of protecting journalists. Jagdish Sagar provides an overview of the evolution of entertainment law with a discussion of recent and pending cases.
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