175 Years of Media in Assam & Beyond
Validated by articles like Article 10 of the Human Rights Act of the United States and Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, Freedom of Expression entitles the right to express beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and emotions without interference by public authority and irrespective of boundaries to the citizens of all democracies.
It is a great power attributed to the people and hence, must be exercised with caution.
So, many a time this freedom may be subjected to formalities, conditions, restrictions, or penalties as prescribed by law in the interests of national security, territorial disorder, crime, for withholding morals, protecting one’s reputation or rights, preventing disclosure of crucial information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Therefore, it should not be considered as absolute and this allows the law to license broadcasting information on any form of mass media.
Some common limitations to freedom of speech are related to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, cussing, revealing classified information, copyright violation, selling trade secrets, food labeling, violating non-disclosure agreements, attacking the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, or dignity, threatening public security, and perjury.
John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty justifies this as “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
In order to exercise our freedom and rights, we need to have access to the right information and this is the role media plates in a democracy. Media is regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy because it is entitled to the responsibility of creating awareness among the citizens about different policies and schemes of the government, and also enlighten about issues that may affect the lives of the common people in any way.
Added to this, the media also has the ability and power to expose loopholes in the system and bring out any sort of discrepancy to public notice.
In India, the Right To Information (RTI) Act of 2005 proved to be a great tool for the media. It increased the efficiency of the process of acquiring information and hence, increased newsworthiness by making information more official and timely. RTI was enacted to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability, and curb corruption. An informed citizen is better equipped to keep a watch on the instruments of governance and make responsible choices in the future.
Media encompasses a range of ways of disseminating information that includes television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the gift of the ’90s; the internet. Each of these platforms has its own spectrum of reach, credibility, and audience, and ways of regulation. Some may say regulating media platforms goes against freedom of expression but that is debatable because every institute or organizational body requires some amount of supervision.
There should be a set of rules that guide the media to function within the freedom it is entitled to without hurting the sentiments of any community or person and compromising the national security and integrity of a country, while not interfering in its daily delivery of services.
The regulation and monitoring of media were easier before the internet and because the spread of information was not as fast as now, the news that went out to the public usually underwent multiple screenings in the media house itself before being printed or broadcasted. During those years all sources of media were greatly trusted and followed by the common man.
With the coming of satellite technology, the monopoly of one single channel or station was challenged and people were exposed to more and more sources of media. Regional news channels and radio stations popped up in many parts of the world making information available to all in local languages as well. This made the dissemination of information easier and more inclusive.
The internet, however, is different. It is not just another medium of information but is an entire world in itself. Here, the information does not just spread faster but is also easily created and hardly goes through any scrutiny. In its early days, not much was known about it so it was not used to its full potential, let alone misused.
The few that did have knowledge about the workings of the internet did not really use it for the general audience because digital literacy was at its bare minimum and not many had access to the internet, except prominent government offices and a few hi-tech businesses. Gradually, with the advent of social media platforms like Orkut, Facebook, etc. in the 2000s, more and more common people became involved with the internet.
Now, communication was not one way anymore. It became a binary process where both the source and receiver of information played an active role. People did not just read a news piece, they judged it, left their opinions, and indicated their affinity towards it. So, media houses were not rated based on just their reach but also on how much interaction and regular crowd it was able to generate. It was a mere game of numbers now which led to a chain of events.
To ensure more interactions, more news was necessary at regular and smaller intervals. If one would wait overnight for a story to get published some other media house might move ahead and take all the limelight by becoming the first and attract all the initial traffic. This often compromised the quality and truthfulness of the information.
The practice of fake and manipulated news items has become severely common, diluting the trust people used to have on media houses before. More news meant one had to create news sometimes, not based on untrue events of course but something that is probably not newsworthy at all.
This is exactly why our smartphones notification pop-ups these days display headlines like, “Actor X’s son on his way to his first day of school.” or “Actress Y copied the dress of Actress Z in an award show.” The only ones who benefit from trivial information like these are the media houses and they do so by feeding unnecessary information which is made to feel important.
This rat race of information has diluted the meaning of news in today’s world. Overstepping rights enjoyed within the freedom of speech granted to all, media houses these days not only inform but also set agendas and perceptions in the audience’s minds. And in some cases, take decisions as well. Media is a business in its right and now they want the information to sell.
To make news sellable, some media houses and journalists have let go of fairness and neutrality when it comes to reporting on an issue. In order to sensationalize a news piece, they resort to provocative headlines, slander a popular face, or talk about one side of the story, the side that sells more. Gradually, news is becoming a product and everyone wants a piece of it.
Realizing the power of the media; significant people from different walks of life began to control the direction in which the media waved. This is how political parties use the media to sell propaganda. Many party men are themselves owners of media houses and in scenarios like that, neutrality and objectivity are most likely compromised.
This has been happening for quite some time now, so much so that people now choose their favorite media channels/newspapers/ websites based on which political party or ideal it is more inclined to. For a viewer, this can be dangerous, and there lies a serious risk of being trapped in a cycle of misinformation.
One might feel that things are always moving the way they expected and the side they are on is the right one because that is what their news sources are telling them everywhere. This situation will make a fraction of people love someone and the other fraction will be made to hate the same person but no single individual will have complete knowledge or know both sides to a story. It is like the media and the ones controlling them indirectly control our thoughts and in turn, our actions.
To curb this, the media has to return to its core values and reasons for which it was established and work in the most ethical and neutral way possible. It won’t be easy and people will need to contribute as well. Instead of cursing at media houses for being sold out, the masses should support good, neutral, and respectable media houses that are doing the job the right way.
Many might say there is no one like that anymore but no, there is. They are rare and difficult to find but if we want to take in unbiased, necessary, and correct information we have to choose our sources wisely and once the market begins to realize that people are starting to like honest journalism and are open to accepting both sides of an event a lot more than propaganda news, other media houses will also try to follow suit.
The public will have to become the one controlling the wave and not the other way round so that the quality of media returns to its former glory.
All sources of media are now moving onto their internet version of operations because of its wide reach and easy access. With the coming in of smartphones at cheaper rates, everyone has the internet in the palm of their hands. So, in order to ensure that information is available to one and all every media house feels the necessity to have an online presence.
However, this huge source has many loopholes which have led to the establishment of a separate set of laws, called the cyber laws, also known as Internet Law. Cyber Law includes legal instructions related to the use of various Internet Technologies. Some issues covered include internet access and usage, privacy, freedom of expression, and jurisdiction. This law, however, does not govern or limit media platforms directly.
Media is guided by media ethics. The influence of the media is such that it can make or break any individual, institution, or line of thought and so much power and strength means that the media cannot lose sight of its privileges, duties, and obligations at any point in time.
To utilize its privileges in an effective manner, the media is mandated to follow certain ethics in procuring and disseminating information, thereby, ensuring the authenticity of the news, use of socially acceptable language, ensuring objectivity and fairness in reporting, and being conscious of its cascading impacting on society, individuals and institutions concerned.
Ethics is a set of moral values, which guide the conduct of media and journalism. These are ways of self-restraint practiced by the journalists and media houses voluntarily, to preserve and promote their credibility and uphold the trust of the people.
According to the Press Council of India (PCI), the media all over the world has voluntarily accepted that code of ethics should cover at least the following areas of conduct.
- Honesty and fairness; duty to seek the views of the subject of any critical reportage in advance of publication; duty to correct factual errors; duty not to falsify pictures or to use them in a misleading fashion;
- duty to provide an opportunity to reply to critical opinions as well as to critical factual reportage;
- appearance as well as reality of objectivity; some codes prohibit members of the press from receiving gifts,
- respect for privacy,
- duty to distinguish between facts and opinion,
- duty not to discriminate or to inflame hatred on such grounds as race, nationality, religion, or gender; some codes call on the press to refrain from mentioning the race, religion or nationality of the subject of news stories unless relevant to the story; some call for coverage which promotes tolerance,
- duty not to use dishonest means to obtain information,
- duty not to endanger people,
- general standards of decency and taste,
- duty not to prejudge the guilt of an accused and to publish the dismissal of charges against or acquittal of anyone about whom 5 the paper previously had reported that charges had been filed or that a trial had commenced.
At present, there is a need for global media ethics because now information has no boundaries and hence, there needs to be a set of practices to be followed by media houses all over the world, which are universally accepted. This will promote free flow of information and ensure that if a media person or media related business oversteps its boundaries in any part of the world then they can be challenged by anyone living in the opposite part of the world.
It is necessary so that everyone has an equal access to legitimate information and can make sound decisions.
In this age of global news media, technology enables media persons to gather text, images, audio and video information from all around the world at an unbelievable speed and under varying degrees of screening. So, it is very important to have a set of specific guidelines to be adhered to while covering international events.
Many global journalists and media associations exist but so far no common code of conduct has been agreed upon by the majority of such associations. Having the same media ethics all over the planet will also ensure equality and reduce the dominance of Western media on an international level and eliminate the digital divide between the global North and the global South.
The dream of a single set of principles began way back in the 1970s when an attempt was made to establish a “New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO)”. This was a result of growing concerns that Western media and its values were threatening the rest of the nations.
The major parties who prompted this were the non-aligned nations, UNESCO and the Sean McBride Commission; whose recommendations of the McBride Report in 1980, “One World, Many Voices” talked about a new global media order. Because UNESCO backed this order, the USA and Great Britain walked out from the organisation. However, the dream stays alive because attempts continue to be made.
The UN held a movement called “World Summit on the Information Society” after which 175 countries agreed and adopted a plan of action and a declaration of principles at a summit in Geneva in December 2003. At a second summit in Tunisia in November 2005, ways to implement the Geneva principles were discussed.
The need for global ethics is now more than ever because localised principles are no longer able to address the new global media problems adequately and global ethics will mean global responsibilities, which will ensure a global impact and reach as well. A responsible universally accepted set of ethics is needed in a world where media can help bring together a variety of religions, cultures, races, ethnic groups and traditions.
It will help different communities understand each other and respect each other’s value system and customs. A worldwide perspective is important in journalism so that global problems of hunger, environment, terrorism and political instabilities can be understood and acted upon in a more efficient manner.
If global media ethics become a reality, journalists and media houses would be able to see themselves as global agents reporting to the entire world in a well-informed, tolerant and wholesome manner that would eliminate chances of manipulating information by special interest groups. They would be no longer confined to a local audience or the public of one country but the entire world would read and view their work.
There is another important aspect of global journalism; any reporter or media house will be bound to present an issue in a broader perspective and use a variety of sources to explain an issue on the international level.
This will take objectivity to a higher level because at present the media is concerned about not being biased towards a community within the country but then the media will have to ensure that it won’t be partial towards its native country too, in case of an international issue. Media will have to work against narrow ethnocentrism and patriotism and broaden their horizon.
However, there are still a few obstacles in the application of global ethics. There is a lot of work yet to be done conceptually so that it can specify exactly how the global perspective will impact the existing set of values. It should also be able to list down how journalists of one nation owe the citizens of another, how can journalists support a global value while being impartial, how one can keep their patriotism aside and report just the truth, and so on.
Also, this change will have to be made on an institutional level so that the media houses themselves promote a fair and objective environment for journalists to work peacefully and without any fear or burden. Some may still say that global ethics is impractical but it is necessary for objective, unbiased and honest journalism.
In a world dominated by consumerism the aspect of profit will loom over anything that we do and even news and media cannot escape that. So, it may get difficult to survive in the fast paced age of information where every other day there is new competition coming up but just like doctors, journalists and media houses too have the power to influence and impact one’s life.
Hence, no matter how much the situation demands, a media person should never compromise their morals, and always publish and broadcast with honesty and passion because one small error on their part can cost a life or the future of a country which may leave impacts for generations to come.
Instead of focusing on how to move a step ahead in this rat race, all forms of media must instead concentrate and direct their efforts in creating a better world, because if anyone can do it, it’s them.
Writer Chinmoyee Deka is a PhD Scholar at the School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, India. She did her master degree from Tezpur University. This article is published in the historical book ‘175 Years of Media in Assam & Beyond’ published by Mahabahu on the occasion of the celebration of 175 years of media in Assam.
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