by Nava J Thakuria 30 October 2022
As we are celebrating National Press Day on 16 November in India, let’s pay our heartiest tributes to everyone who contributed to the growth of print media and also its watchdog and mentor, the Press Council of India (PCI). Since its inception and functioning, the Press Council continues to symbolize a free and responsible press in the largest democracy in the world. Many may claim that among all press or media councils functioning in various countries across the world, the PCI should emerge as a unique entity that exercises authority over the media and also safeguards the independence of the press in the populous country.
For the record, the PCI was first constituted on 4 July 1966 as an ‘autonomous, statutory, quasi-judicial body with Justice JR Mudholkar, then a Supreme Court judge, as its chairman. Under the Press Council Act 1965, various relevant functions are being authorized for the PCI, such as helping newspapers to maintain their independence and building up a code of conduct for newspapers and journalists in accordance with high professional standards. More responsibilities are listed to ensure on the part of newspapers and journalists the maintenance of high standards of public taste, foster a due sense of both the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship, and encourage the growth of a sense of responsibility and public service among all those engaged in the profession.
Keeping vigil on developments that may tend towards monopoly or concentration of ownership of newspapers, providing facilities for the proper education and training of persons in the profession, promoting a proper functional relationship among all classes of persons engaged in the production or publication of newspapers, and developing technical and other research also put in its cards. The PC act directs that the institution shall consist of a Chairman and 25 members. Out of the members, three represent the Parliament, 13 form the working journalist category, including editors and representatives of news agencies, and the rest are from various fields of education, science, literature, culture, and law. The chairman, nominated by the Chief Justice of India, and the members of PCI, normally hold office for three years.
The PCI has been adorned by a galaxy of distinguished personalities, including judges, editors, newspaper owners, journalists, media rights activists, litterateurs, educationists, and lawyers. Justice Mudholkar was followed by Justice N Rajagopala Ayyangar, Justice AN Grover, Justice AN Sen, Justice RS Sarkaria, and Justice PB Sawant as PCI chairman. Among the celebrated editors who were PCI members are Sarvshri Frank Moraes, Akshay Kumar Jain, BG Verghese, Prem Bhatia, Arun Shourie, Kuldip Nayar, Cho Ramaswamy, AN Sivaraman, Dharmvir Bharati, NK Trikha, VN Narayanan, Ramu Patel, Narla Venkateswar Rao, Nikhil Chakravorty, and Mammen Mathew.
Similarly, the council was represented by respected media personalities like Sarvshri G Narshimhan, KM Mathew, CR Irani, NB Parulekar, AG Sheerey, AR Bhat, Narendra Tiwari, Raj Mohan Gandhi, Yadunath Thatte, Basudev Ray Chowdhury, NR Chandran, GG Mirchandani, Naresh Mohan, VB Gupta, Durga Das, Sailen Chatterji, Prithvi’s Chakravarti, K Vikram Rao, S Viswam, GN Acharya, Gour Kishore Gosh, A Raghavan, and P Raman. Eminent litterateurs including Dr. Uma Shankar Joshi, Dr. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, Prof KK Srinivasa Iyengar, Prof UR Anantha Murthy, Prof Indira Nath Choudhary, lawyers including Ram Jethmalani, Ranjit Mohanty, P Vishwanath Shetty, educationists Dr. Alu Dastur, Dr. Usha Mehta, Dr. Madhuri Shah, Dr. Tapas Mazumdar, Dr. MV Pylee, and Dr. K Satchidanandan Murthy also graced the PCI as its members.
It was Mahatma Gandhi, who articulated the concept of self-regulation, in which press councils or similar bodies were founded and still functioning. Under this noble concept, the sole aim of journalism should be the service to humanity. As the newspapers used to possess great power, they should be controlled from within. Irresponsible exercises of media power would always invite condemnation. Till the last century, newspapers dominated the media scenario. Even though only 10 to 15% of the Indian populace can understand and consume English, the first newspaper in the country, the Bengal Gazette, was published in that language on 29 January 1780 by James Augustus Hicky during British rule. It was a two-page weekly newspaper, where most of the space was occupied by government advertisements. Then came the Indian Gazette in the later part of 1780. It was followed by other newspapers such as the Calcutta Gazette (1784), The Bengal Journal (1785), Madras Courier (1785), Bombay Herald (1789), Bombay Courier (1789), Bombay Gazette (1791), Madras Gazette (1795), India Herald (1796), Calcutta Chronicle (1811), Sambad Kaumudi (1822), Mirat-ul-Akhbar (1822), and Bombay Samachar (1822).
As regional newspapers started hitting the market, Arunodoi (1846) emerged as the first newspaper in northeast India. The region today publishes a good number of daily morning newspapers in various languages. The sizable population of the region continues to depend on physical newspapers for necessary news-related content. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Guwahati supported the publication of around 30 morning dailies with hundreds of periodicals in various languages like Assamese, English, Hindi, and Bengali. But the number of printed newspapers has drastically reduced in the last two years. Newspapers are struggling to survive with the rapid invasion of television channels and the most powerful digital media. A crisis of credibility since the time of the Assam Agitation, which culminated in 1985 with a much-debated accord, has also struck the holy profession.
Relentless corruption in the offices of proprietors and editors, their unwanted silence on the issue of nationalism and safety of the Assamese people, and no promotional activities for the budding journalists where most of the editors maintained double identities (both as a journalist and creative writers) for their safeguards and excuses whenever there emerged a socio-political crisis, a visibly low space for the valued readers to make the editor-journalists accountable when it was necessary, and finally the arrogance of a large number of print journalists have ruined the profession. Once the quality internet becomes available to the common people (read non-media persons), a large number of social media users start questioning the professional journalists, for which the media persons were seemingly not ready. The rejection of social media as a nuisance by many editors deteriorated the situation. Even after maintaining the circulation figure after the pandemic, the newspapers have already lost their social influence significantly.
The growth in alternative media, as our country today supports over 500 million smartphone owners (leaving aside a hundred thousand other dedicated internet users), has thus posed a serious threat to both print and electronic (television and radio) media. Because of the extreme speed, cheaper prices, and interactive nature, social media has lately emerged as a giant entity breaking the barriers often faced by the mainstream media. Needless to mention that both the news channels and digital media outlets are yet to be taken under the purview of PCI. Voices have been raised in different forums for enhancing and empowering the PCI (if necessary, renaming it as Media Council of India) with the inclusion of news channels and digital outlets under its operational territory. Otherwise, the actual aim and thrust of PCI may dilute slowly but steadily in the days to come.
The writer is a Guwahati-based journalist and a representative of the Press Emblem Campaign, Geneva, in south & southeast Asia.