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Freedom of press under danger in India

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MUMBAI: While the fourth estate is known both as a conscience keeper of society as well as shaper of public opinion, is the freedom of speech for the media under pressure in recent times? Speaking on the same were BBC Global News presenter Matthew Amroliwala, NDTV managing editor Manika Raikwar, Equus founder and Counselage India managing partner Suhel Seth, and FICCI entertainment committee co-chair Ramesh Sippy at a panel discussion at the ongoing FICCI Frames 2015. The session was moderated by Association of International Broadcasters UK CEO Simon Spanswick.

The witty Seth had the audience in constant applauding mode. He began saying that the current Censor Board chief in India was an idiot. “If words like Bombay are banned in a film, why don’t the jokers also approach the High Court of Bombay? Again, we have some very good judges and some very bad judges. Society must mirror the varied aspirations of society,” Seth said.

He was of the strong opinion that the press in India had abused its power for far too long. “Most channels today are on sale and are driven by commercial interests. Times Now is clean but is a noise factory. We are in very troubled times and there is grave danger to the freedom of press in India. We are ruled by a right wing party and fringe elements have arisen. Instead of discourse and debate, people are resorting to violence,” he opined.

When questioned by Spanswick on ethics being compromised because of revenue, Raikwar posed a counter question, “How do you get revenue for a costly business medium?” She was of the opinion that transparency was the key by informing the masses about which news packages were sponsored and which were not. “Mint, for example and NDTV too, clearly mention to viewers if there is a conflict of interest in their stories either in a box or a scroll,” she informed. It was upto the audiences then to make a choice in believing what stories were true or were planted.

Agreeing with her, Amroliwala opined that if indeed audiences knew what they were reading and watching, then they would be able to pin point closely what the news factor was in a story. “The BBC is all about trust and we don’t deviate from it, which is our USP,” he remarked.

Seth at this point said that increasingly today TV editors were writing newspaper columns and newspaper editors vice versa appeared on television. “These editors appear on television because they can’t write. They are supposed to inform people through their writing about strong opinions of current events,” he said. He then went on to attack the Badal family of Punjab. “The Badals own the biggest channel in Punjab and also control the distribution system,” he added.

Spanswick queried if people trusted these channels, to which Seth implored, “What else will people watch? They don’t have a choice.”

As the talk revolved around journalistic ethics, Sippy commented that unparliamentary language was become parliamentary language across the world and everyone was in a race to grab eyeballs. Raikwar felt that the edit page of a newspaper was largely important as it is today becoming the main news page. “There is space for opinion but it has to be clearly narrated and spaced,” she voiced. She also noted that there would be times when journalists would commit unintentional errors in their stories. In such a scenario, the best way forward was to issue to apology and move on. “It is all about trust,” she stressed upon.  

Spanswick then quizzed the panel if the media in India was able to reflect society well enough through their creative products? Seth was of the opinion that every film reflected a certain section of society. “While the film Haider was dedicated to Kashmiri pundits, the narrative of the film had nothing to do with them. We have to evolve through self-restraint. It’s also sad to note how religion today is being used as a political weapon whereas people of feeble intellect are running the censor board,” he said.

“How can one counter this?” asked Spanswick. Seth said that Sippy and Inc. could come up with movies that spoke of such phenomenons without going overboard. Sippy replied that in recent times two films, Oh My God and PK touched upon religion. “They were using restraint through humour,” the filmmaker highlighted. Raikwar said that the attitude of ‘sab kuch chalta hai’ (anything goes) should stop and the consumer being the key would be the ultimate judge of a news item.

Amroliwala in conclusion stated that the pictures the BBC used for a particular story, the content and the language used was very important to the pubcaster. “This is absolutely crucial in our news reporting,” he highlighted.

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