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Don’t muzzle the watchdog

Don’t muzzle the watchdog

The judiciary is one of the pillars of any democratic system. It doesn’t take orders from the executive, and is (expected to be) strongly independent. The media is another pillar of the same system. And it too is (expected to be) strongly independent.

Which is why this newspaper doesn’t really agree with the Supreme Court’s order on Monday, effectively preventing media from running so-called source-based stories on ongoing investigations or cases. To be sure, the context in which the order was passed—a case involving the murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl that was irresponsibly covered by some newspapers and television channels— may explain the court’s motives. It doesn’t justify the order, which also goes on to say that the court will issue guidelines or rules to regulate how the media reports such cases.

Specifically, there are three issues with this approach.

First, in India, most “hard" or investigative news reports are source-based. Anonymity is the condition on which many people share information. That doesn’t make the information wrong. Or the people liars. Indeed, some media organizations—such as Mint—insist on multiple independent sources for such stories.

Two, most media organizations regulate themselves. Mint, for instance, has a code of conduct and an ethics committee to investigate violations of this code. The Press Council of India has its own set of norms for journalists, explained at length under 42 different heads. These include accuracy and fairness, pre-publication verification, the right to privacy and trial by the media, among others. The News Broadcasters Association, meanwhile, has formed the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, whose proactive chairperson justice J.S. Verma keeps an eye on news channels and takes suo motu action against objectionable and unfair news coverage.

In some instances, the quality of self-regulation does leave a lot to be desired, but such instances are best addressed through targeted legal recourse, not broad-brush regulations.

Finally, it isn’t clear whether the court’s order will serve as a precedent for civil as well as criminal cases and investigations. If the former is included, nine out of 10 stories on the happenings in the Indian Premier League or Satyam Computer Services wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

Is media self-regulation the best form of regulation? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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