Thursday, February 7, 2013

 Editors agree with Markandey Katju, slam govt ‘blackmail’

Katju told TOI that he had received a very large number of complaints from newspapers about advertising being drastically reduced or stopped altogether without any explanation after articles critical of the government, or even ministers or officials, had appeared in the paper.

NEW DELHI: With Markandey Katju making public one of the worst-kept media secrets — how governments block advertising to arm-twist media companies to give favourable coverage — top editors and media professionals have come out express their agreement with the Press Council chairman that this practice was contrary to democratic norms and the freedom of expression.

Editors Guild of India president T N Ninan went a step further and included private corporations for also seeking to control media with their advertising muscle. He told TOI, "Any linkage between advertising and editorial content, positive or negative, and whether by private corporations or by governments, is an assault on the freedom of the press."

Chairman of Outlook Group of publications Vinod Mehta agreed with Katju. "It is a very common practice... more so in the states than in the Centre," he said. "I experienced this when I was editing a newspaper. The PCI chairman has done well by spotting the problem because this happens routinely in the states... states are much more vindictive than the Centre. However, the government is free to advertise where it likes just like a private company. I don't think issuing a showcause notice — as Katju has said he will — will really help because the government can always come up with excuses like lack of advertising budget. The solution requires more thought."

India Today group CEO Ashish Bagga felt that the media was often penalized for holding up the mirror to governments. He said, "In this instance, I agree with Katju... It is ridiculous to shoot the messenger or try and put pressure of this sort! It is very shallow, short-term thinking, unprofessional and petty indeed.''

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief IBN, said, "The practice of using advertising muscle, whether it is the government or corporates, to dictate editorial policy is a troublesome issue and needs to be curtailed, if not extinguished. But my concern is that a private entity or government is free to choose where it advertises and it will be difficult to make a rule or law that draws a link between advertisements and editorial policy. This can only be tackled with the collective pressure of the industry."

Pioneer editor Chandan Mitra said that Katju had raised a pertinent issue but suggested that a larger debate among newspapers and media houses was required. He recalled how his paper did not receive a single advertisement from the railways for five years at the instance of an "aggrieved" rail minister. "Government advertisements should not depend on the minister in charge or the government in power. A transparent criteria must be drawn up for government advertisements," he said.

Mitra said that a "unilateral announcement" was, however, not enough and said that Katju should ask for the opinions of media houses and central and state governments to resolve the issue. He added that private advertisers will remain a problem despite these efforts. "There are several corporates who are known to stifle opinion by stopping advertisements and nothing can be done about that," he said.

Indian Newspaper Society president K N Tilak Kumar said the issue raised by Katju was "a matter of public concern" as "governments are increasingly growing intolerant about media reports critical of them". He added, "There have been instances of attempts at muzzling the media. Withholding advertisements, which is an important source of revenue to newspapers and television channels, just because they carry critical reports is a crude way of trying to silence criticism. It is a very disturbing trend that infringes on press freedom, which is the bedrock of our democracy. Katju is right in drawing public attention to this undemocratic trend."

Expanding on what he had said on the issue, Katju told TOI that he had received a very large number of complaints from newspapers about advertising being drastically reduced or stopped altogether without any explanation after articles critical of the government, or even ministers or officials, had appeared in the paper.

He said that "the practice is in violation of two legal principles — that of natural justice, where the newspaper is denied advertisements even without a hearing, and the other of legitimate expectation." He added that both these principles were derived from Article 14 of the Constitution and what the governments were doing was "illegal".

"It is the right of the people to criticize their government. Governments should have the strength to withstand this criticism. In fact, I think governments should be obliged to the press for pointing out their mistakes as it is for their benefit,'' he said, adding that advertisements were a significant source of revenue for the media and such arbitrary actions could greatly it.

Times View 

Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju needs to be complimented for coming out so strongly against the growing tendency of central and state governments to stop advertising in newspapers because of critical stories about them or their ministers/officials. This is nothing short of financial blackmail, and an assault on the freedom of speech. And that, too, by abusing their control over taxpayers' money. 

It is the media's duty to serve as a public watchdog and to hold governments and their representatives accountable for acts of omission and commission. We couldn't agree more with Justice Katju when he says, "Stopping advertising or drastically reducing them merely because a critical article has been published is totally undemocratic and shows pettiness of mind, and is totally unacceptable in a democracy." 

Newspapers in India have grown partly by keeping cover prices low so that more readers can afford them; they actually lose money by doing so. The only way they can survive is by cross-subsiding readers through advertising revenue. Most advertisers now know this, so what they do when they don't like a story is browbeat the 'offending newspaper' by cutting off advertising. Increasingly, they only want stories that are favourable to them, and certainly not anything that exposes their misdeeds. And government departments are not alone in doing this — private sector companies/groups also use similar pressure tactics. If governments misuse taxpayers' money, private promoters do the same with shareholder money. 

This newspaper group, for one, has been at the receiving end of such attempts to circumscribe its freedom time and again — from both governments and the private sector. The list of governments, government departments and corporate houses that have 'banned' the group has grown with every 'unfavourable' story it has published. And because it has consistently refused to fall in line, it has lost, quite literally, hundreds of crores over the past few years. 

One of the pillars of any democracy is a free and 
vibrant media. Censorship is the most obvious method of muzzling the media, but choking off advertising is really not very different; it is an attempt at censorship by other means and needs to be resisted just as strongly. 


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