Credibility of Journalism Cannot be Frittered Away

Credibility is the soul of journalism. Crisis of credibility is bound to put journalism in great peril. The journalism in India, as elsewhere, is undergoing metamorphosis, thanks mainly to the explosion of social, digital and electronic media. Recently two cases relating to freedom of speech and expression and personal liberty of individuals have come up to the Supreme Court. The first one was of Priyanka Sharma, a BJP Yuva Morcha Lader, who was arrested on May 10 by the West Bengal Police under section 500 (defamation) of the IPC and other provisions of the Information Technology Act on the complaint of a local Trinamool Congress leader, Bibhash Azra because she had re-twitted a meme about Mamta Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. The Supreme Court granted her the relief of bail firstly; with the direction that she would apologise for re-tweeting but subsequently on her application the order to apologise was waived.

There was, however, another case of arrest of one social media activist Prashant Kanojia by the Uttar Pradesh police, which though dissimilar from the earlier case, has drawn nationwide attention for two reasons. Firstly; the social media journalist made a video of a woman, outside the house of the UP-Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath detailing her love affairs and secondly; the mainstream media lapped up this the matter, which was projected as a sex scandal involving the high constitutional authority of the state. More so, because Yogi is a celibate Sanyasi, so it became a hot cake for selling. In both cases, the Supreme Court has given more importance to Article 21 than Article 19(1) and (2) of the Constitution of India.

Here the vital question arises that if journalists themselves do not come forward to stoutly protect the core of journalism i.e. objectivity and impartiality then who in the public will fight for their cause? There is no doubt, that the life and the liberty of any individual are the cornerstones of the fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution of India as while Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution provides that ‘all citizens shall have the right of the freedom of speech and expression’ but immediately thereafter, in the subsequent clause 19(2), the constitution imposes reasonable restrictions on freedom. Needless to say, that the freedom of speech and expression (not the press or the media) is a very hard-earned one and therefore, it cannot be allowed to be frittered away by unscrupulous and irresponsible persons, who think that purveying the false, fake and unverifiable news will provide them instant stardom. They fail to realise that journalism is not a non-serious profession and the rights and responsibilities of journalists are inextricably attached to each other.

Incidentally, both cases of Priyanka Sharma and Prashant Kanojia have been decided by the same bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and Ajay Rastogi in a span of less one month. The bench, while passing the release order of Kanojia, observed that the arrest and remand were illegal, resulting in deprivation of personal liberty. Even though the UP Government submitted through Additional Solicitor General that arrest was necessary ‘to send a message’ that provocative tweets cannot be tolerated, the bench rejected it, choosing to bat for personal liberty.

Several tweets by Kanojia from as early as December 2017, which were insulting gods, religious sentiments and community practices. Therefore, he submitted that the arrest was made for public mischief, and Section 505 IPC was added in the FIR later, but the bench was not convinced and said that ‘we do not appreciate his tweet or post but how can he be put behind bars for that? The bench was not to be moved by these technical objections of the ASG and used Article 142 of the Constitution, which empowers the SC to do ‘complete justice’. ‘If there is glaring illegality, we cannot fold our hands and ask to go to lower courts’, the bench said.

It was pointed out by the petitioner, Jagisha Arora, the wife of the arrested Kanojia, that the arrest was made by policemen in plain civil clothes, without serving an arrest memo, and without telling her the reasons for arrest and therefore violated the mandatory procedure before arrest as laid down by the SC in D K Basu case. There was no transit remand obtained by UP Police for taking Kanojia from Delhi. He was not produced before the local Magistrate before taking him out of State. The continued detention is therefore illegal. Apart from Kanojia, two more journalists have also been arrested by the UP Police over these comments. They are Ishika Singh and Anuj Shukla, channel head and editor respectively of a news channel Nation Live, which elaborately discussed the news in its programmes about a woman claiming to be having a relationship with the UP CM. Massive outrage poured in social media against the arrests. Even the Editors Guild of India, which normally remains a moribund organisation, issued a statement saying that the police action was high-handed and arbitrary, and amounts to an authoritarian misuse of laws.

Although the woman in the video did not say that there was even any hint of love towards her by Yogi Adityanath. But she certainly tells that she is a divorcee and a highly depressed woman. She claimed that she had met Yogi sometimes at Gorakhpur to seek some assistance. So, the element of obscenity was deliberately brought in, obviously to assassinate the character of Yogi by lowering down his image in the public gaze. All sorts of people go to the Chief Minister’s residence, some sit on dharna, some demonstrate and some scream for the redressal of their grievances and journalists report them. Nevertheless, when it comes to the character of the Chief Minister, or for that matter anybody, journalists are expected to, and they usually verify the truth before publishing or disseminating by other sources. But in this case, the unverified the unedited version of the lady’s fulminations were telecast by an unknown T.V. channel and Mr. Kanojia also made it viral through his Facebook post.

It will be worth mentioning here that before the independence of the country, the journalism was considered to be more a ‘mission’ than a ‘profession’. Most of the journalists, working for the nationalist’s newspapers were expected to go to jails and work without any expectation for wages. Many of them had actually undergone jails and suffered excesses of the British Government. In those days there was no concept of objectivity. Journalists were supposed to be only fiercely nationalists. A large number of journalists were politicians as well as freedom fighters. Some of them, not in active politics, were furthering the cause of the freedom struggle by their writings. However, when India attained freedom it was realised by the top leadership of the country that the freedom of the press must be given primacy, but it should not be allowed to be errant and anarchic.

Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution is complete but are also intertwined to each other. Therefore, none of the articles can be jettisoned at the cost of the other. The Hon’ble Supreme Court though discussed the issue of only personal liberty but has completely glossed over Article 19 (2), which should have been dealt with in detail so as to strike a balance between both articles.

But more than the Supreme Court, it is the mainstream of the media will have to come forward to ensure that in the name of freedom of speech and expression, blackmailing and perverse is not encouraged as that will be highly detrimental to the free, fair and independence of journalism. Freedom of speech and expression are two sides of the same coin. It is an oft-repeated saying that your liberty ends where my freedom begins. Here, in this case, Prashant Kanojia has not only transgressed his own limits of the freedom but has also badly damaged the image of the Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath by forwarding the video. One often wonders, what was the ‘news’ in the video, which was made on the basis of the incoherent rantings of the lady?

Northern India Patrika