Can the proprietors of mainstream newspapers and satellite news channels be compelled to make their annual balance sheets public in India? Or will it be possible to ask professional journalists to go for self-declarations about their assets before they question the financial integrity of individuals in other professions, including in politics! A column by Nava Thakuria reports on a new journalist forum in Northeast India and at court and government actions in the matter concerning the financial integrity of journalists, journalist welfare schemes, fake news, and fake journalists. The question arises whether the cures are going to be worse than the disease.
Guwahati 12 September 2021 – As the Union information and broadcasting ministry in New Delhi has taken initiatives to review the guidelines for working journalists’ welfare schemes, a northeast India-based scribes’ body urged the country’s mainstream media houses and seasoned journalists to display transparency in their financial transactions to qualify for such benefits.
In a recent media statement, the Journalists’ Forum Assam (JFA) stated that the professional media houses should show their financial balance sheets detailing how much money they spent annually for the benefits of their regular employees, including working journalists.
At the same time, the so-called rich and glamorous journalists should reveal their assets (along with liabilities) as they demand transparency from employees in other sectors. It becomes necessary to reduce the erosion in goodwill from their valued readers, listeners, and viewers, before it’s too late, asserted the forum.
Meanwhile, the I&B ministry of the Government of India is examining the existing guidelines of various journo-welfare schemes to suggest its recommendations for the required changes. The changing media scenario has apparently made it necessary to redefine guidelines for journalists engaged with traditional and modern/digital media outlets.
The government’s review committee to report in 2 months
The government’s review committee is expected to maintain parity between government accredited (for example, Press Information Bureau recognized) and non-recognized scribes. Current rules may vary from one state to another. An accredited journalist should not be considered an elite professional because their status could be altered abruptly with the change in professional portfolios in the media houses.
Headed by journalist Ashok Kumar Tandon, the committee comprises senior scribes, namely Sachidanand Murthy, Shekhar Aiyar, Amitabh Sinha, Shishir Kumar Sinha, Ravinder Kumar, Hitesh Shankar, Smriti K Ramachandran, Amit Kumar, Vasudha Venugopal, along with Kanchan Prasad from the Press Information Bureau as its members and it is expected to submit its report within two months.
According to the government-run Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI), the country with one billion-plus population has over 1,15,000 registered publications with more than 17,500 in the newspaper category. Those are published in different languages, including English, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Gujarati, Punjabi, Odia, Assamese, etc.
The largest democracy has over 1,600 satellite television channels where more than 400 are news-related outlets. At the same time, over 300 million Indians use various categories of social media. Lately, many professional Indian journalists have abandoned the mainstream media (where many of them were sacked by the management) and joined digital platforms to exercise the freedom of expression guaranteed by the country’s constitution.
“We need to discuss the importance of the digital (alternate) media urgently and if the journalists engaged with those outlets could be recognized as working journalists enabling them to receive all kinds of legitimate government benefits,” said JFA president Rupam Barua, adding that the professional journalists should establish their integrity first in an exemplary manner.
Earlier, the forum commended the concern expressed by the Madras High Court in a recent directive to the Tamil Nadu government to constitute a press council so that the menace of fake news and or journalists can be legally addressed. The court ordered the State government in Chennai to form a ‘Press Council of Tamil Nadu’ within three months to eliminate the bogus journalists from the media fraternity.
The court observed that it becomes a common sight these days to find posh cars with ‘Press’ stickers on the front windshield being driven by unscrupulous fraudsters masquerading as working journalists. There have been several instances of such fraudsters being booked by the police. Politicians, land sharks, smugglers, and murderers have been seen to be hand in glove with these self-professed journalists.
The State directorate of information and public relations is aware of this, but the officials turn a blind eye to avoid any wrath in the hands of those fake journalists. This needs to be stopped to ensure that journalism remains clean and strong. Given the above position, necessary directions have to be issued to clean up the media in the public’s interest, added the court observation.
The court even asked the government to avoid allotting any house or grant directly to any applicant journalist unless it is routed through the council to be constituted, which can issue such benefits after due diligence. In addition, the council could prohibit the conduct of State conferences or meetings by journalist’s associations without its permission or approval. Details on the source of income and other relevant details would be examined before giving consent.
Citizens aggrieved by fake news or motivated and agenda-based news can send their complaints on fake journalists to the welfare board, which shall inquire and initiate criminal action against such scribes as they are simply a menace and threat to society. Furthermore, the council is proposed to have the power to direct the carrier of offending news items for a rejoinder or an apology urgently.