Coverage of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks by the Indian media has spurred a debate on the extent to which the media should be regulated in the public interest and the interests of national security. The Government of India is seriously thinking of amending the 'Cable TV Network Rules' and, according to news reports, the Cabinet is considering a list of 19 new amendments. In its report titled "South Asia Media Monitor 2008," the South Asia Media Commission (SAMC) has slammed the media in both India and Pakistan for promoting jingoist hysteria while reporting on the Mumbai attacks. It reveals that all is not well with the print and electronic media and that they are not playing a mature role.
While Indian television channels were covering the attacks and the counter-terrorist operations by the Indian forces, especially in the Taj Hotel, some of the initial reports seemed guided by commercial considerations where the channels were competing for the closest, most updated and exclusive pictures. However, later as the attacks extended over 60 hours they treated the murderous attacks like a reality show with each channel trying to sensationalize the situation. The clippings were being shown despite the fact that it would help the commanders in Pakistan to guide the terrorists inside the seized buildings.
In the past too, the role of media has been severely criticized. To detail just a few issues, there is a conflict between informing the people, building public opinion and reporting facts on matters pertaining to national security; a conflict between the privacy of individuals and safeguarding the freedom of the press; a conflict between the media's duty of making the people aware of and investigating allegations like contempt of court, defamation, breach of privilege and the responsibility of legislators; insensitivity of media in covering problems concerning disempowered sections of the society; media trials, that is, of the media taking the role of the judicial system; and crossing the line between reporting facts and expressing opinions.
Therefore, the freedom of the press has been questioned in many ways and on many occasions. Undoubtedly, the freedom of the fourth estate is as important as social, political, economic and national security. The problem obtains on both sides. The press has done immense service to the nation through its investigative journalism by exposing corruption at different levels in the system, and thereby enhancing the accountability of the state. However, the media has often crossed the thin line between reporting the facts and expressing opinions on matters of national and strategic concern, which has led to crisis situations.
The most important reason is that, the media, too, has become a victim of the 'tyranny of the market.' In their struggle for survival in the market and enhancing television rating points (TRP), which is essential for attracting advertisements and maximizing revenue and profits, the television channels have lost out on the ethics of journalism. The way the larger media has been conducting itself in the recent past on issues like the Arushi murder case, SMS polls on Afzal Guru's case, news items related to rape, murder, child abuse, and so on, and above all on acts of terrorism which threaten national security, speaks volumes about the growing yellow journalism in India.
Even mainstream newspapers and broadcast media resorted to irresponsible sensationalism while covering the Mumbai attacks and have been doing this on other occasions as well. Alongside market-driven requirements, this has been happening due to unscrupulous and untrained reporters, who lack maturity. A careful research of the content analysis of the news, views and reports is required to be undertaken before the anticipated state intervention gags the press. Self-regulation by the media is the need of the hour for which the media must get rid of its mediocre and sub-standard reporters to enhance its expertise and maturity. It is high time that the broadcast media develops voluntary guidelines for coverage of similar events in future and not invite the wrath of the state. The media must reorganize itself to enhance its capacity for "speaking the truth," and for "serious, mature, and insightful reporting and analysis." The media needs to develop a comprehensive understanding of the imperatives of national interest and strategic concerns while covering sensitive issues.
The Government also must understand that there is no dearth of laws to restrain the media. The need is to implement them in the right spirit, which shall also go a long way towards educating media-persons about their responsibilities. Enacting draconian laws would only complicate the problem without serving any useful purpose.