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September 21, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

When credibility goes for a six

Not for the first time, a chunk of our English language media has missed the wood for the trees. It has linked the Supreme Court's contemptuous dismissal of the Election Commission petition on publication of opinion and exit polls to the right of freedom of expression. This perception has come despite the Supreme Court unequivocally clarifying it did not examine whether the EC guideline under dispute violated the fundamental right to free speech and expression.

What the media has missed is the serious import of the apex court's snub to the EC that "Your guideline will remain a guideline. It is not binding. If you had assumed that you had powers to issue such guidelines, why are you doubting the very same powers by coming to the court and seeking their enforcement? This is not the way directions are issued to the government. You have no power. It is as simple as that."

Truly is it that simple? The EC's responsibility under Section 324 of our Constitution is, in a nutshell, confined to the "conduct" of free, fair and impartial elections; unless backed by a law of Parliament or orders of the government at the Centre, the EC cannot arrogate to itself the function of defining the contents and contours of "free, fair and impartial" to include even such a bizarre diktat like banning the wearing of a saffron coloured sari at voting time. The EC has unchallengeable authority to countermand the poll in a constituency or to postpone a poll or to order a re-poll etc.

However, as the Supreme Court observed way back in 1984, when the EC submits a particular direction to the government (as required by the rules), it is not open to the EC to go ahead with the implementation of that direction at "its own sweet will" until government approval is given. (A C Jose vs Sivam Pillai summarised in All India Reporter, 1984).

Now how many edit writers and columnists and commentators have noticed that in respect of many issues, apart from opinion polls, the EC has issued only "guidelines" and not "directions"? If Kalyan Singh, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, lost his plea against the EC in the Supreme Court some weeks ago, it was because it related to the tours of a minister during election time -- a subject on which the home ministry of the Government of India had from time to time itself issued instructions that were summarised in a document laid on the table of the Lok Sabha on July 31, 1970 and had reissued that document on November 1, 1989 prior to the general election of that year. These instructions were made more stringent by the EC's order of January 17, 1996 issued under the plenary powers vested in it under Article 324.

Anyway, Star TV got so misled by the Supreme Court's recent dismissal of the EC petition that one of the two persons whom it called for a "quickie" discussion on its one-hour news programme that night was a pollster pundit! And the second person was the losing advocate of the EC!

The channel has, of course, its own "hidden agenda" when it has those "quickie" discussions on certain news items. Thus, when the Wadhwa Commission Report came out towards the end of June, that channel brought in one gentleman to comment on that report. As soon as the name of that person was announced as one Mr Fernandes, you knew what to expect. The man proceeded to lash out at Justice Wadhwa's clean chit to the Bajrang Dal. He said, among other things, that the draft report and the government counsel's report were contrary to the final report. No inconvenient question was put to him, not even as to how he had got access to what he said he had seen. There was no counterpoint at all to Fernandes's fretting and fuming.

A few weeks later, this Fernandes character again appeared on Star TV. Again on the Wadhwa Commission report, but in the context of Reverend Arul Das's murder in a remote village of Orissa. Again did he berate the Hindu "fundamentalists" like the Bajrang Dal. This time, even as the two newscasters addressed him as "Mr" Fernandes, the credit line visible only to the viewers read as "Rev Fr Fernandes." The game was up, however unwittingly.

This Fernandes was also extended the courtesy of writing an edit page article in The Times of India. The theme was the same: criticism of Justice Wadhwa for not holding the Bajrang Dal guilty despite the apparently clear nexus between it and Dara Singh, the alleged killer of Graham Staines in January this year. An editorial in The Indian Express also faulted Justice Wadhwa on this count simply because it found no foolproof evidence for it.

Note how, in all the three cases -- Star, ToI and the IE -- emotive perception overrules objectivity and homework. If only the commentators concerned had actually read the Wadhwa Commission report, they would have gleaned the truth. Thus, on page 41 of that report, Justice Wadhwa records, 'There is nothing to suggest in the evidence before the Commission or in the investigation conducted by the crime branch thus far that there is involvement of any organisation, even that of Bajrang Dal, in the planning and execution of the crime.'

The commission itself had appointed an Investigating Team under Section 5 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1952. This team was headed by an Inspector General of Police and comprised five other police officers of the rank of Inspector and above, including a Deputy IGP. As recorded on page 63 of the Wadhwa Report, this investigating team 'concluded that the rule of any other organisation would be known only after the arrest of Dara Singh and his close associates.'

Even after analysing further evidence and witnesses examined by the CBI, the supplementary report of the Investigating Team revealed that 'Evidence collected so far does not reveal the role of any organisation in the commission of the crime.' (Page 64 of the report). But the likes of Fernandes so badly wanted Justice Wadhwa to give the Bajrang Dal a bad name and hang it -- all in a hurry.

Yes, homework by this self-appointed jury would also have confronted them with a mystery. On page 40 of his report, Justice Wadhwa records that 'Pratap Sarangi... the state co-ordinator of the Bajrang Dal says in his affidavit before the Commission that Dara Singh was never associated with the Bajrang Dal. The witness is not cross-examined by any of the counsel before the Commission on the question of the association of Dara Singh with the Bajrang Dal.'

The report reiterates that more specifically on page 41 wherein it is recorded that 'Pratap Sarangi, the state co-ordinator of the Bajrang Dal, in his affidavit denied that Dara Singh was a member of the Bajrang Dal. The state government, however, did not choose to cross examine him on this point; nor did Mr Sajal Das, advocate for the National Council for Churches, suggest any question to contradict him.' Why these strange refusals to blast what seemed a sitting duck? Nobody on Star TV or elsewhere has asked that of Rev Fr Fernandes. Why?

The media being partisan is understandable, though not entirely excusable. But it being manipulative and malevolent is neither excusable nor forgivable. Consider the mischief that The Hindustan Times of New Delhi played with the copy of its correspondent covering Pramod Mahajan's election campaign in Vidarbha.

The words that the correspondent attributed to Mahajan in his report were 'If we are so keen on having a foreigner as PM, why not have Tony Blair or Bill Clinton or even Monica Lewinsky?' That sentence was reproduced in the printed version of HT; so far so good.

The malfeasance was committed in the correspondent's comment that 'Young boys and girls in the well-turned out audience... burst our laughing and cheering Mahajan wildly over his wise-cracks on Monica and Bill.' That sentence was twisted by someone at the newspaper's Delhi end to read as 'Young boys and girls...cheered Mahajan when he equated Ms Gandhi with Ms Lewinsky.' If this distortion was perfidious, it was perverse when the HT executive editor defended his newspaper by proclaiming that 'We stand by our report. No one can doubt Mahajan's intention to belittle the leader of another political party.' Since when did executive editors start reading a speaker's intention and putting words in their correspondent's copy to suit that intention?

Then there's the despicable way one English language newspaper hanged George Fernandes. What our defence minister had stated in an hour-long speech (in Kannada) at Mangalore was 'The contribution of two children to the population of India was not enough qualification to claim the post of prime minister of India.' What was actually printed was 'Sonia's only contribution to India was the production of two children.'

By thus raping professionalism and objectivity that it often proclaims about itself, our media projected two leading lights of the Vajpayee-led coalition as cheap politicians who had no respect for women.

Judge this "objectivity" for yourself. Star TV "discussed" the Wadhwa Report twice with the help of a Christian; it aggressively pinned the BJP on its three contentious issues at least half a dozen times; it happily debated two Vajpayee lieutenants' "insult" to womanhood. It did all this and more in pursuing its "hidden agenda" of painting Vajpayee's flock as an utterly contemptible lot, but it has never even once dared debate the truth about Sonia Gandhi's citizenship. Why?

The approach and attitude of our press has been criticised in the recent past by the nation's President as well as the vice-president. The editor-in-chief of The Indian Express has, in his article of March 23 this year, lamented the press' loss of respect and position in society. But what is being done to correct this unhappy situation? Precious little, apparently.

Credibility, it is said, is the oxygen of the press. But our Fourth Estate would seem to have become so self-righteous that many in it don't care to publish even the verdicts of the Press Council of India though they are expected to do so. This fact came to light in February when the Press Council's censure against The Times of India was published by just four or five newspapers; the ToI just "killed" the story, not wanting its readers to read the strong terms used by the Press Council to decry its management's attempt to use the services of the editor for the personal benefit of the paper's proprietor. And remember it's our English language newspapers that shout the loudest about the need for transparency and accountability in all affairs of the state -- a Kargil crisis included.

Fortunately, there are a few elder statesmen around like H K Dua who preferred to lose his job rather than kow-tow to the ToI management. It is people like Dua who should take the lead in getting his peers to revert to the old times of Lokmanya Tilak and Sadanand who, by example and guidance, made journalism a noble profession that encouraged scholarly dissemination of news and views, without fear or favour.

For starters, the editors who take up assignments on television networks would do well to instead spend a handsome part of their time in actively engaging their reporters and editorial juniors in continuing training programmes encompassing a broad canvas -- from spellings and syntax to India's Constitutional law and socio-economic scenario.

Arvind Lavakare

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