(Published in Eastern Chronicle, http://www.easternchronicle.net, 06-10-13)
By Utpal Borpujari
Recently, as I was doing my regular nightly surfing of Assamese news channels, one particular “news” item being telecast on one of the popular channels held my attention. It was a video grab of BSF soldiers torturing a Bangladeshi national who was caught for smuggling. The man was being beaten up mercilessly, and all his clothing had gradually been removed. It was clearly a case of gross human rights violation, and exposed how some of our security personnel themselves violate established tenets of law. The description by the anchor said the incident captured on video had happened somewhere along the India-Bangladesh border in the Dhubri sector in Assam.
While what was being shown on TV had obviously happened, the fact is that this ‘expose’ had nothing to do with the international borders in Assam. The fact is, the video was not even a new one. The video had been uploaded in cyberspace way back in January, 2012. In fact, an English news channel headquartered in New Delhi had done an extensive news item, which included reactions from BSF as well as the possible name of the Bangladeshi national, then itself. And the report had mentioned that the incident had happened along the India-Bangladesh border somewhere in Murshidabad district of West Bengal.
I have highlighted this incident to bring up the important issue of the quality of news in the news channels operating in Assam currently. It has been quite a few years now that satellite news channels in Assamese made their appearance in the state. In addition, there are quite a few cable news channels in Assam and other Northeastern states, and another satellite news channel is about to start operations quite soon from Arunachal Pradesh. And as any viewer of these channels would agree, quite a hefty percentage of “news” shown on most of these channels would not qualify as news anywhere else. Take the example of another news item I watched on one channel – it was on the quarrel between families of two brothers about their inherited land. There are umpteen examples of such non-newsy “news” on our channels that get shown every day – be it mobs delivering justice in front of the camera (often I wonder if the camera had been absent, would such incidents even happen!).
Then, there are blatant violations of accepted norms of ethical journalism – faces of minors and women victims of sexual violence are either shown or improperly “masked”/”blurred”, or while that is done, faces of their family members are shown clearly and even interviews taken, thereby making it easy for people in the localities where these incidents take place to identify the victim; many reporters of channels pass opinions on the morals of the alleged law breakers (especially if it has to do with young people) instead of reporting the incidents; and there are several instances of personal attacks as well as attacks on the owners/journalists of rival channels for alleged wrong doings without concrete proof. If there had been a watchdog body for monitoring the content of news channels operating in Assam, I am quite sure they would have had a busy time compiling the transgressions against norms of objective reporting.
But the problem is, while viewers regularly discuss the lack of quality in our news channels (while watching the same news items in what is perhaps an ode to the intrinsic human psychology of drawing pleasure by being a voyeur to troubles involving others), there is no forum where they can place their concerns. Just to give one example, during the time when there was a big hue and cry regarding the role of the electronic media in the G S Road incident, Delhi-based organization North East India Image Managers (NEIim), comprising mainly media and public relations professionals from Northeast India based in Delhi, had written to the Electronic Media Forum of Assam (EMFA), urging it to formulate a code of conduct for the electronic media using the G S Road experience as a learning graph.
Unfortunately, despite several emails to the officer bearers of the organization, there was not even an acknowledgement of the concerns expressed. Of course, EMFA is not a regulatory body but a body formed ostensibly to look after the concerns and welfare of journalists working in the electronic media in Assam. But in the absence of any regulatory body, and being a representative body, it could have and ideally should have taken the lead in ensuring that journalistic ethics and quality of news are maintained in the channels. Its, or any other such organisation’s, role should not end with just instituting annual awards for electronic media journalists.
I feel it is high time that the state’s news channels, or maybe all the news channels operating in Northeast India – be it satellite or cable – get together to form a self-regulatory mechanism through which they can ensure that no channel violates a certain formulated code of ethics and conduct, a la the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) that represents 24 leading private television news and current affairs broadcasters, comprising 51 channels operating out of Delhi and other places (NBA has several members from other parts of India apart from Delhi, but none from the Northeast). Like NBA, this body could be one funded entirely by its members and comprise representatives of all member organisations. It not only acts as the body that interacts with the government on issues concerning the news channel industry but also has a grievance redressal mechanism, through the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, to address concerns of viewers. If one has any issue with any news item telecast on any of the member channels, one can lodge a complaint with NBA and it gets addressed. Basically, NBA acts as a self-regulatory body for the news & current affairs channels.
All our news channels are headed by experienced media personnel, many of them achiever in fields of journalism and literature. Quite a few programmes that I get to watch through the DTH connection at my home in New Delhi are of good quality. A lot of programming is interesting and of the kind that one would not find in news channels from other states. But being a form of media outlet, the electronic media need to interact with its viewers on any concern the latter might have about anything telecast on the channels. If there can be phone-ins for viewers for all kinds of shows, why cannot be there a mechanism through which a viewer can make his or her objections to any content known and get it redressed? The print media has the Press Council of India that covers the whole country, and while it does not have any legal powers, it has acted as a watchdog for print media for a long time now. NBA, while being a privately-propped body unlike PCI’s statutory position, has a limited reach. But for the good of the region’s channels themselves, they should think of creating something like an NBA at the level of the Northeast, or at least Assam to start with.
Having a body like NBA will also serve another purpose – that of creating a systematic mechanism for skill development of electronic media journalists. As of now, much of the transgressions of journalistic ethics by electronic media journalists happen because they – or even many of their bosses – are not trained about what to do and what not to. If there is a self-regulatory body and mechanism, these issues can and will get addressed. In a small state like Assam, or any other state of the Northeast for that matter, which have even lesser population, it is not easy to run a news channel and make it profitable. But that should not serve as an excuse to have below-par content and ill-trained staff. The role of the electronic media in a trouble-torn region like the Northeast is extremely important, and a self-regulatory mechanism that also serves as a viewers’ grievance redressal platform can also help it play that role effectively and positively.
My suggestion: at least develop a Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards as laid down by the NBA, complaints against the violation of which can be made. NBA’s editorial principles, for example, say this: “A news channel must i) Ensure impartiality and objectivity in reporting; ii) Ensure neutrality; iii) Ensure that when reporting on crime, that crime and violence are not glorified; iv) Ensure utmost discretion while reporting on violence and crime against women and children; v) Abhor sex and nudity; vi) Ensure privacy; vii) Ensure that national security is not endangered; viii) Refraining from advocating or encouraging superstition and occultism; and ix) Ensure responsible sting operations.
For starters, the channel owners can at least deliberate on this, and have a look at the website of NBA and find out how such a body can benefit the local electronic media industry in the long run.
(http://www.easternchronicle.net/index.php?city=2&edition=06102013# – once the page opens, please go to page 7)