The irony could not have been starker. Web portals/channels in the business of dispensing news have, of late, themselves become news; and for all the wrong reasons!! In the last few months, there have been a spate of cases where self-styled ‘journalists’ owning or working for web portals/channels, making mincemeat of journalistic ethics, have indulged in activities that would put professional criminals to shame.
Sample this. In October last year, six journalists of a web channel were arrested by the Bhubaneswar Cuttack commissionerate police for extorting about Rs 1.5 lakh from a manufacturer of ghee in the capital city. On August 28 this year, five staffers of a web channel, including a woman, were arrested for kidnapping a Keonjhar businessman and his associate, demanding a ransom of Rs 10 lakh, holding them hostage, beating them black and blue and releasing them only after receiving a part of the payment demanded.
Hardly had the people recovered from the shock when another journalist working for a web channel was among five people arrested by Koraput police three days later - for ganja smuggling of all things!
And in the latest such case, the Editor of a web portal has been arrested by the police for running a scurrilous vilification campaign against sprint queen Dutee Chand while she was preparing for the Tokyo Olympics.
These cases are representative and, by no means, exhaustive. But together, they give a fair idea about how deep the rot has gone. The point to note is that the vast majority of ‘journalists’ arrested or implicated in criminal cases belong to the ‘web’ fraternity; they run or work for web portals or channels. And there is a reason for this. Unlike other forms of media, it costs peanuts to launch - and run - a web portal/channel. A few thousand – even hundred, if one is smart enough – of rupees is all that one needs to start one. The recurring costs too are ridiculously low. The low investment and overheads, coupled with the immunity that the media provides, encourages the unscrupulous to stray into the hallowed precincts of the media to earn a fast buck.
Secondly, social media has made it possible for these fly-by-night operators to sell their ‘ware’ to a large number of people without incurring any cost on distribution and promotion, unlike mainstream media houses. Thirdly, there are no rules – at least not yet - governing the launching or running of web portals/channels. Just about anyone can barge in without any questions being asked of them. The new rules proposed under the IT Act by the Union government in an effort to regulate content on web portals are presently caught up in litigation.
The dangers that such portals/channels pose can hardly be underestimated. Apart from their use for criminal activities, there is the greater danger of spread of fake, motivated, scurrilous, agenda-driven communal and defamatory news through this medium. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court expressed ‘grave concern’ over the spread of fake news, which has the potential to disturb public order, and emphasized the need for a regulatory mechanism.
There is little doubt that a regulatory mechanism for news outlets on the web is the need of the hour. Besides threatening public order, fake, agenda-driven news causes a serious dent in the credibility of the media as a whole and gives it a bad name. Alarmed at the proliferation of fake news, the people at large paint the entire media with the same brush and start doubting its integrity. Needless to say, this loss of public trust, apart from posing a threat to the very existence of the media, has serious implications for democracy. The need for some kind of a regulatory mechanism, therefore, can hardly be overstated.
But this columnist, for one, is wary of handing over the task of regulating web portals/channels – or the media as a whole - to the government. If past record is anything to go by, governments of all hues have been eager, even desperate, to shackle the media - and punish those who refuse to toe its line - in the name of ‘regulation’. Therefore, the ‘controlling stakes’ in any regulatory body, whether for web portals/channels or the media as a whole, should rest in the media and not in the government. In other words, the need of the hour is ‘self-regulation’ rather than regulation by the government.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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