Media’s power lies in its ability to communicate to whole of the world. If media is free, it can empower whole humanity. Though every citizen has fundamental right of free expression, it is the media that exercises it effectively in an organised manner. Journalists are expected to be equipped, trained and professionally capable.

Photo that stopped a war. A nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc girl running out in street after peeling out clothes as Viet Nam was being wrecked with Napalm bombs on June 8. 1972.  (Inset) Nick Ut, who photographed Phuc, seen with her after 40 years.
Photo that stopped a war. A nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc girl running out in street after peeling out clothes as Viet Nam was being wrecked with Napalm bombs on June 8. 1972. (Inset) Nick Ut, who photographed Phuc, seen with her after 40 years.

Two press photographers of yesteryears proved their efficiency and ethical character in carrying out the professional responsibility.  First one was Nick Ut who captured a nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc Napalm girl running out in street after peeling out clothes as Viet Nam was being bombarded on June 8. 1972.  New York Times Editorial Board hesitated to publish that nude picture but, later understood its potential. 

The photo won him Pulitzer award.  After performing duty, Ut did not leave her to her fate, took her family members along with the girl to medical camp and facilitated treatment for the burning injuries. That girl was Kim Phuc, who is now grown up to become UNIESCO goodwill ambassador working for peace. 

The photo is a powerful gift to her: and also to the world because it exposed the war horror and built public opinion to increase pressure on US to stop the war .  First Nixon suspected it to be a fake photo, but ultimately bowed down to the global pressure and ceased US interference.

Chased by horrific images
Kevin Carter (1960 –1994), a South African photojournalist, also was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph depicting a starving child chased by a vulture (dated March 1, 1993). Child was crawling and struggling to get to a food center, even as a vulture was stalking. 

The magazine that published it, was flooded with calls enquiring about her safety. Horrific images, suffering, starving people and his helplessness haunted him to suicide in 1994 soon after receiving the award. The reaction to the picture was so strong that The Times published an unusual editors' note on the fate of the girl. Carter said she resumed her trek to the feeding center. Though he tried to help her, security guards prevented, he said. He chased away the vulture. He sat under a tree for a long time, "smoking cigarettes and crying." 

The two photographs depict two different stories of human interest and media ethics. They proved first human beings and later responsible journalists. Ethics are to be practiced personally. Media cannot be regulated until their writings provoke violence, cause defamation, contempt of court or breach of privilege. 

Recently a TV channel was giving the news of successful launching of Agni 5 but presented graphics as if Agni 5 was triggered on and that destroyed Beijing and also Islamabad. The intent was to tell that it was capable of destroying enemy at a distance of these two cities. First of all, it did not happen; secondly, China and Pakistan are not our enemies. Under Article 19(2), freedom of press can be restricted if friendly relations with foreign countries are affected. This depiction is potential enough to impact our relations. 

The media trial of Gudia 
Electronic media cannot be forgiven or forgotten for its ‘trial’ of an innocent rural house wife Gudia, during 2004-5. Gudia thought her husband Arif, who left for war within weeks of marriage, died during 1999 Kargil conflict. When prisoners of war were exchanged he emerged in 2004. By that time Gudia married Taufiq and expecting a child too.  Then her life story became a spectacle or thrilling live serial for several channels. 

They were conducting opinion poll to decide where should Gudiya go. Meanwhile 1500 people of village panchayat ruled her join soldier husband. Anchors brought her on to studio and wanted her to decide live on camera. 

She was driven to soldier where she suffered adverse conditions and comments. She died after delivering a child. Child also could not survive for similar hostilities. Till the death of both, the media’s spectacle continued. This is an example of irresponsible media, in contrast to ethical journalism. 

Trump derangement syndrome
Another example is that the media in present days has almost abandoned the American President Trump, as if they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. But he took recourse to tweets and reaching millions of people. Levels of satire are crossing all limits and he is presented as a joker and beyond. 

The media enjoyed power and popularity because of this ability to communicate associated with wide publicity.  Media or journalism is no longer a profession. It is either an industry, or commerce or business. Not a social service. Some media is owned by politicians or their supporting corporate giants. Both print and electronic media draws huge support from the government advertisements. 

The Minister who grants advertisements will also send an article for edit page. Sixty per cent of income of TV channel comes from ads, including substantial funding by state.  Print media draws 90 per cent of income through ads from both private and public agencies. If government withdraws these ads, perhaps some of the media organisations might collapse. That is the criterion under RTI Act, to declare the private media company as the ‘public authority’ to be accountable for the people under RTI. Whether media is ready to come under RTI Act? Why not?

Bias is now inherent
Independent editorial judgment is disappearing and bias becoming obvious character of the media. People know which channel is blowing trumpet for whom. Reporters should be efficient enough to fix up an appointment with Ministers or officers for their proprietors. And the editor must be ready to take marching orders through SMS or Whatsapp message from the proprietor even before that meeting is over. 

It is difficult to discover corruption in media, not because that they are honest. What is not reported could be the real source of corruption. There is more corruption in not publishing the news than in published news. None knows why an investigative story is spiked unless that reporter reveals. Can he reveal and survive? 

Considering the ownership patterns and dominant shareholders, the media has to be biased. If not, it can be easily silenced and made to toe the line of the rulers. In these circumstances, media unfortunately cannot afford to be free. A decade ago, there was a talk of regulating the electronic media, or restricting the cross-media ownership, as provided in the draft Bill to regulate broadcast media.  

A few companies have grown so big that even Murdoch’s empire looks small. Media does not belong to people but to Media Mughals. They report to their owners. Still one can say that media is serving the great purpose of securing interests of the people under benevolent proprietors when they take an independent stance. 

When the space for the people’s voice is shrinking in the media, the technological revolution came to the rescue. Now ordinary can be heard in cyber space, independent of media’s character.   Real any virtual space for real freedom of speech and expression is very wide and easily available. A chat in canteen or street, or letter to the editor, can happen on blog or Facebook. Expression is no more an exclusive privilege of a journalist or a columnist.  (Part of Author’s address at LitFest in Hyderabad on 28th January 2018)