My run-ins with the fourth estate

My run-ins with the fourth estate
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An interesting incident occurred when I was serving as the Chief Secretary to the Government of Andhra Pradesh in 2004.

An interesting incident occurred when I was serving as the Chief Secretary to the Government of Andhra Pradesh in 2004. I had convened a conference at Vijayawada, in Krishna district, of the District Collectors of coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh state, to discuss the arrangements for the ensuing elections in 2004. I had just finished the conference and was walking out when a reporter from a local newspaper hailed me and asked what action was being taken about a breach, which had occurred that morning, to the bund of a canal, somewhere in the northern part of the district. Quite naturally, I knew nothing about the incident and was not expected to know either. When the reporter persisted, I lost my cool, grabbed the microphone from the hands of the reporter and asked him who he thought I was, and how he expected me know the details of such a small incident, in the corner of a vast state. That was in the heat of the moment and I soon returned the instrument and told him not to ask such irresponsible questions in the future.

YSR, who had recently assumed office as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, one morning, went to inspect the Secretariat premises to check cleanliness and punctuality. I was the Chief Secretary and on his request, accompanied him. This was in spite of my telling him he was the Head of the Government of the state and that such matters could be handled by officials meant for that purpose. As we were going round, the whole event was being videographed by the electronic media. At one point of time, one of the photographers asked me to get out of the way so that he could get a better view of the Chief Minister. At the same time, a journalist asked me, rather belligerently, why one particular room was so dirty. That, for me, was the last straw and I lost my shirt. I grabbed his collar, and asked him if it was not merely the fact that he was a journalist, and had a camera in his hand, that he was being so impertinent. Totally shaken, the photographer apologised. After the tour was over, YSR gently chided me saying that I should not have been so short-tempered with a journalist. Duly chastised, I felt that the incident only went to show that one had to be extremely restrained and cautious while dealing with the media.

Sometime later, when a paper needlessly dragged me into a matter I had nothing to do with, I went to YSR and asked him whether I should issue a rejoinder. He smiled and said that I should never take media reports seriously. In fact, to ignore the report would be the best insult to the paper. Now coming back to the question of sensational headlines in newspapers. "Dalal Street dark" is one headline I remember from my younger days, which, apparently, was meant to convey the meaning that the stock market prices had fallen that day.

Another interesting newspaper headline I came across recently was one which claimed that if you snored you could be three times more likely to die of Coronavirus. But as one went through the article, it transpired that the point being made was that people diagnosed with obstructive sleep alone would be at higher risk, and not people who snored for other reasons!

One concern that has emerged, in recent times, is the phenomenon of fake news. The expression was first coined by the entourage of Donald Trump to discredit negative media coverage and refers to false news stories disguised as authentic ones. Fake news has become a universal concern now. So much so that many countries have enacted laws to contain the malaise.

Quite apart from the print and electronic media, another powerful new generation of methods of communication has emerged in recent times, broadly referred to as the 'social media,' such as email, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among others. These have totally dismantled barriers and anyone can communicate with anyone else in the globe across international borders and cultural divides. While these social media have opened up enormous opportunities, in terms of outrage and speed, they have come at a price. Fake news in social media is spreading like wildfire and people of all ages are suffering the adverse fallout.

The print and electronic media have discovered yet another interesting method of exposing the murky goings-on in higher places, the first ever sting operation was conducted by the magazine Tehelka.com known for its investigative journalism. The subject was match fixing in cricket. The work won national fame and public support. Next came Operation Westend, by the same magazine, aimed at exposing the defence deals of the then ruling party, the NDA led by BJP. The investigation into the sting that took a dramatic turn when it was revealed that prostitutes were supplied to three defence officials. Both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Samata Party condemned it and raised the questions on ethical side of investigative journalism.

Clearly, the emergence of modern methods of communication, in what we have come to know as the 'digital age,' has revolutionized, not only the dimension and significance of the positive role that the new age media can play, but also the serious adverse effects they can produce. One way of looking at it is that, while humanity must, no doubt, harness the potential of the new developments to the best possible extent, every effort needs to be made to put in place a techno-legal regime to ensure that undesirable practices are dealt with promptly and strictly.

However, unjustified retaliation, in the face of criticism of a constructive nature is, regrettably, very much in evidence now. The recent instances where journalists were victimised, harassed and even killed in retaliation of their fearless exposure of corrupt and dishonest practices, on the part of politicians and judges, only go to show that the freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the Constitution of India, is being treated with scant respect.

To quote the French writer, wit and philosopher Voltaire, "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend the death your right to say it." 'Gagging' the media is definitely not the way forward. The media, on their part, need also realise that compliance with ethical standards is not an option, but a necessity.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

(The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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