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While perusing through books on mass communication and media studies, one consistently comes across the term “toothless tiger” which is used to refer to the Press Council of India. The Press Council of India is a statutory body which came into existence courtesy the Press Council Act, 1965. The council was modelled after the recommendations of the First Press Commission which was set up in the 1950s during the Prime Ministership of Pandit Nehru. The recommendations of the Second Press Commission too added into the kitty of the Press Council and thereafter, the Parliament of India passed the Press Council of India Act, 1978.

The entire print media industry of India comes within the purview of the Press Council. The Council is entrusted with the task of acting as a watchdog over print media and maintaining the highest possible levels of journalistic integrity and conduct. The Council is headed by a Chairman, who is by convention a Retd. Judge of the Supreme. Recognized press agencies and organizations nominate 20 persons from the media as members to the PCI. 8 other members are nominated to the PCI by the Union Parliament, University Grants Commission, Sahitya Akademi and Bar Council of India. 

One would imagine that a council entrusted with the supreme authority of regulating the media would enjoy immense powers. But unfortunately, PCI has no powers to its credit except that of censuring and admonition. So far, it has been a mute spectator to the deteriorating state of Indian journalism which is plagued with inaccuracy, sensationalism and corruption. However, things have begun to change. Ever since Retd. Justice Markanday Katju has taken over the Chairmanship of PCI, the body has slowly but steadily begun to make its mark in the public domain. The magnetic personality of Justice Katju coupled with his legal acumen resulting from his stints as Chief Justice of Madras and Delhi High Court has enabled the Council to speak up for itself.

Justice Katju has identified three fundamental problems with the media. The first is that the media deflects the attention of the people from the real socio-economic issues which are that of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition etc. Justice Katju believes that the media does so by giving over-excessive importance to cricket and bollywood as if they represented the real problems of the nation. Secondly, on several occasions the media deliberately divides the people by acting irresponsibly during reportage of terror incidents which paint a particular community as that of bomb throwers and terrorists. Thirdly, instead of promoting rational and scientific perspectives which would help in fighting casteism, communalism and sexism, the media is actively promoting superstitions like that of astrology.   

To counter these anomalies, Justice Katju has opined that the PCI needs to be legally overhauled. His first recommendation is that the electronic media should also be brought within the purview of the PCI and the PCI should be renamed as the Media Council of India. Secondly, Justice Katju believes that the PCI should have the power to levy fines. Justice Katju’s reasoning is that mere censuring won’t force media outlets to behave responsibly and hence it was necessary to use the rod. There have been recommendations to initiate the process of licensing journalists. Just like Medical Council of India and Bar Council of India issue licenses to doctors and lawyers, respectively, PCI should be given a free hand in dealing with journalists. Erring journalists would have their licenses confiscated and hence, proper journalistic conduct would be maintained.

The recommendations which have come forth are too many in number but the real concern is in regards to the independence of the press. Media stalwarts are worried that media autonomy might be subverted if PCI is entrusted with such powers. Their anxiety is not uncalled for as the Government has often been seen as being hand in glove with the PCI. The only way of calming the concerned is by ensuring full independence to PCI by granting it the status of a constitutional body. 

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