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Police-Media relations: Should they be regulated?

By Ajai Narendran
New Update

publive-image Photo courtesy: cpj.org

On June 15 last year, the Karnataka High Court directed the government to formulate guidelines to prevent police from leaking information to the media before the completion of the investigation. The High Court questioned the State government on action taken against the police officers who were involved in leaking sensitive information to journalists. The court also directed the State government to develop comprehensive guidelines to restrain the police from contacting the media with details of the cases under investigation.

The court's order is akin to a double-edged sword for the media. While holding the media accountable when it is caught spreading fake information, and disinformation campaigns are important, it is equally important to stop the police from divulging sensitive information that may compromise the case and affect the investigation or the judicial process. But what about the numerous stories of corruption and human rights violations - some related to the high and mighty - that get broken by journalists following tip-offs from police sources? The question here is, who should regulate police-media interactions? Who should regulate the media? Can we leave it to the state governments and the central government? If yes, then will this not be an affront to press freedom?

To answer these questions, The Probe and Daksh, a Bangalore-based research organisation and one of the leading think tanks in Karnataka - conducted an exhaustive study for several months, talking to various stakeholders on the subject: Media, police, press bodies, government, bureaucrats, think-tanks, NGOs, legal luminaries and many others. The insights gained through the painstaking research throw light on the way forward.

"There are multiple sides to this question on who should regulate police-media interactions and whether it should be regulated at all. The problem is when the investigation is in the initial stage, sometimes some police officers reveal the details of the case to the media, and some even reveal the names of the victims of rape cases. As per Section 228A, it is a punishable offence. There is already a framework for the police, but it needs proper implementation," says Alok Kumar, ADG, Law and Order, Karnataka.

According to Kumar, the media should ensure that the accused in a case should be seen as suspects until the courts pronounce them guilty. "When the police arrest someone, the media cannot straightaway call them accused. They may be called suspects. Sometimes some of these suspects turn out to be innocent, and they will be scarred for life if their name is dragged by the media and if the media does wrong reports."

While we cannot agree more with Kumar, this matter is more complicated than that. Which organisation must ensure that the media doesn't scar people for life? Who watches the watchdog? Media itself? The courts? The government?

Award-winning journalist J Gopikrishnan of The Pioneer disagrees. "In democratic countries, it is unfair and certainly impossible to enforce guidelines for police-media interactions. The media's job is to bring out the hidden truth in police investigations. I agree that there are issues in the media's reportage related to sensitive crimes. Many accused and their lawyers argue that the media should not ponder on a case until the court's verdict is out. But that is not possible, and it is the media's duty to inform the public regarding the status of the probe and court proceedings of the case. Media should continue to report and do its job if there is no gag order from the court."

According to Gopikrishnan, stringent laws within our existing framework should be used against errant media houses. "The probe agencies and courts must fix the errant media houses for coming out with fake stories. They should not be allowed to disseminate propaganda and spew venom on their channels in the garb of media freedom. Rupert Murdock's newspaper News of the World in London was caught and shut in 2011 for running fake and manipulated stories on the death of a young girl. That should serve as an example for the Indian media as well. Law must take its own course."

According to the former DGP and IGP of Karnataka Shankar Bidari, it is time the interactions between the media and the police are regulated. "My point is, why are we only talking about the accused? Even exposure of the complainant's name also exposes them to threats and assault by the accused persons. Therefore it is important to have guidelines. Not just have guidelines but enforce them. Press freedom means reporting the facts. Press doesn't have the right to conduct the trial. That is the exclusive prerogative of the judiciary."

According to Bidari, policing is a combined job. The media and the citizens must play an active role. "Policing must be done by all. Every citizen is a policeman, and the media also plays a crucial role here. Policing is not just done by the police. Effective policing is done when there is participation from the members of the community. So, police-media interactions are needed. Both need each other, but we have to strike a fine balance."

How can this fine balance be achieved?

According to Advocate Surya Prakash, Programme Director at Daksh, institutions must come together and deliberate on the subject. "Media portrayal of the criminal justice system affects public trust significantly. Loss of trust in the legal process leads to reliance on parallel methods, extra judicial vendettas and this further weakens the justice system, which in turn leads to more negative media reports, creating a vicious cycle and strikes at the very root of the legitimacy of state institutions and its capacity to render justice. We need to break this vicious cycle, and for that, all stakeholders must come together and deliberate."

Anindita Pattanayak, a Research Associate with Daksh, says that perhaps the time has come to take a deeper look at journalism itself. "Access journalism, as opposed to accountability journalism, is defined by its insularity, an insistence on looking at the subject of the reporting through frames set by the law enforcement agencies themselves and report information from the agencies without verification and portray the agency in a flattering light. We require deeper journalism that identifies systemic issues and create narratives from individual events."

MG Devasahayam, a retired IAS officer who was the advisor to former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, says that police-media interactions have multiple implications. "Police must ensure that their investigation details are kept confidential. They can't disclose the name of the complainant and the accused. Post the investigation, once the chargesheet is filed, at that stage, they can divulge the details to the media. But when the inquiry is going on, strictly no information should be brought out in the public domain because we have seen that sometimes complaints are fake. At other times police file cases after taking bribes or under pressure, and in most cases, the police realise that the accused is innocent after investigation."

The advent of digital media and the increasing number of media organisations seems to have added to the problem, according to Devasahayam. "Media trial is not provided in the law of the land, and the trial has to take place under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and CrPC. The media should verify all the information multiple times before publishing a report as it might destroy somebody's reputation, sometimes leading to death. The problem is that in our times, the media was very limited and dignified, but with the advent of digital and social media, anybody can become the bearer of news which is why a lot of fake news and false information is being circulated. According to the preamble, we have our right to dignity and freedom of the press. But the media cannot report what they want. The media must be regulated."

While most agree that police media relations must be regulated, the question is, who will regulate these interactions? Sanjay Kapoor, Editor of Hardnews magazine and the Secretary of the Editors Guild of India, feels that media bodies like the Press Council of India and the Editors Guild of India have a significant role to play.

"There is considerable merit in the police being first sensitised and then compelled to desist from leaking information to justify their probe or worse to hang the accused before he or she has been convicted. There are issues about the State government ensuring its compliance, but the truth is that in its absence, the police authorities could lapse into the bad habit of doing what they have been doing all this while - leaking information before the probe has been completed. Ideally, the government should ask the Editors Guild of India or the Press Council of India to frame policies and then order its implementation rather than ask bureaucrats to draft the code."

According to Kapoor, the police need to be sensitised about the role of the media in a democracy rather than perceiving journalists as intruders into their jurisdiction. "Firstly, media engagement with the police helps in disseminating the imperative of the rule of law and how it is important for creating a rights-based society. Secondly, a structure of engagement between media and police could be created so that the press should get access to information without having to run around for trivial information. It should be a combination of putting all the happenings on the net and providing access to a few designated officers. The more transparency there is in this relationship, the better it would be to the cause of truth and justice, and the entire society would benefit from good ties between the police and the media."

Kapoor says that media scrutiny will ensure greater professionalism within the police force. "It is important for the police to talk to the media in public interest in a democracy. As the media mediates on behalf of the public and questions the police and other law enforcement authorities on behalf of the masses, it makes them more accountable. Furthermore, increased accountability of the authorities helps in fighting corruption and helps in deepening democracy. The cornerstone of this interaction should be greater accessibility to the top brass of the police department and information. In the absence of this institutional interaction-arrangement, the probe may skew in a direction contrary to facts."

Vineeta Pandey, former President of the Indian Women Press Corps, asserts the only way forward for the media is - self-regulation or regulation supervised by the courts. "The States or the union government cannot make guidelines. Making guidelines for regulating police-media interactions should be done by the court, civil society or the media bodies. The media has the right to know the basics of an incident, crime and other events in society. This interaction should be limited to basics and not "plants" to defame people or settle political scores. The media and the police have worked together and helped create awareness many times. However, they should desist from going after sensationalism."

The Bhima Koregaon issue is an important case that focuses on why police-media relations must be regulated. During the investigation into the violence that erupted in Bhima Koregaon in 2018, five human rights activists who were critical of the ruling government were arrested under the UAPA. Even when the investigation was underway, the Maharashtra police held press conferences and selectively flashed letters alleging that these were written by the activists in question. These letters were displayed and debated ad nauseum on various news channels. However, none of these letters eventually formed part of any prosecution case. The selective leaking of information caused prejudice against the persons in the case who had a right to a fair trial.

The High Court of Bombay, in a case filed by the arrested activists, observed that "the manner in which the police have selectively disclosed purported details of the investigation to the media and on television channels casts a cloud on the impartiality of the investigative process. The use of the electronic media by the investigating arm of the State to influence public opinion during the pendency of an investigation subverts the fairness of the investigation. The police are not adjudicators, nor do they pronounce upon guilt. In the present case, police briefings to the media have become a source of manipulating public opinion by besmirching the reputations of individuals involved in the investigation process. What follows is, unfortunately, a trial by the media. It is a matter of grave concern that the police should lend themselves to this process".

There are no direct guidelines or ethical standards for the media, specifically for their communication with law enforcement agencies. However, there are many regulations that impact the way the media can report information received from law enforcement agencies. For instance, Section 228A of the IPC criminalises the disclosure of the identity of victims of sexual assault, gang rape and other such offences with imprisonment of up to two years and a fine.

Section 74 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 mandates that "no report in any newspaper, magazine, news-sheet or audio-visual media or other forms of communication regarding any inquiry or investigation or judicial procedure shall disclose the name, address or school or any other particular, which may lead to the identification of a child in conflict with the law or a child in need of care and protection or a child victim or witness of a crime, involved in such matter, under any other law for the
time being in force, nor shall the picture of any such child be published".

Chapter four of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 (POSCO) deals with the procedure relating to recording the statement of a child by the police. Section 24 (5) of POSCO states: "The police officer shall ensure that the child's identity is protected from the public and media unless otherwise directed by the Special Court in the interest of the child."

Though there are bodies like the Press Council of India for the media, most of these bodies are toothless and have very few powers. Furthermore, the scope of the regulations issued by the Press Council and its powers applies only to the print media and does not extend to electronic media or news channels on television or digital-only news platforms.

The cable television channels are governed by the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has set up the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC), which monitors satellite TV channels to ensure adherence to the Programme Code. The Ministry of I&B had also constituted an Inter-Ministerial Committee headed by the Additional Secretary, I&B to address media-related issues. But the ministry does not consider complaints submitted by the EMMC and IMC about violations of the Programme Code with any regularity.

That apart, many self-regulatory bodies have been doing their bit to raise awareness and initiate a discourse on the existing problems. But for police-media relations to be regulated, all stakeholders must come together and confabulate. For civic society to function without fear or concern of not being heard, we need the protectors of law and order, and the media that holds power to account to work in synergy.

(Our report on police-media relations: Ethics and norms on police-media communication, will be released tomorrow at 4.30 p.m. Click here to catch up with the report and the live programme)