In a bid to weed out fake journalists, the Tamil Nadu government should constitute within three months, a press council, the Madras High Court has ruled.
The Press Council of Tamil Nadu should be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court or High Court, with its members being a team of experienced and reputed journalists, both working and retired, retired civil servants and police officials in the rank of IAS and IPS, the court said in its direction to the state government recently.
The Council shall comprise representatives from the journalism industry, as well as the government and all members shall be serving journalists of standing and government servants. The members shall be on regular payroll of media houses and organisations, evidenced by salary slips, payment of TDS and circulation or viewership details, as the case may be.
Loss of job on any account such as resignation, dismissal or death and disability shall result in their immediate exit from the board, a division bench of Justices N Kirubakaran (since retired) and P Velmurugan said.
The bench was disposing of two PIL petitions from S Sekaran, who claimed to be a journalist. His first petition prayed for directions to the Home secretary and the DGP, CB-CID, to consider his September 26, 2019 representations to form a team and investigate against the report conveying fallacious investigation data in idol theft submitted by the then Idol Wing Special Officer A G Pon Manickavel, now retired.
The second prayed for another direction to the two officials to consider his one more plea to form a team and investigate the economic offence piloted by a trust.
In his first petition, Sekaran levelled various charges against Manickavel like he had not located the criminals who committed the theft and smuggling of idols and that the probe conducted by him was inefficient and the investigation reports were not true.
The second one prayed for a probe against a trust for its collection of money. He suspected that the real motive of the trust was to support Pon Manickavel or anyone.
During the course of arguments and on verification of records, the bench found that the petitioner could be the mouthpiece of Kader Basha, who was involved in idol theft cases, along with other accused.
Though it did not entirely reject his submissions in support of his stand that he was a reporter, the bench was of the view that he had filed the petitions to divert the investigation in idol theft cases and at the instance of some third parties to scuttle the cases.
The bench said it was a common sight these days to find posh SUV cars with a “PRESS” sticker on the front windshield and “Human Rights” label in the rear and being driven by unscrupulous fraudsters masquerading as journalists.
There have been quite a number of instances of such fraudsters being booked by police after being caught committing heinous crimes. Politicians, land sharks, smugglers and even murderers have been seen to be hand in glove with these “mafia journalists”.
These “journalists” have floated fake media associations and unions, enrolling all sorts of anti-social elements as members and issuing them with “PRESS” ID cards, which they in turn use as a money-making device.
The Directorate of Information and Public Relations is aware of this, but the officials turn a blind eye – to avoid any wrath in the hands of those fake journalists. This needs to be stopped to ensure that journalism, the fourth pillar of democracy remains clean and strong. In view of the above position, necessary directions have to be issued to clean up the media in the interest of public, the bench added and issued the directions.
The Council shall have sole authority to recognise press clubs and journalists associations or unions in the state and it shall not allow or recognise formation or continuation of clubs or unions or associations based on caste, community or state boundaries.
It shall conduct and approve elections to these clubs, unions and associations, their management and be vested with the elected team of office bearers only after such approval by the board. It should stipulate a period.
The State Government shall not allot any house or grant free bus passes directly to any applicant journalists and it should only be routed through the Council, which after due diligence can issue such benefits. It shall prohibit conduct of State conferences or meetings by journalists associations without permission/approval of the Press Council to be constituted, which shall get details on the source of income and other relevant details before giving permission to such meetings.
To curtail the menace of fake journalists, the Council shall have power to identify such persons and lodge complaints against them to jurisdictional police. Members of the public, as also other affected people, can send their complaints on fake journalists to the welfare board, which shall inquire and initiate criminal action against such fake journalists because they are a menace and a threat to civil society.
The State shall make necessary amendments to the Accreditation Rules within three months and not issue press stickers, ID cards and other benefits, unless the organisation or media house discloses the number of employees, salary slips, TDS details, tax paid to the Government and proof that it sells certain number of copies or has certain viewership.
The government/council shall not issue press ID cards or stickers to the print media, magazines, dailies unless there is proof of circulation of at least 10,000 copies of their daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly and ID cards shall be increased or decreased proportionate to their circulation.
After the constitution of the Council, all journalists organisations shall be kept in suspended animation so that the election could be conducted for those organizations under its supervision, within six months thereafter.
The people aggrieved by the fake news or motivated and agenda-based news could lodge complaints with the Council, which shall summon the news agency or media house or the reporter concerned and probe the veracity of the complaints.
Depending upon the finding, the Council shall have powers to order the source of the offending news item to carry a rejoinder or apology or publish the response of the de facto complainant prominently.
The news agencies or media houses or journalists operating within the jurisdiction of the Council shall be duty bound to receive and respond to the Council’s summons and submit the details called for by the Council, the bench said. The government shall comply with the above directions and file a compliance report within four weeks, failing which the Director, Information and Public Relations Department shall appear before this Court, the judges added.