With the visual media in India drawing flak for coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks and the government mulling an emergency protocol, India's broadcasters association has unveiled self-regulatory guidelines. These include no live reporting of hostage crises and blocking sensitive information.
An injured woman talking to journalists in New Delhi after an explosion in Feb. 07
The guidelines, billed as first big steps towards self-regulation, were formulated and unveiled by India's News Broadcasters Association. The guiding principles for telecast of sensitive events come in the aftermath of the frenzied media coverage of the 60-hour terror strike in Mumbai which elicited widespread criticism from the public and the government, which even threatened to impose an emergency protocol.
Although the broadcasters' forum started formulating such guidelines much before the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai, leading broadcasters were forced to quicken the process after the event.
The guidelines include a self-imposed restraint not to disclose details of hostages and withholding sensitive information on rescue operations. The broadcasters have also been asked to avoid live contact with victims and with security personnel engaged in rescue operations in 26/11-like situations.
Announcing the guidelines, Justice J.S. Verma, who headed the drafting committee, said self-regulation was "far more effective" than anything else, and stressed that these guidelines were the "first big step" in the direction of self-regulation. Ashutosh, the managing editor of the Hindi news channel IBN 7, said the new guidelines would be followed.
"I think this has been agreed by the channels itself. Before finalising the draft Mr J.S Verma the chairman had a meeting with all editors and we agreed upon the content. And we are also committed to adhere to this."
Broadcasters have also been urged to exercise their judgment in not airing details of identity and number of hostages, and refrain from reporting or making comments that might provide publicity to terrorists. In addition they have been asked to avoid unnecessary repetition of archival footage which may agitate the minds of viewers.
The guidelines are aimed at ensuring that the reporting of sensitive situations like the Mumbai attacks does not jeopardise the security of the nation and is not offensive to public taste. But more importantly it comes at a time when the government is mulling an "emergency protocol", and a broadcast code that strikes a balance between freedom of the press and societal concerns.
Media consultant Meenakshi Madhavan says the non-stop coverage of the Mumbai siege should be a wake-up call for television channels.
"Everybody talks about this being the first time that something like this has happened. And therefore the media expects that because it was the first time it has happened mistakes should be forgiven. So if the politicians were incompetent and couldn't handle the issue, I think the media too needs to introspect and say we also messed up."
The guidelines will be a test case for India's burgeoning news channels who have in their bid to compete with each other sometimes sensationalized news. In case any of the guidelines are not adhered to in an emergency situation anybody could lodge a complaint with the authority for punitive action against the erring broadcaster.