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  In the age of the Internet  
  Responsible journalism  
   
  I WAS surfing the Internet one evening at my office when a visitor knocked on the door. A middle-aged man, he told me that he wanted to discuss a story that appeared in "The Tribune". I was at that time the Senior Associate Editor and unofficial Ombudsman of the century-and-a-quarter-old newspaper.

Before he introduced himself, he requested me to do a Google search on his name. All I had to do was write his name in the search area and click on it. Lo and behold, Google threw up a few postings at the top of which was a news-item that appeared in "The Tribune" a few years ago. The report did not show the visitor in a good light.

The short two-paragraph report quoted a Press note to say that he was some sort of a womaniser. He opened a thick file to show me the clipping of the paper, the Press note issued by one of his detractors -- a trade union leader -- papers of the defamation suit filed by him and the unconditional apology tendered by the detractor upon which the case was closed. He told me that he was unable to get a good job because his prospective employers would notice "The Tribune" report that damaged his reputation.

I understood his problem but asked him to meet me after a week so that I could, in the meanwhile, find out more about the report. Despite my best efforts, I could not find out who filed the report. There were no records of the period when the report appeared in print. Probably, the reporter concerned did not want to take responsibility for the report. Or, he or she might have even left the paper for good. At that point, I wished every published report carried a by-line.

Whatever be the case, it was apparent that the report was libellous. It was no defence that we merely reproduced what someone alleged in a Press note. I felt we should not have published the report at all, without any evidence whatsoever to suggest that he was a "womaniser". Evidently, we had wronged against him. What was the solution? My first impulse was to publish a rejoinder, setting the record straight.

But then, a rejoinder after so many years did not make sense. Besides, it would, again, unnecessarily focus attention on him. The original news-item had appeared only in a section of the paper distributed in a small geographical area. Yet, search engines like Google were able to pick up the report and show it to anybody, who chose to do a search on his name.

I had no precedent to go by. After consultation with some of my colleagues, I decided to have the impugned report removed from The Tribune's archive. Once it was removed with the click of a button, Google was no longer able to throw it up. I wished the aggrieved person a better job, when he visited me the next time. I wonder what else I could have done in the given situation. Many people wrongly think that Google keeps all the items it displays in its memory. No, it picks them up from various servers.

Earlier, such a report would not have bothered him much, as few would have in any case seen it. Public memory being proverbially short, only those who are close to him would have even remembered that such a report appeared. The Internet changed the whole scenario. In the case of "The Tribune", it was in 1998 that the paper began to be published on the Net.

The Internet has been a game-changer. Once I sent a short comment on "The New York Times" columnist Maureen Doud's piece on Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Louise Palin a few hours after it appeared on the paper's Web site. A few hours later when I checked, it was duly published with serial number 600 or so. A couple of hours later, there was an announcement that comments could no longer be published as the NYT Web site could accommodate only 1,000 comments on a single article. I am sure no article in the NYT during the pre-Internet era would have elicited such a massive response in so short a time.

We need to understand the medium in order to find solutions. The Internet users today number over 2.09 billion with Facebook, the largest social networking site, having a user-strength of over 500 million. If the Facebook population constitutes a country, it is the third largest in the world, after China and India. The number of the users of the Net has been growing by leaps and bounds even in Africa and Asia.

All the newspapers, magazines and periodicals published in the country are registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867, and the Registration of Newspapers (Central) Rules, 1956. When the Internet surfaced in the early nineties, the government had no clue about its functioning and potential so much so that it could not take any steps to control it. In fact, one reason why companies like Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy could become the IT behemoths that they are today is only because they escaped the licence raj that prevailed in the country.

Newspapers and other periodicals did not have to register or seek special permission to create a domain name and upload all their content on the Internet, accessible to anybody in the world, who has an Internet-enabled computer or mobile phone or an iPad-like device. Suddenly, the rules of the game changed. A small news-item in a corner of a newspaper published from a small town or village could be read anywhere in the world.

Earlier one had to go to a library or the newspaper office concerned and turn page after page to locate a particular item, if the date of publication was not known. And to get a copy of the paper, one had to shell out a large sum -- several times the printed price. The "older the paper, the higher the price" was the principle adopted by newspapers like "The Times of India" and "The Hindustan Times".

Today, all one has to do is to do a Google search on the subject and the search engine would pick up the story and show it to you in an instant. It has its dangerous implications as well. For about seven years, straddling the 20th and 21st centuries, I was in charge of the editorial page of the "Indian Express". We had a fortnightly columnist, whose column was discontinued for some reasons. It was not the first time that such a decision was taken in the newspaper. Nor was it the last.

In any case, my religious belief and religious identity had nothing to do with the decision taken collectively. Yet, he attacked me and described the decision as the result of a "Christian conspiracy" in a blog that the search engines would lead to, if anyone Googled on my name. Around the same time, influenced perhaps by the columnist's ranting against me, a Western "scholar" of Hinduism made some disparaging remarks against me and my religion. It was also on the Internet.

Though the comments perturbed me, I chose to ignore them, because I thought they exposed their own mind-set, rather than mine. Many of my friends and colleagues brought them to my notice but I preferred to laugh them away. But that is not the case with one of my friends, who missed the post of Cabinet Secretary by a whisker. Allegations that he was involved in a sensational murder in his state appeared on some Web sites, again quoting some "Press notes". They continue to be there, though the police never suspected him or questioned him.

His problem is that the stories remain on the Internet and every time anyone does a Google search on his name, they would read them. For an ordinary person, who is not Internet-savvy, it is not easy to identify a Web site and send a rejoinder. It may not even have an address at which it can be contacted. Of course, for the cyber police it is not difficult to trace the person responsible for the posting by tracing his/her IP address.

India is the only country where civil and criminal cases are possible against defamation. The law presupposes that "a man's reputation is his property and is more valuable than any other tangible asset. Every man has the right to have his reputation preserved. It is acknowledged as an inherent personal right of every person. It is a "jus in rem", a right good against all the people in the world. The degree of suffering caused by loss of reputation far exceeds that caused by loss of any material wealth".

However, those who have fought such cases know how difficult the fight is. Just to give an idea, if a person demands a compensation of Rs 1 crore from anyone -- a person or an organisation or a publication -- for damaging his reputation, he should be ready to deposit 10 per cent of the money in the court. And there is no certainty when the case would finally be decided.

The problem has become acute with the advent of the Internet. Earlier, "the right to defame" was the prerogative of journalists. Nonetheless, most newspapers would not publish anything derogatory against anybody unless they have clear evidence, for at stake is their own credibility. And there are checks and balances. In a newspaper, every report has to pass through various stages before it finally appears in print. The ultimate responsibility for anything published in a newspaper or journal rests with the editor, who has to publish his full address, along with those who own the paper at least once a year.

In today's wired world, anybody can be a reporter-cum- editor-cum-publisher. All he or she needs is access to an Internet-enabled computer. There are hundreds and hundreds of Internet sites where one can blog, free of cost. One does not even have to give one's name to start a blog. One can use a pseudonym like "Pisces" or "Pulper", not just to give expression to one's creative urge but to rant against anything or anybody one does not like. The victim can be a teacher or a boss. One can even go a step ahead by having a Web site of one's own that will cost as little as Rs 1000 a month.

When I started a Web site a couple of years ago, I was approached by several service providers, who claimed that they could ensure a larger flow of visitors to the site, of course, for a hefty fee. They also promised that they would see to it that the site was at the top when Google gave its search results. I did not do anything but I found that a few words of the domain name were sufficient for Google to throw it up to the top. The point is we are living in a world where everybody can be an editor and publisher. "In the early to mid-1990s it was fashionable to compare the informed, open spaces of the Internet to the 19th century American West: the "American frontier". It's now the bustling metropolis". This is true about India, too.

I started this article with the anecdote of a visitor to my office. I found on the Internet a similar case. In Flood versus Times Newspapers Ltd., a police officer was accused, in a newspaper article, of taking bribes from Russian exiles with criminal connections. The article appeared in the print edition of the "Sunday Times", and was also made available in its entirety online. Approximately a year after the article was first published, a report cleared the police officer of any wrongdoing.

When the case came up in a court, the newspaper argued that what was published constituted "responsible journalism". The judge who heard the case pointed out that "responsible journalism" demanded that the online story should have been amended or updated to incorporate the fact that the police officer had been exonerated of the charge.

There are now two types of online editions of newspapers. One is the e-paper where the pages appear on the computer as they appear in print. "The Bengal Post" (www.thebengalpost.com) is a good example. No changes can usually be made after the paper has been published and uploaded on the Internet. It is not possible to access a particular item in an e-paper through a Google search. You should know the date and page to access it.

But in the case of newspapers where every story is uploaded individually, it is possible to update such stories. Two good examples are "The New York Times" (www.nytimes.com) and "The Tribune", Chandigarh, (www.tribuneindia.com). Every newspaper should make it a point to update the story by incorporating the latest events, at least in cases where reputations of people are at stake. That is "responsible journalism". And in case the newspaper finds that a story was baseless as in the case I narrated at the beginning, it should delete it from the Web site. What is applicable to newspapers and periodicals should be applicable to Web sites and blogs also. That will be "responsible journalism".
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The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and member of the Assessment and Monitoring Authority of the Planning Commission, Government of India.
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Courtesy: Vidura, July-September 2011
 
  By  A.J. Philip  
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