“The press is the only tocsin of a nation. When it is silenced…all means of a general effect are taken away.”
The Indian Press is a vigorous instrument of political education and is recognized as the fourth pillar of the Democracy. However, the condition of Indian press is far from ideal. The Indian media is under severe stress and it is not just because of the ongoing pandemic only. This is due to a variety of reason such as excessive political interference due to which media persons are not able to work independently. They are not getting the freedom which they are entitled of. Moreover, the rampant increase in the violence against the journalists has worsened the situation of Indian Press. The plight of the journalists on social media is a story in itself. Journalists are repeatedly abused, threatened with murder or rape by online trolls backed by political parties.
As per the reports by the rights and risks analysis group, as many as 55 journalists were targeted between 25 March, 2020 and 31 May, 2020.[i] And this is done mostly by the state government for they feared that their handling of corona virus pandemic would get unveiled. This is actually not the first time when the government in India has advocated curbs on Press freedom. Indian press has a very long history back at the times of British rule. So long as the British were masters of the country, the press of India functioned as a vehicle for Indian nationalism and was regarded as suspicion as an instrument of sedition. The British government, in order to control the activities of press enacted a number of legislations like the Indian Press Act 1910. They also imposed a censorship on press in the year 1939 and declared all the activities of Congress as illegal.
Now in the post-constitutional Era, the outlook for the press freedom is somewhat different. Although. The Indian government has laid down the article in the constitution to ensure the freedom of press yet the rapid increase in the use of offense of sedition against the journalists all over the country has raised a question that whether the freedom of press can be exercised fearlessly under the shadows of sedition or not?
Freedom of Press- Meaning:
The freedom of press means ‘freedom from the interference from authority which would have the effect of interference with the content and circulation of newspaper.’ The Indian Constitution laid in Article 19 (1) (a) that “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”[ii] but the Indian Constitution does not specifically provide freedom of Press. However, now it has been cleared that the words ‘speech and expression’ in the constitution also include freedom of Press in its ambit. While such freedom mostly implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state, its preservation must be sought through constitutional or other protections.
The Importance of Press:
In order to understand and appreciate the importance of Press, it is quintessential to discover that our country is not a democracy but it is a democratic republic. These two terms which seems to be synonymous to each other are actually different.
The basic difference between a democracy and democratic republic is that in a democracy, Parliaments stands as the supreme authority while in a democratic republic, the Constitution holds the supreme power, the founding pillars of which are Indian citizens.[iii] Thus, the citizens have the power as well as the responsibility to either make or break their nation. To carry out this responsibility it is necessary for the citizens to have a proper knowledge, education and awareness. For that purpose, press is one such armory which empowers the people with such weapon by spreading day to day affairs of the country.
The case of Indian Express Newspaper (BOMBAY) (P) Ltd. V. Union of India[iv]is the best example to understand the importance of Press. It has been held in this case that press plays a very significant role in any democratic machinery. The court has the duty to ensure the freedom of press and invalidate all laws that questions that freedom.
Freedom of Press and the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression:
The legal status of right to press was liberated from the areas of ambiguity by the Supreme Court. Though its dictum in Romesh Thapar V. State of Madras[v]in which the court proposed that freedom of press was an essential part of the right to freedom of speech and expression. In the judgment, Hon’ble Justice Patanjali Shastri defined the area of operation of press by enunciating that it included propagating of ideas and that freedom was guaranteed by the freedom of circulation.
Further in the case of Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Govt. of India and Ors V. Cricket Association of Bengal and Ors,[vi]the Supreme Court held that the freedom of press included the right to circulate and to examine the volume of circulation. It further held that the right to communicate included the right to communicate through any media.
Freedom of Press v/s Sedition Law:
World Press Freedom Day is celebrated all across the country with the proclamation of United Nations General Assembly in the year 1993. Every year this day is celebrated to ensure freedom of Press. May 3, 2020, marked the celebration of 27th World Press Freedom day and the theme for this year was ‘Journalism without fear or favour’. One would believe that in a country like India, where the freedom of press is infused within the Constitution, the liberty of press to report without fear or favour would be protected, however the statistics proves otherwise.
Indian ranked 140th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. The number fell to 142 in 2020 on the chart. The drop in the ranking has been linked to the existing sedition law that encourages self censorship particularly in a period of heightened nationalism.
Instances of criminal prosecution of journalists for the offense of sedition under section 124 A, defamation and legal actions under the provisions of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are on a constant rise. The rampant prosecution of media professionals indicates the existence of a narrow minded society.
Supreme Court Ruling on Sedition:
Sedition is an offense incorporated in India Penal Code. Section 124 A of IPC says- “Anyone who attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law has committed the offense of sedition.”[vii]
In Kedar Nath Singh V. State of Bihar,[viii] the Supreme Court ruled that a person can be charged with sedition if there is actual violence or incitement to violence through words or spoken. Later the Supreme Court stated that the only speech that amount to ‘incitement to imminent lawless action can be criminalized.
The point of discussion is that in spite of all the Supreme Court narrowing the scope of sedition, governments have routinely invoked section 124-A with a view to restricting even benign forms of dissent.
Violence against Journalists:
The Indian Media acts as a bridge between the people and the government. After the legislature, executive and judiciary, the media plays a pivotal role in Indian democracy. In an ideal scenario, the media works as a watchdog of the government and holds the government accountable for its actions. Unfortunately, the world today is far from ideal. The report by the Rights and Risks Analysis group, lists the instances where journalists are arrested, physically assaulted, show cause notices being issued among others.
There are two FIR cases- both registered by BJP functionaries, one in Delhi and another in Himachal Pradesh- against journalist Vinod Dua which once again uncovered the British-era terror tool known as sedition, often (mis)used to stifle rightful journalism. Dua’s petition in the Supreme Court which has granted him protection from arrest is an opportunity for the courts of India to lay down clear guidelines on how law enforcement agencies must deal with complaints alleging sedition.
Despite the countless attempts of the Indian courts to rescue the press from unreasonable curtailments incident of violence against journalists have been reported constantly. It is unfortunate that in our society lays a deep-rooted aversion to divergent view. The beauty of any democracy is embedded in the co-existence of contrasting opinions. Instances of violence against media persons are a cause of cracks in the fourth pillar of democracy. The press has played a significant role for public welfare but at times it act irresponsibly like in Prof. Sabharwali case when Prof. Sabharwali was killed by ABVP activists. There were number of news channels present at the time of murder and had the evidence but the media acted irresponsibly and the case was declared as an open and shut case by the police.
Thus we can conclude that the time has come for the media to work in harmony with the government and ensure the welfare of the society.
[iv] 1985 1 SCC 641
[v] AIR 1950 SC 124
[vi] 1995 2 SCC 161
[viii] SC 1962
Image Credits: The Logical Indian