Freedom of speech and expression is the bulwark of a democratic form of government. It includes the ‘freedom of press’ as contained in the American Constitution. Press in India includes print media, electronic media and even social media. In India freedom of press is not absolute. The various restrictions within which the press has to function can be categorized under two distinct heads. First, there are legal limitations which include constitutional law, i.e. Article 19 (2), Municipal Acts and judicial pronouncements. Secondly, there are practical restrictions such as monopoly with regard to management and ownership, public opinion, communication facility, journalistic acumen etc.
The constitutional restrictions have been imposed in the interest of ‘sovereignty and integrity’ of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation, incitement to an offence or violence. Within these limitations, the Indian Press can criticize and condemn the government and its policies as much as it desires.
After the Constitution came into force, so many public Acts have been made so as to restrict the publications and circulations of newspapers. Out of those, certain provisions of Newspaper (Price & Page) Act, 1956 were challenged in the Supreme Court in 1962. Examining the ambit of these provisions the court held in the case of Sakal Papers Ltd. Vs. Union of India that restraint on the extent to publish any number of pages or to circulate it to any number of persons, was a direct infringement of the right to freedom of speech and expression ‘Without liberty of circulation, the publication would be of no value.’ The Court further laid down that the court must be ever vigilant in guarding perhaps the most precious of all the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution.
The freedom of speech and expression is of paramount importance under a democratic constitution which envisages changes in the composition of legislatures and governments and must be preserved. In the Banett Coleman & Co. Ltd. case the Court observed that the individual rights of freedom of speech & expression of editors, directors and shareholders are all exercised through their newspapers through which they speak. But any press reporter will say that he cannot do anything that his boss, proprietors or editors don’t like. There is monopoly in the media. They will not allow publishing against their business interests or political interests.
The present day newspaper proprietors do not set much, more store by the famous remark made by C.P. Scott of the ‘Manchester Guardian’ comment is free, but facts are sacred’.The press should be purveyor of truth. The liberty which is taken with facts in our media, make mockery of the term freedom of press. The Indian press had discharged the heavy and crucial responsibilities cast upon it, during Indo-Pak War of December, 1971 and Kargil War in 1999. Almost all the newspapers brushing aside their sectional differences and ideological cleavages provided strength to the leadership and rejuvenated national solidarity. So the press is not only the vehicle of ‘Vox Populi’ but also mobilizes the public opinion.
Morbidity of Indian press also owes to the ill-conditioned journalism and the commercialization of newspapers and TV channels through advertisements etc. But apparently it appears that the Indian press enjoys a greater quantum of freedom of expression than press of other Asian democracies. But analyzing in proper perspective, our press has been handicapped by the unostensible hands of the proprietors. It was the duty of the press to bring about awareness among the people of the new changes taking place in the country. It is regretted that the Indian press tended to give undue importance to politics and political bickering. Due attention should be given to economic, social and scientific matters.
Shri R.S. Sarkaria, ex-Chairman of the Press Council expressed that the press people also have frailties, after all they are also human beings. The executives provide facilities like house allotments or sites, free passes, taking journalists on holidays etc. The rural press also enjoys the facilities provided to them by either government machineries or local business or the vested interests to a great extent. This situation should be avoided.
It is a fact that the Press enjoys lot of benefits and government patronage through advertisements, supply of paper, newsprint and also by way of postal concessions and the accreditation and foreign travels on government trips. At present, the only safety valve against the conduct of press is the Press Council, which is a body made by press people. Now it is functioning well. However, there is a need to have an Ombudsman headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge and independent from all corners to hear all parties, i.e. press, public and the affected persons, and can accordingly give judgment and impose penalty or punishment on the defaulting press. At present,there is thankfully one.
Therefore, in-spite of the fact that the Constitution of India guarantees and safeguards freedom of expression, we cannot really say that India has a free press as long as vested interests keep their stranglehold on it. And even when that has been removed, it will be free in the real sense of the term only when it establishes real rapport with the people of India as a whole.
Conclusion: It is a fact that the freedom of Press is sometimes misused by newspaper man by publishing tabloid stories regarding personal life of celebrities to increase their circulation or TRP. On many occasions, the Indian Press has failed for example, in case of Laloo Prasad and his Janata Dal almost all newspapers predicted defeat for Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar Assembly Elections in early 1995 and in 2015. All newspapers almost used to depict him in a funny manner. But the masses of Bihar again voted him and his Janata Dal back to power in an election in which best efforts were made to conduct free and fair elections in Bihar.
Similarly, the Left Front Government in West Bengal didn’t bother much about the power of the Press. Yet the communists were elected term after terms to capture power in West Bengal for more than thirty years. Unnecessary, the Press indulges in forecasting of political events and repercussions or falleouts which are very uncertain. The press at the same time, develops the vested interest to patronize a few individuals or party/parties which is very harmful for the democracy. By talking 90 per cent about 10 per cent and 10 per cent about 90 per cent, the Indian Press has created dependency of people upon the politics. In fact, the people have developed an inherent indulgence in political issues and gimmicks which are uncertain. The Indian Press whether print media or electronic media, gives lot of coverage to crimes like rape and murder, which spoils the mood of readers in the morning. As a result, the capacity of work of the Indians is adversely affected. It creates lack of faith in the Indian Press as general citizens find that the society outside their periphery is not so bad or insecure as projected by the Press. The Press should rather be a medium of motivation to the people of India. Therefore, if the Indian Press takes leadership in social economic, educational and cultural issues it can never fail and will ever shine as truth always shines.
The institution of Ombudsman on the pattern of Lokayukta can cure the ills to a large extent. So far press council as a body is constituted with majority of people connected with the Press directly or indirectly. Even some press have their own Ombudsman institution like N.D.T.V. who has the duty of investigating and reporting back to the complainants after necessary action. Publicity based on impartial inquiry is a powerful lever. Where a complaint is found to be justified, an Ombudsman can often persuade the press council or private press to enforce disciplinary action against the delinquent newspapers, T.V. Channel, editors, reporters, journalists or news manager. He can prevail upon to pay compensation in suitable cases.
Thus, the establishment of proper institution of Ombudsman will create a proper mechanism of public accountability of the Press along with its freedom which is very much desirable now-a-days.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer.)
by Dr. P.K. Agrawal