Media Freedom and India @ 69


Anto P Cheerotha

Do you think media celebrate absolute freedom in our country? Unfortunately answer would be a big NO, according to Indian constitution argues. It is as always a burning topic, even in the verge of India’s 68th Independence Day. The Indian Constitution, while not mentioning the word press , provides for the right of freedom and expression (Article 19(1) a). It is not offering any special privilege to media freedom as such but can be treated as a fundamental right of every citizen. This constitutional aspect is evident from the words of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Freedom of Press is an Article of Faith with us, sanctified by our Constitution, validated by four decades of freedom and indispensable to our future as a Nation.
The Indian Press has a long history right from the times of British rule in the country. The British Government enacted a number of legislations to control the press, like the Indian Press Act, 1910, then in 1931-32 the Indian Press (Emergency) Act etc. In the Post-Constitutional Era, there is a change in the outlook. Every citizen has got fundamental right to live with dignity and respect and a right to privacy guaranteed to him under Article 21 of the Constitution. Both Article 19(l)a and Article 19(l)g (which provides for freedom of profession, occupation, trade or business) are offering every provisions to citizens for freedom of expression and speech, but it is not for union of citizens. However this right is subject to restrictions under Article 19(2), whereby this freedom can be restricted for reasons of “sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign States, public order, preserving decency, preserving morality, in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense.
Who threatens media freedom? There is a change in the ownership pattern that as from chain to conglomerate ownership. It is also suggested that the editors and journalists cannot have adequate freedom of collecting and disseminating facts and offering comments as they are under the pressure of the capitalist owners.
India’s ranking in a global press freedom index has fallen significantly in the past year, putting it behind countries such as Liberia, Kyrgyzstan, South Sudan and Albania. There are different incidents where media freedom is being curtailed. In the recent past (2001), in the Tehelka Case, The portal was forced to shut down completely and its journalists were continuously harassed as the journalists exposed the scam in the defense ministry involving Ex-Defense Personnel & Central Government Ministers.
In April 2003, The Hindu ran two articles criticlizing Jayalalitha’s actions of expelling and jailing opposition members from the state legislature. Jayalalitha  retaliated by filing 17 criminal defamation cases, and ordering 5 senior editors of the newspaper, to be jailed for 15 days each. In August 2007, members of the right wing political party Shiv Sena vandalized the office of Outlook when it published an article where the party leader was listed as ‘Villain’. More recently, in April 2012, Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mohapatra was arrested for circulating a cartoon of Mamata Banerjee.
Do you think media freedom should be controlled? In this context the statement made by Markandey Katju, former Press Council Chairman is significant, that as Press Council should be renamed as Media Council with adequate teeth. In words of the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, “The role of journalism should be service. The Press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy”.
Recently, when Mumbai was under terror threat in 26/11 the media acted irresponsibly by telecasting live; it had given the terrorists getting detailed information about the ground situation that they would not normally have got. In April 2009, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram was addressing the media at a press conference a journalist threw shoe at the minister on protest of acquittal of a Congress leader accused of leading Anti-Sikh riots in 1984. The journalist named Jarnal Singh was a reporter of Dainik Jagran, a local newspaper. Later on he apologized to the Union Home minister for his act. This was one of the most condemnable acts which showed the ugly side of the press.
There are three pillars of a democracy that as the legislative, the executive & the judiciary. The press acts as the fourth pillar of a democracy. The press has played many significant roles in delivering justice, public welfare etc. Especially there are quite a lot of incidents where media acted responsibly including; Jessica Lal’s case, Priyadarshini Mattoo’s Case, Aarushi Talwar’s murder case and Ruchika Girhotra’s case.
Many authorities have held that the Right to Freedom of Speech conferred by Article 19(1) of the Constitution is adequate to protect the freedom of the Press. Judicial decisions have however made it clear that the Fundamental Rights are conferred only on citizens and not on associations of citizens. In the present times, no newspaper or other periodical can normally be brought out by individuals; it can only be brought out by corporate bodies. Moreover, it has also been held by Courts that, in view of the limitations put under Article 19 (2) etc., pre-censorship can be imposed on newspapers even when the country is not faced by an Emergency due to external aggression or internal rebellion or similar circumstances.