‘Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego.’
– Mahatma Gandhi
Freedom of the press is a paramount component of a democratic state. In the world’s largest democracy, the press has emanated as its 4th pillar and has played a significant role in sustaining the balance between the administration and the government. Press also acts as a medium to proliferate knowledge regarding national and international affairs. Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution implicitly provides for ‘Freedom of Press’ within the ambit of ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression. However, the term ‘Freedom of Press’ is nowhere mentioned in the Indian constitution explicitly.
HISTORY AND ORIGIN
Before the enforcement of the Indian Constitution, there was no statutory or constitutional proclamation of the freedom of speech and liberty of the press.
India’s first newspaper was founded by James Augustus Hicky in the year 1780. He launched ‘ ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette’ also known as ‘Calcutta General Advertiser’ in the English language. However, his paper lasted only for two years and was seized by the British administration because of its divulgence of the way of living of company servants.
‘Bombay Herald ‘ was the first newspaper from Bombay which came into existence in 1789. Later on in the year 1791, it was merged with the ‘Bombay Gazette’. After some time, rigid restrictions were imposed on the press. Censorship was first introduced in Madras in the year 1795.
Till the year 1816, all the newspapers and journals were owned and edited by Englishmen and no Indian was involved. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the first pioneer of Freedom of Press in India.
Several ordinances and regulations were passed in British India which were later replaced by ‘The Press Act, 1835’ also known as ‘Metcalfe’s Act’. Later in the year 1867 ‘The Press and Registration of Books Act’ was brought with an objective to operate the printing presses and newspaper by a system of registration. Further ‘The Vernacular Press Act’ was enacted in the year 1878 by Lord Lytton that authorized the government to expropriate any vernacular newspaper or journal that entices any seditious propaganda against the government. Thus, colonial India records many instances of the abridgment of press autonomy since there was no sanction to protect it.
EVOLUTION OF PRESS
As we all know, in modern times freedom of the press has emerged as the 4th pillar of democracy all around the world. It is regarded as an indispensable attribute of all contemporary democracies. In India freedom of the press has gained immense traction post-independence. It has proved that the very essence of a democracy lies in its independent press. With India’s rise as an independent nation, the press has also grown into a paramount force.
The press acts as a watchdog on all the three organs of the democracy viz. the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. All the 3 pillars are well acquainted with the might and vigor that lies in this autonomous body. Press has the power to bring a change, to bring a revolution. It has the strength to transform the whole landscape of a country. This is the power that even frightened the British and that’s why they always tried to curb the development of the free press and imposed stringent censorship on it.
The freedom of the press is the mantra of its invincibility. The essence of the press lies in its independence and liberty. An independent press is the identity of an independent nation. In India, the liberty of the press is now well recognized. The press has been granted full autonomy under the freedom of speech and expression to question any authority and to work in any manner which it prefers till the time it is in consonance with Law.
There are many instances where the press has exercised its liberty and has emerged as the savior of the public. It has unearthed various scams, political wrongdoings, unconstitutional activities, and conspiracies detrimental to both the nation and citizens.
The strength of the press is enhanced by its wide scope and ambit. The web of the press is spread all over the world touching every single geographical region from the equator to the poles. The press acts as a linkage amongst the nations in the diverse international community.
Press has many avatars like Newspapers, journals, TV sets, a radio that circulate information in a wide range of modes, thus covering a vast array of people all over the world.
The freedom of the press has come a long way, from being under a spell of heavy interference by the political elites in earlier times to its transformation as one of the most indispensable pillars of one of the largest Democracy in the world. The Active judiciary of our nation through its timely interventions played a pivotal role in the recognition of freedom of the press.
In the case of Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras, the court stated that “freedom of speech lay at the foundation of all democratic organizations”.
In Sakal Papers (P) Ltd v. Union of India, the constitution bench stated that “the freedom of the press under Article 19(1)(a) covered not only matter but also volume” and held the then government’s order of regulating the number of pages of the newspaper as an unreasonable restriction under Article 19(2).
Similarly, in Bennett Coleman and co. v. Union of India the court struck down the Newsprint control order and the Newsprint policy introduced by the Government in order to restrict the import and pages of the newspaper.
The Supreme Court in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. stated that “freedom of the press was the heart of social and political intercourse and its purpose was to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments”.
Thus the advent of the judiciary bolstered the development of freedom of the press and led to its crystallization as a prerequisite of a Democratic nation.
One of the key functions of the press is to act as a watchdog and to keep a check on society. Due to this, the press is prone to frequent attacks by the rogue elements of society. Attacks against the journalist including police violence, preparations by a criminal gang, or corrupt politicians are some of the most disturbing features of the current situation of the press in India.
CRITICISM OF FREEDOM OF PRESS
In the present world, the press has somewhat deviated from its principal objective. Some segments of the press are concentrating only on their fame and popularity. Recently a TRP scam was busted in India where 3 news broadcasters were pulled for alleged rigging of TRP. This is a gross violation of the very fundamentals of the press.
The constitution granted independence to the press so that it can function in a free and fair manner. Instead, such segments are indulging in these nefarious acts and are putting their power to the wrong use and abusing the liberty granted to them.
They are more concerned about their stature instead of their main aim i.e. dissemination of information. This is a major setback for the press industry as it is showing the temptation of stardom.
Recently a new trend has been witnessed in the functioning of various news broadcasters in case of sensitive issues. These broadcasters start their own separate investigation into these issues and present a wide range of facts and shreds of evidence related to it the veracity of which cannot be determined. Such mocked up investigations mislead the people and leads to polarisation. Apart from that, such mocked-up investigations act as a hindrance to the free and fair investigation conducted by the proper authorities and can lead to the development of distrust and skepticism among people against such authorities.
Also in some instances, these news broadcasters give their own judgment based upon their own research and proofs thus emulating themselves as a doppelganger of the judiciary. Recently Supreme Court had pulled up some news broadcasters for such maneuvers which hoodwink the public and may lead to the erosion of trust and belief the people have placed in the judicial system.
The freedom of the press is gradually losing its very essence in the modern Era. The autonomy which was granted for the efficient functioning of the press has now become an instrument of abuse of power by some nefarious segments within the press. Such abuse of autonomy is gradually degrading the press and would soon lead to its downfall if no action is taken to curb it in near future.
Shivanshu Dwivedi (Faculty of Law, Lucknow University)
Pranav Mishra (Faculty of Law, Lucknow University)