Freedom of Press

Freedom of Press

This article, explaining the Freedom of Press, is written by Miss Divyakshi Jain, Semester X, B.B.A. LL.B. (IPR Hons.) at National Law University Jodhpur.

Freedom of Press is freedom of communication and expression through modes such as electronic media or published materials. While this freedom is envisaged to be free from government interference, but it can be protected through constitutional or legal means.

The Indian Press has a long and colorful history right from the time of British rule in the country. The British Government enacted a number of legislations to control the press, like the Indian Press Act, 1910[1], then in 1931-32 the Indian Press (Emergency) Act, etc. During World War II, the executive exercised extreme powers under the Defence of India Act which enforced censorship on press. At that time, all news reporting Congress activities were declared illegal.

In the Post-Constitutional Era, there was a change in the outlook. The Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) lays down that “All citizens shall have the right, to freedom of speech & expression.[2] Unlike the US Constitution, the Indian Constitution does not expressly provide Freedom of Press. However, it has now become well-settled that the words “speech & expression” are including the Freedom of Press as well. The freedom of press implies the content & circulation of newspapers and news being free from interference from authority. Article 19(2)[3] lays down certain restrictions on Article 19(1)(a).

Position of freedom of press in the U.S.A

Freedom of Press has been expressly mentioned in the US Constitution. Initially, it was not expressly provided for. The freedom of press was inserted only after the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The Amendment prohibited the US Congress from making any laws that would restrict the freedom of the press. This Amendment was influenced by the Virginian Declaration of Rights.

Position of freedom of press in the UK

The Parliament has been recognized to be sovereign in the UK. Unlike other jurisdictions, the subjects of the UK do not possess codified guaranteed rights. However, the freedom of press is well-recognized in the UK. The citizens have full liberty as long as they do not violate the rule of common law or any statute law.

Freedom of Press
Freedom of Press

Position in India

In Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras[4], it was observed that “Freedom of speech & of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organization, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of popular government, is possible.” In this case, the entry and circulation of the English journal “Cross Road”, printed and published in Bombay, was banned by the Government of Madras. The same was held to be violative of the freedom of speech and expression, as “without liberty of circulation, publication would be of little value”.

Further, in the case of Union of India v. Association of Democratic Reforms, the Hon’ble SC observed that “One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce. Freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions”.[5]

In Indian Express Newspapers v. Union of India, it has been held that the press plays a significant role in a democratic setup. The Courts thus have the duty to uphold this freedom of the press and must invalidate all laws or administrative actions that infringe upon it. Freedom of the press has been told to include three elements, namely:

  1. Freedom of access to all sources of information,
  2. Freedom of publication, and
  3. Freedom of circulation.[6]

There have been many instances where the legislature has tried to curb the freedom of the press. In Sakal Papers, where the number of pages and size of a newspaper were fixed, and this restriction was found to be a violation of Article 19(1)(a).[7] Similarly, in Bennett Coleman, the validity of the Newsprint Control order which again fixed the maximum number of pages of newspapers was held to be violative of Art. 19(1)(a) and not a reasonable restriction falling within Article 19(2).[8]

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Restrictions on Freedom of Press in India

In a democracy, Freedom of Press is essential because the press works as the mouthpiece and the watchdog over the three organs of the democracy viz., the legislature, executive, and judiciary. But the freedom is not absolute in nature and is subject to certain restrictions which are mentioned in Art. 19(2). The restrictions encapsulated in Art. 19(2) are:

1) Sovereignty & Integrity of India

2) Security of the State

3) Friendly relations with the Foreign States

4) Public Order

5) Decency or Morality

6) Contempt of Court

The grounds of “public order” and “friendly relation with foreign States” were inserted through the First Constitutional Amendment.[9] And the ground of “sovereignty and integrity of State” was added through the Sixteenth Constitutional Amendment.[10]

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Sedition

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code deals with the offense of sedition. It lays down that, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine”.[11]

But Explanation 3 says “Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offense under this section”.[12] Thus, in the case of Devi Saran v. State[13], the Court has held that Section 124A imposes a reasonable restriction on the interest of public order & therefore it is protected under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution.

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Current Scenario of Press & Its Achievements

As discussed above, the press is regarded as the pillar of democracy that supervises the actions of the three organs of democracy. Though freedom of expression is enjoyed by all citizens, the press has had to face certain setbacks in their enjoyment of these rights. For example, the Tehelka case where the news portal Tehelka.com was forced to shut down when they exposed a scam in the defence ministry.

The press however has had many successes as well such as the Jessica Lal murder case where the investigation conducted by the press resulted in the conviction of Manu Sharma, the murderer who murdered Jessica Lal because she refused to serve him alcohol after the closing time.

Similarly, in other cases like the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, the Nitish Kalra case and many other such cases, the press has played a significant role and have highlighted the problems within the decisions made by the Judiciary, legislature, or executive. Another example is when in 2005, Aaj Tak conducted Operation Duryodhan and caught 11 MPs of Lok Sabha accepting bribes.

The press needs to be Responsible

The press needs to be responsible as they have been given great power and in the words of Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

There have been several instances where media has hyped things up which were not significant such as the recent Taimur trend and started ignoring actual news in lieu of chasing TRP. In Prof. Sabharwal’s case, when Prof. Sabharwal was killed by ABVP activists, there were a number of news channels & newspaper correspondents were present & they had evidence of the murder but the media acted irresponsibly & the police called it an ‘Open & Shut Case’. This was not the purpose for which the press was given so much autonomy and power that has repeatedly been upheld by the Judiciary as discussed above.

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Conclusion

In words of 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.”

There are three pillars of democracy viz. 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.

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) has in its final report submitted to the Government recommended that Article 19(1)(a) which deals with “freedom of speech & expression” must expressly include the freedom of the press and other media, the freedom to hold an opinion and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.

It has been sixty years since India became a Republic and there have been a lot of ups & downs in our democracy and the press also has also faced its less than stellar moments. However, as being a subject of the largest democracy of the world we should remember the words of our 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.”

Thus, it can be concluded that freedom of press is fundamental to functioning of a democracy. But it also means that they need to be responsible about what they are reporting as they act as the eyes and ears of the common people and show them what they otherwise might not have known.

Defamation and freedom of the press

[1] Indian Press Act, 1910.

[2] Constitution of India, 1950 Art. 19(1)(a).

[3] Constitution of India, 1950 Art. 19(2).

[4] 1950 AIR 124: 1950 SCR 594.

[5] Union of India v. Association of Democratic Reforms, 2002 (3) SCR 294.

[6] freedom of press Indian Express Newspapers v. Union of India, 1986 AIR 515: 1985 SCR (2) 287.

[7] Sakal Papers v. Union of India, 1962 AIR 305: 1962 SCR (3) 842.

[8] Bennett Coleman v. Union of India, 1973 AIR 106: 1973 SCR (2) 757.

[9] Constitution (First) Amendment Act, 1951.

[10] Constitution (Sixteenth) Amendment, 1963.

[11] Indian Penal Code, 1857 Section 124A.

[12] Id, Explanation 3.

[13] AIR 1954 Pat 254

freedom of press

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