This article on ‘Freedom of the Press in India: All You Should Know’ was written by Ishika Agrawal, an intern at Legal Upanishad.
Abraham Lincoln said that the government, in a democratic society, is of the people, by the people, and for the people. The three pillars that regulate democracy are the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. However, in this modern era, a new pillar that regulates democracy has emerged, and that is the media.
But here comes a question: are reporters safe in India? Is India a safe place for the newspaper business? According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, India is placed 161st out of 180 nations. According to the World Press Freedom Index, India was placed 150th out of 180 nations in 2022. These indexes show a significant decline in the freedom of the press in India, as India dropped 11 places.
It has become crucial to provide freedom of the press in India, but as we know, excess freedom may also be fatal for society, so freedom must be provided with reasonable restrictions. In this article, we will be discussing freedom of the press, important cases relating to it, and also those cases that violated this freedom.
Freedom of the press and Constitution
In our Constitution, freedom of the press is not expressly elucidated; however, it has been impliedly guaranteed. In our Constitution, Article 19(1)(a) ensures everyone’s right to freedom of speech and expression. This right includes freedom of the press. This right is a requisite for the government’s liberty and the efficient operation of democracy.
This right is, however, not an absolute right. There are certain restrictions that can be imposed if these rights are misused. Article 19(2) of the Constitution lists certain restrictions on the right conferred in Article 19(1)(a).
Apart from these restrictions, certain laws are also enacted to restrict the press from exercising this right freely. There are four of them: the Press and Registration of Books Act, the Indian Penal Code, and the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act. By enforcing these regulations, the media is prevented from engaging in acts that are detrimental to the nation, the public, or specific people.
Significance of Freedom of the Press in India
As stated earlier, press freedom is elucidated in the rights conferred under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution with reasonable restrictions, but the press is surrounded by a big problem: media ownership. In India, major media outlets are owned by large companies that have the ability to influence the content and the media policies, which may lead to communicating mixed or biased information to the general public. The public relies on the information communicated by the media via different means; any biased information may lead to a shift in the attitude of the public.
There are a few instances where the media has been either criticised or appreciated, some of which are discussed below:
- Sanjay Dutt vs. the State: Sanjay Dutt was sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment by the Hon’ble Supreme Court for his role in the Mumbai serial blast of 1993. As a well-known actor, his situation was widely publicised in the media, with his image being painted as that of a terrorist by the public. Despite this, the Court ruled that Sanjay Dutt has not been charged with the charges.
- Pratim, alias Peter Mukherjee vs. Union of India: In 2012, Indrani was apprehended for the wrongful death of her daughter, Sheena Bohra, not her sister, as Indrani had claimed. The media coverage of the incident was highly publicised, yet Indrani steadfastly maintained her denial of having two children even after her arrest.
- Mukesh & Anr vs State for NCT Delhi & Ors. (NIRBHAYA CASE): The December 2012 bus gang-rape incident, perpetrated by the driver and six men on board, is widely regarded as the most heinous crime imaginable. As India’s laws do not allow the press to disclose the real name of the victim, the victim became popularly known by the name Nirbhaya. This incident sparked widespread national and international media coverage, leading to numerous protests and ultimately the 2013 criminal law amendment in India.
There are numerous cases in which the constitutional validity of the freedom of the press has been challenged before the Supreme Court ever since the Constitution came into force in 1950. They are as follows:
- Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras (AIR 1950) This was the first instance in which the scope of press freedom was taken into account. The Supreme Court ruled that the government’s prohibition on the arrival and distribution of the journal breached Article 19(1)(a) and that restrictions on the right to free speech and expression are only permissible in the circumstances outlined in Article 19(2).
- Brij Bhushan v State of Delhi (AIR 1950) The Court ruled that the pre-censorship of a journal is a restriction on press freedom, which is a crucial aspect of the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), and therefore overturned the order that the Chief Commissioner of Delhi had made in accordance with the East Punjab Safety Act 1949.
- Bennett Coleman and Co. v Union of India (AIR 1973): The Newsprint Control Order (1972–1973), issued by the government in accordance with the Essential Commodities Act of 1955, was declared by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional because it placed unreasonably onerous restrictions on the freedom of the press that also had an impact on readers.
- Express Newspaper Pvt. Ltd. V Union of India (1986) The Court ruled that the contended notices created a straight and instant threat to press freedom, were in contravention of Article 19(1)(a), and were therefore not legal. They were outlined to stifle the Indian Express’s voice.
- Sahara India Real Estate Corpn. Ltd. v SEBI (AIR 2012) The Supreme Court ruled that all courts with innate powers, namely the Supreme Court, High Courts, and Civil Courts, can furnish advance restraint orders or prohibitory orders for the time being forbidding publication of court proceedings in exceptional cases, and those powers do not violate Article 19(1)(a).
From the above discussion, it can be concluded that freedom of the press is an essential part of Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom of speech and expression. However, as per the statistics given by the World Press Freedom Index, it can be seen that the ranking of India has declined over the years due to various reasons, like beatings, prosecutions, and deaths of journalists, leading to serious concerns relating to the freedom provided to the press in our country.
The public looks up to the media for reliable information, and the media in turn act as a voice for the public; however, recent trends show a contrary to this. Today, the media does not cover the incidents and issues in relation to public welfare, corruption, and government schemes that need to be addressed; rather, they are more focused on criticising the opposition parties.
In order to maintain and preserve democracy, it is essential to provide freedom of the press, but the government should try to curb those practices that may lead to misuse of the freedom.
- ‘Freedom of Press in India’, Finology Blog, 5 April 2023, available at: https://blog.finology.in/Legal-news/freedom-of-press-in-india
- Anubhav Garg, ‘The fourth pillar of Indian Democracy: Freedom of the Press’, iPleaders Blog, 5 June 2020, available at: https://blog.ipleaders.in/the-fourth-pillar-of-indian-democracy-freedom-of-the-press/
- ‘World Press Freedom Index – 2023 Highlights, India’s Rank, Methodology, Importance And More’, Testbook, 16 October 2023, available at: https://testbook.com/ias-preparation/world-press-freedom-index#amp_tf=From%20%251%24s&aoh=16981238911559&csi=1&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com&share=https%3A%2F%2Ftestbook.com%2Fias-preparation%2Fworld-press-freedom-index