What does our constitution say?
In article 19(1) of our constitution, it is clearly stated that “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”. It means that every citizen can freely express their opinions regarding anything. However, it comes with certain limitations.
Our constitution says that our freedom of expression should not affect the operation of any existing law. It also cannot prevent the State from making any law. Moreover, freedom of speech and expression also has certain “reasonable restrictions in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.
The constitution has not specified anything for media houses and journalists. It is believed that freedom of speech and expression in the constitution also implies freedom of the press. Dr. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the constitution of India has already stated in one of his constituent assembly debates that no special mention of the freedom of press was necessary at all as the press and an individual or a citizen were the same as far as their right of expression was concerned.
So, can the journalists give any kind of statement in the name of freedom of expression and speech?
Freedom of speech and expression comes with certain limitations. One cannot reasonably give an extremely offensive statement that might harm the integrity and security of India in the garb of freedom of speech. Same applies to fake news, contempt of courts, defamation etc. One cannot publicly defame a person/ public or private organization without proper evidence giving the reason of freedom of expression.
The prime example of thus has been Arnab Goswami, the Editor in Chief of the news channel Republic TV. Republic Bharat, the Hindi offset of Republic TV has been fined almost 20,000 pounds by United Kingdom’s communications regulator Office of Communications for broadcasting content with “offensive language”, “hate speech”, “abusive and derogatory treatment of individuals, groups, religions or communities”. The channel has been asked t issue an on-air apology for these offences.
His channel has also been on the limelight for villainizing the Bollywood industry and maligning the entire industry on whole instead of particular individuals. The case has ben filed by DSK Legal on behalf of plaintiffs for “derogatory and irresponsible reporting by the media house”. So, freedom of speech and expression cannot be used by journalists unreasonably.
Context: New Media Policy
What’s the New Media Policy?
The main objective of this policy seems to control the irresponsible activities of media houses. These include –
Attempts to use media to incite communal passions
Attempts to use media for bringing harm to sovereignty and integrity of the nation
Any media that violates these objectives would be banned from receiving any advertisements from the government. They would also have to face legal proceedings for their wrong doings. The New Media Policy will have the power to initiate criminal proceedings against such irresponsible media houses under the provisions of the Cyber laws and Indian Penal Code.
The New Media Policy is necessary because fake news and politically controversial statements might give rise to communal riots and spread of misleading information. Media holds the power to show the citizens of a country the urgency of a situation. If it starts propagating news that might led to unfavourable circumstances in the country, it becomes necessary to exercise a certain control over the press.
Why is it being criticized?
The New Media Policy might curb the right to free speech in India even on matters of immense concerns. Media is considered to be the fourth pillar of democracy. It is essential for a democratic country to have efficient and responsible press to be the voice of the common people. It acts as a representative of the people of the nation and has shown the government their shortcomings several times. If this power gets snatched from the nation, government might get a free pass to control the nation as per their like and any effort to voice the people might go to vain if the government start using this policy to shush the media.
The court has stated time and again that the freedom of press is an essential element of a democracy and should be restricted only in certain conditions. The two integral grounds on which these restrictions can be imposed are integrity and sovereignty and security of the state. However, these restrictions must be justifiable and reasonable. There also must be a direct connection between the restriction and the objective to be achieved. These freedoms are guaranteed under Article 19 of the constitution of India.
The New Media Policy is not imposing restrictions on the press directly, but it is proposing the idea of journalists and media houses being targeted for the material they choose to publish. If these targets become selective in nature, it would pose serious problems to the democratic soul that the nation claims to have.
The policy is basically giving legal power to the government to criminalize and harass anyone critical of their actions. Through this an IAS or KAS(Kashmir Administrative Service) officer can decide the job of a journalist- indirectly, they have been given the power to decide what’s news and what’s not . The main aim is to kill the local media and display only those content that makes the government look good in the eyes of the people. It is trying to convert journalism into public relations.
Romesh Thaper v. State of Madras and Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi
In these cases, Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech ad expression was a fundamental right that cannot be snatched from media houses and journalists.
Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting v. Cricket Association of Bengal
Here, the court held that “The freedom of speech and expression includes the right to acquire information and to disseminate it.”
S.P. Gupta v. Union of India
The court held in this case that it is essential for the government to be held accountable for the work they do and that can be done only if the people know the functioning of the government. This information is provided in an efficient manner by the press and hence, for an effective participatory democracy, the freedom of speech and expression must be guaranteed to them.
Journalists must not be given absolute freedom of speech and expression as sovereignty, integrity and security of the nation are the foremost priorities. Any such statement put forth by journalists that hampers these ideals must be restricted. Content that might lead to unrest in the country, offensive statements, false news, misrepresentation - all of them must be controlled in an efficient manner. However, these limitations must be reasonable and not just a tool for the government to cloak their shortcomings. Democracy could convert to autocracy any time if these powers are not utilized by the government properly.