SCOPE OF THE FREEDOM OF PRESS

INTRODUCTION Freedom of press has been a controversial matter over the past few years. Some believe that press and media are an active and important actors in the civil society, thus should be unbounded by any restrictions whatsoever. While others believe that an absolute freedom of press might lead to unhinged propaganda driven journalism. There are other spectrums to this debate, however one thing remains constant –media holds power. In a democracy, the role of media becomes so prominent that people often connote it as ‘watch dog of democracy’. Media has been said to promote democracy in the following ways –by fostering public debate and political engagement; by keeping a check on abuses of power. If media is not free then its public debates would be biased and instead of keeping check on abuse of power, it would either promote it or hide it. The impact media and its signification in a democracy was affirmed during the emergency of 1975. Fearful of the power of mass media, the Indira Gandhi government carried out power cuts, censorships and raids at press houses. Many newspapers including Indian Express protested for the same. The Indian Express framed blank editorial section to represent the censorship practices of the government. Media can be defined as a link between the people and government such that it exposes the flaws in the policies of the later, and simultaneously reinforces its accountability to the people. Freedom and Restrictions The idea of freedom of press was furthered in the judgment of Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras. In this case the petitioner was the printer, publisher and editor of Cross Roads journal which was printed and published in Bombay. The entry and circulation of the journal was banned in the State of Madras. The petitioner filed a writ petition in response to the ban before the Supreme Court. He asserted that the ban was an immoderate restriction on freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. It was observed that “Freedom of speech & of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organization”. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 and Article 19(2) lays down the reasonable restrictions on this freedom. Matters related to 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. In the of Indian Express v UOI, the petitioners were stakeholders in the publication of newspapers. Initially, the newsprint didn’t come under the custom duty but, after the notifications regarding Customs Act 1962 came, the petitioners questioned the imposed duty applied on. It was argued that imposition of such a duty on the newspaper would lead to increase in prices of the newspaper and eventually infringe upon both the freedom of expression and the freedom to practice any trade or occupation under Article 19(1)(a) and, Article 19(1)(g) respectively. The Supreme Court in its judgment emphasized upon the fact that taxation policy of the government was a matter of public interest and thus falls under reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19 (2). Propaganda Machines The notion that the press is the first line of defense against a corrupt regime, is naïve and also uninformed. In the real world media has often been a tool, rather a puppet, in the hands of the government. The finest example would be the case of Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels as the chief propagandist of the Nazi Party created the Reich Ministry of Information and Propaganda; this department supervised and censored all avenues of art, be it cinema, music or even dance. Another example could be the media propaganda which prevailed during the communist regimes in USSR. The Soviet Union operated a system of strict censorship over the mass media and fostered a ‘journalistic culture’ that demanded total support of the ideology and policies of the Communist Party. However, the propaganda model still persists in our society. It’s often that certain media houses would portray a distorted picture of reality which suits the interests of its ‘regulators’. There is a distinction between media houses having personal political biases and media houses becoming a puppet of the state machinery; in an ideal world both are undesirable but the latter is obnoxious. Many North African and Central Asian regimes control the press such the fallacies of their governance are not discovered by its people as well as the international forum. In this case media becomes a mere conscienceless entity; its functions of spreading awareness, making governments accountable and facilitating public debates; all lose their essence. Right to Privacy Article 21 which guarantee the right to life, guarantees right to privacy impliedly. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) states that, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, or to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. "However, many a times media has crossed limits of fair reporting and infringed upon the right to privacy of others. Media has the freedom to do ground level reporting and show both sides of the story; however, sometimes in the process it publicizes the private spheres of people’s lives. For instance, in the Aarushi Talwar Murder Case, the Apex Court differentiated between transparency and secrecy of an investigation. The court questioned a section of media for unfair reporting which lead to tarnishing the reputation of the victim and her family members. The media coverage of the Bombay terror attacks showed extremely personal details of a person’s last communication with their family. These were repeatedly printed in the media. Even though disclosure of the identity of a rape victim is punishable under the IPC, media on many occasions has disclosed the identity or information regarding the victim’s place of work, college, course, school etc. When a student at TISS alleged that she was gang raped, her college name and the course she was pursuing were made public by certain media houses. Media Trials Media seems to have taken the responsibility of lessening the burden of the judiciary upon themselves. For this purpose, media has now started passing judgments on cases before the courts do. The Sushant Singh Rajput case is a recent example of that. In its quest to find out the truth, many media houses held several people accountable, ran campaigns against them, imputed innocence of people, criticized witnesses and so on. A similar trend was seen in the Jessica Lal case and the Arushi Talwas case. The Bombay High Court on 18 January 2021 passed a judgment concerning numerous PILs regarding 'media trials' in the Sushant Singh Rajput death case. it observed that the media ought to avoid reports touching upon an ongoing investigation and present facts which are in public interest rather than "what, according to the media, the public is interested in”. The judges further laid down a list of 'indicative but not exhaustive' list of reports which tend to cause prejudice to ongoing investigation. The court said if media reports default to conform to the Programme Code, the norms of journalistic standards and the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Regulations could be held liable for criminal contempt under Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Acts. Conclusion Freedom of press lays the foundation for a well functioning democracy. Be it the past or the present, media has time and again shown how integral it is to the democratic structure of a country. It is the voice of dissent, a watchdog of the government, a facilitator and information provided. In the Indian context, there are provisions for freedom of press accompanied by reasonable restrictions on the same; defamation, sedition, etc. However media is not free of fallacies. It can function as a propaganda machine, fake news propagator, and a trial court for that matter! The regulation of media needs more attention. As much as a free press is desirable, it should practice liberty which is compatible with the similar liberty of others. Media should adhere to ethics and not infringe upon the rights of people in pursuit of its own interest. Authored by Harshita Tyagi

SCOPE OF THE FREEDOM OF PRESS