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The Fourth Pillar Of Indian Democracy: Freedom Of The Press

In the world's largest democracy, freedom of speech and expression is the most crucial fundamental right availed to the citizens by the Indian Constitution. The media is considered as a fourth pillar of the democracy and it plays a vital role in a country's social, political, economical and international affairs.

In the past, the India has witnessed the rise of political parties (Modi Government), Falling of the Governments (Rajiv Gandhi's Government), crashing of the economy (2008 crisis), all based on the information broadcasted regarding them by media. A country's international reputation and the global impression are largely influenced by the kind of news which prevails about that particular country in the international press.

What is Freedom of Press?

Freedom of the Press refers to the minimal interference of the state in the operation of press on any form of communication including, print (newspapers, magazines, journals, reports); audio (radios, podcasts); video (news channels, OTT platforms like YouTube) and over the electronic mediums like news apps, social media feeds, etc.

Why Freedom of the Press?

  • As per Indian newspaper Vs Union of India, the objective of the press is to supplement the public interest by printing the facts and opinions without which the citizens of the country cannot make well informed rational judgements. Freedom of the Press is the crux of the social and political inter-course. It is the paramount duty of the judiciary to prop the freedom of the press and refute all laws and executive actions that interfere with it as opposed with the constitutional provisions.
  • Press is a medium of availing knowledge and spreading the vital information of events, developments, incidents, of national interest to the whole nation and thus free and fair operation of the press makes the backbone of civil society which is capable of critical and independent thinking and forms its opinion about the country and the government after scrutinizing the facts of the situations wisely.

Article 19 and Freedom of the Press:

Freedom of press is implicit under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, which provides for the freedom of the speech and expression under part III (Fundamental Rights). It does not explicitly provide the term "freedom of press" saying that the press is just another method of quoting an individual citizen when anyone chooses to write in a newspaper, they are merely exercising their right pf expression and thus, there is absolutely no need to separately mentions the freedom of the press.

Reasonable limitation of freedom of Press:

We all know that unrestricted freedom, that is, liberty without any reasonable restriction on it always hampers the very purpose of granting that freedom in the first place, that is to empower the individuals as it backfires and makes the right of individual collapse with one another. As freedom of press derives powers from Article 19(1)(a), it is also subjected to the reasonable limitation on article 19(1)(a) and under Article 19(2) which are explained as follow:

Sovereignty and Integrity of the state:

It was inserted by an amendment to control the extreme reactions of the people, who were protesting for separate entities of the different regions of India. Any form of speech or expression which hampers the sovereignty and integrity of the state would be covered under this restriction. The right to freedom of speech and expression can't be allowed to be used as a weapon against the sovereignty and integrity of the state.

Security of the state:

  • The freedom of expression can't be exercised in a way so that it becomes a threat to the security of the state in any manner. Any communication which incites people to cause social unrest, rebels, violence, riots, etc against the state and its subjects would be covered under this restriction.
  • In the State of Bihar vs Shailabala Devi, SC held the speeches made by any person (citizen or non citizen) with courage of people to commit offences like dacoity, murder, robbery, etc without a doubt a threat to the security of the state.
  • Hence such speech will be considered as a prejudice towards the sovereignty and integrity of the state, and the order to stop or curtail such communication is covered under this restrictions of Article 19(2).

Public Order:

  • The term was inserted by the Constitutional (First amendment) Act, 1951. This clause was added to curtail the effects of Romesh Thappar Vs State of Madras where the SC held that the right to circulation is an intrinsic organ of right to freedom of expression.
  • In one of the case, the SC held that the term "public order" can be construed as "no insurrections or riots or disturbance to public peace."

Decency or Morality:

For preserving the decency or morality in the country, the state has the authority to limit the freedom of speech and expression of an individual. Further elaboration of this ground is reflected in sections 292 to 294 of the IPC. The mentioned sections list downs some acts as crime as such selling obscene publication to young individuals, making indecent gestures in public places etc.

In Ranjit Udeshi Vs State of Maharashtra SC held that the S. 292 of IPC is constitutional as it prohibits obscenity in public places to promulgates public decency and morality.

Contempt of Court:
  • There is no doubt that freedom of speech and expression is very crucial for societal development, but on the other hand, providing and maintaining justice and equity is also equally substantial. Though, freedom of speech and expression reckons but it can't be wielded to cancel out court's action of justice.
  • The SC under Article 129 & the HCs under Article 215 of the Constitution is empowered to take punitive actions for contempt of court. It was further held in one of the case called C.K. daphtary Vs O.P. Guptathat S. 228 of IPC and A.129 of the constitution are valid and are covered within the preview of reasonable restrictions enshrined under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

  • Article 19(1)(a) in no manner gives license to cause damage to the reputation of a person in the name of freedom of speech and expression. Causing damage to an individual's reputation is considered as defamation and is a stringent limitation to the right to freedom of speech and expression.
  • No one is allowed to expose a person to hate, ridicule or contempt by means of any expression, signs or gestures. Defamation is considered as a very stringent act therefore it is prohibited by the Civil Laws of Torts. It is an punishable offence under S. 499 of the IPC.

Friendly Relations with Foreign States:
  • Just like with the term "Public Order", this ground was also inserted in Article 19(2) of the Constitution via Constitutional (First Amendment) Act, 1951. The main objective of incorporating this restriction is was to counter antagonistic and mala fide propaganda against any foreign country which may have friendly connections the Republic of India.
  • Such activities can jeopardize the government's efforts to promulgate and maintain the friendly relations with foreign nations and bring lucrative results out of those results for India.

Incitement to an offence:
  • As per the criminal jurisprudence, the act of incitement or abetment to an offence is a distinct and independent offence per se. Exercising the freedom of speech and expression to incite an offence would be considered as a threat to the public order.
  • Just like the terms "public order" and "friendly relations with foreign states", this ground of reasonable restriction was incorporated in the constitution via the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951. In State of Bihar v Shailabala Devi, it was held by SC that any communication which leads to incitement of any criminal act can be restricted and any order for such ban will fall within the purview of reasonable restrictions envisaged in Article 19(2) of constitution.

Currently, India's rank in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders is 140th amongst 180 countries. This rank has taken some serious declines in the last decade from 133 to 136 in 2017; 136 to 138 in 2018; 138 to 140 in 2019. This dip is due to the beating, prosecution and even deaths of journalists on the line of work. We often see videos of journalists getting lynched and being publicly beaten for trying to expose politicians or government officials. This shows some serious concern pertaining to the freedom given to press in the country with the world's biggest Constitution and bureaucratic setup.
Press is supposed to be the voice of the public to the government, but in modern times, a contrast to this can be observed, where some of the major mainstream media houses are marketing the political parties while criticizing the oppositions parties and not discussing the relevant issues like public welfare, corruption, analysis of government schemes, etc. Though it is also true that forums like WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook which are totally independent are have become prone to fake news leading to mob lynching, fear-mongering, hate speech, propaganda spreading and indecency promoting, which highlights the need of some reasonable restrictions of the press.

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