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COVID-19 and fragility of press freedom in India

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Article 12 to 35 contained in Part III of the Indian Constitution provides for fundamental rights which are available to all the citizens. These rights are of the highest value and unlike ordinary legal rights, fundamental rights are protected and guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

The Constitution provides for six Fundamental Rights

  • Right to equality (Article 14-18)
  • Right to freedom (Article 19-22)
  • Right against exploitation (Article 23-24)
  • Right to freedom of religion (Article 25-28)
  • Cultural and educational rights (Article 29-30)
  • Right to constitutional remedies (Article 32 and Article 226)
  • Right to freedom of speech and expression as given under Article 19(1)(a) is considered one of the most basic and important right given to citizens to ensure healthy and open-minded working of democracy and is the essence of a free society.
However, Article 19(2) allows for reasonable restrictions imposed on Article 19(1)(a). In respect of freedom of speech and expression, the government may impose reasonable restrictions in the interest 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. These limitations suggest that these rights are not absolute and are subject to restrictions.

What is freedom of press?

Freedom of press, though not explicitly stated under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, is however implicit under Article 19(1)(a). In one of the Constituent assembly debate, when asked about Article 19 not including freedom of press, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar said that the press is just another method of quoting an individual citizen and when anyone chooses to write in a newspaper, they are merely exercising their right of expression and thus, there is absolutely no need to separately mention the freedom of the press.

Freedom of press refers to communication and expression of opinion through print and electronic media with minimum interference or complete absence of censorship by the state. In the words of Lord Mansfield, the liberty of the press, consists of printing without any license subject to the consequences of law. Thereby meaning that freedom of the press refers to freedom to express what one pleases without any prior permission from law.

Freedom of press includes freedom to:

  1. Spread information
  2. To criticize- the government, the state policies, laws, its actions, etc.
  3. To receive information
  4. To report court proceedings- it is the right of the media to report judicial proceedings.2
  5. To broadcast
  6. These are, as discussed above, subject to reasonable restrictions.

Fourth Pillar of Democracy

The media is considered as the fourth pillar of democracy in India, and it plays a crucial role in the country's social, political, economic and international affairs. Accordingly, the freedom of press is a sine qua non for the survival and success of democracy and to preserve such values of a transparent governance.

The Supreme Court of India has time and again recognized the importance of press freedom and how it is essential for the proper functioning of democracy. The court acknowledging the significance of freedom of press said:
In today's free world freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments.3

COVID-19 Pandemic in India

On 30th January 2020, the first ever case of the virus was reported in India, in the state of Kerala. For weeks after that, the virus was not taken seriously even after warnings from the opposition party. Even World Health Organization's (WHO) declaration that the corona virus can be characterized as a pandemic was ignored. On 15th March 2020, a two-week lockdown was followed in Delhi to keep in control the spreading virus, followed by 21 days nationwide lockdown which was extended for up to 75 days.

A few months later, in 2021 India has seen a devasting second wave, one of the worst in the world, where the entire healthcare system collapsed due to lack of medical facilities and infrastructure. As the virus spread all over India, the country saw the freedom of press decline sharply. With the surge in cases, India's clampdown on the press continued unabated.

Pandemic and suppression of press freedom

India since its independence has held the title of being the world's largest democracy with much pride and honor. However, the world's largest democracy is being continuously challenged in terms of its values and principles. The country is witnessing a growing global clampdown on its press. While the world watches the horror COVID-19 unleashes on India, the world's largest democratic government is going out of its way to curb journalists who are trying to expose its inability to control the spread of the virus.

The concern of India's clampdown on freedom of expression has grown since the beginning of pandemic with the government actively trying to censor media to cover up the actual severity of the ongoing public health crisis. In a recent article published by Reporters Without Borders, it said “India is one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.”4 India's place in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index has dropped from 136 in 2015 to 140 in 2019 to now, a rank of 142 in 2021.
With the second wave in India being one of the most disastrous in the world, many journalists and citizens took to social media to express their opinions on the ongoing fight against the virus and the government's incompetency in helping its citizens.

The Indian authorities, in response, focused its attention on removing such social media posts. The Indian government actively sent orders to social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to take down posts that criticize management of the government in light of the public health crisis. A majority of tweets were pulled down by Twitter that were critical of the government's inability to secure medical supplies, hospital beds and oxygen.

The government justified this moving by saying that certain users are trying to spread false information about COVID-19 which in turn is leading to chaos and panic about the situation. "This decision has been taken to prevent obstructions in the fight against the pandemic and a breakdown of public order due to these posts," said an official with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

Amid a nationwide lockdown last year, to curb the spread of the virus, many journalists across India were charged with sedition and summoned to police stations for reporting on the government's handling of the pandemic. For instance, the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) reported that the Uttar Pradesh authorities, filed an FIR against Ravindra Saxena, a Today-24 journalist, on May 18, 2020 for reporting mismanagement and negligence at a quarantine center in Sitapur district.

Reporters all around the world noticed that not only did the Indian authorities and politicians use defamation and sedition laws against journalist to try to limit free press and speech in the country, but complaints were also filed under India's Epidemics Diseases Act, passed by British rulers before India's constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, and the 2005 Disaster Management Act. Both provide for possible prison terms and fines. The editor and owner of Face of Nation, a media house, Dhaval Patel, was arrested on charges of sedition and spreading false news on the pandemic last year and eventually released on bail. Under the Disasters Act, he could have been jailed for two years.

One of the worst hit sections during the lockdown were the migrants and laborers, who suffered a great deal. From issues of transportation to their hometowns to not being provided with food and daily wage due to unemployment, the migrants' crisis was a big one that even attracted the attention of the media worldwide. In Himachal Pradesh, at least 6 journalists were detained for reporting on India's migrant crisis and the lack of food distribution in the area.

The Indian government, even went to extreme lengths to restrict criticism against their handling on the pandemic that a petition to the Supreme Court was filed to stop publication of any COVID-19 information that is not cleared by them. The court denied the petition but directed the media to refer to and publish the official version of the developments.

During the second wave, there was a disastrous shortage of resources such as oxygen beds, oxygen cylinders, medicines, and other essential medical facilities. Many citizens on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook made efforts to help each other out by posting fresh leads on resources available and verifying them. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath directed officials to take action under the National Security Act and seize the property of individuals who spread "rumors" on social media, like claiming that hospitals were struggling to maintain their oxygen supplies. This was highly criticized by the public since a lot of lives were saved through the help of these social media platforms.

Another major issue that was observed amidst the pandemic was that many reporters and media houses alleged that the number of cases shown by official COVID-19 count was highly understated. According to an article published by the New York Times, as of 24th May 2021, official counts as per the government was 26.9 million cases reported and 307,231 reported deaths.

However, according to a more likely scenario, the estimated infections could be 539 million and 1.6 million estimated deaths.5 The worst-case scenario is much more disturbing. A senior reporter from a US-based media group said in a report that the media house got calls from some key people in the government after they did a report on how the recorded death toll was hiding the real extent of the COVID-19 crisis. So, not only did the government actively curb journalist and citizens from expressing their opinions on the country's management on the spread of the virus but also attempted to hide the reality of the situation by reporting false number of infections and preventing the media to report as well.

Conclusion
The essence of any democratic country is the power of the public to voice its opinion and hold its government accountable. This is primarily why; a free press is the most essential factor in a democracy. Not only is a free press a way for the citizens to gather information but a place where ideas are debated, policies are developed and conflicts are resolved. The key principle that revolves around democracy is the voice of its citizens. Yet, the world's largest democracy has been seen moving farther away from having free press and a voice of the general public.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, journalist all across the country have been arrested, attacked and detained simply for doing their job. The general public along with being worried about the ongoing public health crisis, fear the outcome of voicing their opinions on a public platform.

India has been a leader and an example in the democratic world for decades now, but its response to the pandemic has weakened its position. Not only is the Indian government censoring the media and endangering the fourth pillar of democracy but is also, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to restrict press freedom on a larger scale.

References:
  1. Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras, 1950 AIR 124, 1950 SCR 594
  2. Sahara India Real Estate Corpn Ltd. v. SEBI, (2013) 1 SCC 1
  3. Indian Express Newspaper (Bombay) (P) Ltd. V. Union of India, (1985) 2 S.C.R. 287
  4. https://rsf.org/en/india
  5. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/25/world/asia/india-covid-death-estimates.html

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