Compromising freedom of press in India undermines democracy

Physical threats to journalists, criminal defamation suits, social media hurdles and volatile political context make an explosive cocktail significantly weakening the fourth estate. 

The beast that’s democracy might have three fundamental organ systems in the legislature, executive and the judiciary, but its very oxygen is a free press, also known as the Fourth Estate. The health of a vibrant democracy has a direct correlation with the robustness of its press, which includes both print and electronic media, as well as the new digital spaces of information dissemination, ideological contestation and responding to political developments of the day. A free press is where the Constitutional vows of free speech upholding democracy get renewed every single day, where the alligiance to the fundamental rights must be practised in letter and spirit every time, all the time.

Guaranteed through implication in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and stressed upon in legal precedent – for instance, the case of Romesh Thapar vs. State of Madras – the freedom of the press has been held as an integral part of the foundation of any democracy. The press acts as a necessary checking mechanism to hold the government accountable by questioning it all issues, and criticising the government ensures democracy in action. Hence, freedom of the press is indeed sacrosanct.

However, in the world’s largest democracy that’s India, this inalienable element is undoubtedly sick. In one year, India has slipped by three points down to 136 in the World Press Freedom Index, 2017 (prepared by the international group Reporters Without Borders), making it effectively one of the worst years in Indian media history.

Threat to journalists

Last year alone, 11 journalists were murdered, over 45 were attacked, and nearly 30 had cases lodged against them by the police. The murder of Gauri Lankesh on September 5, 2017, in addition to the killing of Pankaj Mishra only two days later, are two instances that added to a 100 per cent increase in India’s impunity ranking (incidents where journalists are murdered and their killers go unscathed); leading to India being at the 13th position in the Global Impunity Index, 2016.

Moreover, India ranked 81st and among “worst offenders” under the Global Corruption Perception Index 2017, released by Transparency International. As reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), over 15 journalists who were working on corruption stories in three countries namely, India, the Maldives and the Philippines were murdered in the last six years.

Media gags and state censorship

What is as worrisome as the increasing number of attacks on journalists, is the strict clutch the government exercises on media broadcasting. State censorship has historically found and continues to find most impact in Kashmir, where after the militant Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016, two of the largest newspaper offices in the state were raided and printing presses shut down, following much harassment. As a result of doing ground zero reporting of the situation, The Kashmir Reader was labelled “anti-national” and banned for three months. The outspoken coverage of the Kapu agitation in Andhra Pradesh by the state-based channel Sakshi TV, led to the channel being blocked in the state, while media channels which decided not to report on the issue, or did so cautiously, faced no such consequences.

In November 2016, NDTV’s coverage of the Pathankot operation, which allegedly “revealed strategic secrets”, was handed a 24-hour ban by the MIB (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting), which was later overturned by the Supreme Court. In a similar case, the Bombay High Court overturned another such order by the MIB to a health channel, and stated that “the order was completely illegal and a breach of the elementary principles of natural justice”, further stating that the government’s power in this context needed to be re-examined.

Weaponising criminal defamation

The year 2016 tested courts on the topic of freedom of speech and expression, and the Supreme Court upheld the criminal defamation law, stating that the right to freedom of speech was not absolute, and an act which hurt another’s reputation could not be a freedom. This led to widespread concern over the scope of potential misuse. The court later, when quashing the late AIADMK supremo  Jayalalithaa’s multiple defamation claims against the media, clarified that criticism of the government could not constitute defamation.

It has become common practice, as a result, for criminal proceedings to be initiated against media houses, causing legal bills to drain their financial resources. The logic of deterrence is sought to be applied here, in order to ensure that these houses toe the line as a consequence.

Social media hurdles

Most significantly, Facebook recently revamped its ranking system for posts on newsfeeds giving more importance to posts by friends and family and limiting posts by publishers. The reasoning provided by Facebook for the same, is that it wants to alter status quo in order to promote personal engagement as opposed to passive consumption of its news feed.

What this means is that media news houses must now compete with the regular confirmation bias in users, and still inevitably lose a great deal due to limited outreach of their broadcast.

Undeclared Emergency

Furthermore, what is troubling is the comparison people in society have started to draw, between today and the Emergency, imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government on June 25, 1975, until it was lifted in 1977. To be comparing our present scenario of hundreds of news channels and publications aswell as new media portals to a time when the only source of news in electronic media was the state-controlled channel Doordarshan, when print media was practically made irrelevant and inconsequential, and when true substantive democracy was very literally suspended, shows how grave a scenario the current political and societal context has resulted in – so much so, that we even think to make this comparison.

Things can get better

There are ways to fix this; or atleast make things better for the press.

Criminal defamation must be repealed, or at the very least, a cap should be placed on the amount of damages claimed, in order to create an environment where journalists and media houses need not fear financial consequences.

Criminal reporting and investigation into the attacks on journalists must be taken up, and the government must provide for additional safeguards for journalists in carrying out their very necessary work.

A good alternative to the outreach afforded by Facebook would be empowering the Press Council of India to cover larger forms of electronic media and revitalise its scope of reaching people residing across the length and breadth of the country.

In order for us to truly function as a healthy democracy, our press must be un-compromised. Time is running out for us to come together and ensure that bolstering the press becomes a collective and collaborative exercise of staying true to the principles of our constitutional democracy.


Shreya Mohapatra is a law student currently pursuing LLB at ILS College in Pune.

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