How free is the free press in India? How free it ought to be?

How free is the free press in India? How free it ought to be?

Dr. Farrukh Khan

“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”– George Orwell

The reason we’re beginning this dialogue by quoting the author of arguably the most groundbreaking dystopian novel of all time is that George Orwell knew a thing or two about freedom of the press and what might occur if it is taken away. In his masterpiece, 1984, Orwell paints a vivid picture of how a society can descend into chaos and madness if the press loses its freedom and becomes an instrument of the state. Every lie can become truth and every truth can be falsified. Murderers can become martyrs with the stroke of a pen and martyrs can be branded traitors. People can become sheep, looking only in the direction they’re being made to look at, ignoring everything else – even their welfare.

It’s a horrifying picture but unfortunately, this is what is happening in our country right now. It might seem like a bit of a stretch to say that the doom is near but we’re certainly headed towards the slippery slope that leads into the abyss of chaos and madness.

Needless to say, freedom of the press is paramount for the smooth and efficient functioning of a democracy, and as Walter Cronkite said, “Freedom of the press isn’t just important for democracy, it is democracy.” The press stands as the fourth pillar of democracy, the other three being the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. The true function of the press is to be a watchdog and to ensure that the other pillars stand firm on the foundation. But before we can comment on how the Indian press is performing its duties in the current scenario, let us understand what the Constitution says about the freedom of the press.

What does our constitution say about freedom of the press?

Unlike the European countries where freedom of the press is expressly mentioned in the Constitution, the Indian Constitution is more subtle about the matter. According to Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution, “All citizens shall have the right, to freedom of speech & expression.” Even though there is no direct mention of the press here, it is now well understood that the phrase “speech & expression” includes the freedom of the press as well.

What freedom of the press essentially means is that the press cannot and should not be subjected to interference from any authority which could affect the content and circulation of the news. We must, however, also understand that freedom also comes with certain responsibilities and there are certain restrictions for the greater good which shall not be breached, as laid down in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. They include:

Sovereignty & Integrity of India

 2) Security of the State

 3) Friendly relations with the Foreign States

 4) Public Order

 5) Decency or Morality

  1.  6) Contempt of Court

How is the Indian media performing in the current scenario

Now that we have a clear understanding of what freedom of the press means, we can now evaluate from facts how the Indian media is performing on certain parameters. Not only is the media seemingly advocating for the government agencies at times, without offering any criticism to policies and measures, it has also recently seemingly overstepped the restrictions laid down by Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

The Hathras Case

The most recent example of this is the aftermath of the gang rape and subsequent demise of a 19-year-old girl belonging to the Boolangarhi village, in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. Not only did the majority of news channels failed to help get justice to the girl, but many channels were also actively involved in painting a counter-narrative.

The UP police prematurely concluded from the forensic report that no rape had taken place because no sperm was found on the victim and this news was widely circulated by several media houses. Unfortunately, a lot of people were led astray by this news because of the lack of legal awareness. Firstly, a forensic report conducted after the 11 days of the crime already diminishes the possibility of finding any sperm. Secondly, and more importantly, according to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, rape is not limited to penetration or ejaculation. Any form of assault on a woman’s body is considered rape. It is something that the media should have noticed and called out but the majority of it failed to do so.

Also, BJP’s IT cell head, Amit Malviya circulated a video of a conversation with the victim, which was later found to have been edited to make it appear that she had said that she had been strangulated. This was a gross violation of Section 228A of the Indian penal code that prohibits revealing the identity of a victim of sexual assault to prevent further victimization or ostracism of the victim.

 Fake news and misinformation 

Journalism has always been vulnerable to fake news, misinformation, and political inclinations since the first reporter held the first microphone – but the problem is becoming more and more pronounced with the passage of time. In this age of social media where any news with appropriate embellishments has the potential to go viral, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish real from fake. Many news agencies in the country have been, time and again, caught spreading fake news or inciting public sentiment for political gains.

One such organization that has been on the radar of police, independent fact-checking websites and media critics is Zee News. On 7th May, Kozhikode Kasaba Police Station, Kerala, filed an FIR against Zee News Editor-in-Chief and anchor, Sudhir Chaudhary, accusing him of insulting the religious beliefs of Muslims, in his show ‘DNA’.

In his prime time show DNA, which aired on March 11, 2020, Sudhir Chaudhary described different ways the Indian Muslims are waging Jihad, using a diagram that was later found to be copy-pasted from a Facebook page known as Boycott Halal India. According to the diagram, the Muslims are plotting a major conspiracy by indulging in “population jihad”, “love jihad”, “land jihad”, “economic jihad”, “history jihad” and “media jihad”. This is clearly against Section 19(2) of the Indian Constitution that prohibits broadcasting any content that could lead to the disruption of public order or is immoral or indecent. Not to mention the fact that all the entire “Jihad Chart” was nothing but pure speculation.

It was, however, not the first time the channel has been accused of spreading misinformation. The channel’s several claims during the lockdown were also refuted several times by police authorities themselves.

On April 9, 2020, the Arunachal Pradesh Information and Public Relations Department tweeted, “This is to clarify that Arunachal Pradesh has got only 1 COVID-19 positive case to date. The reporting by Zee News is false and does not carry any authenticity.” This was against the claim by Zee News that 11 members of Tablighi Jamaat had been found Covid positive in Assam.

 The channel has thus aired several apologies regarding the fake news, but the really unfortunate thing is that these “mistakes” are swept under the rug, while the people who ended up believing the fake news become more polarized and more jaded in their opinion which directly threatens the “Sovereignty and Integrity of India.”

It seems as though the subtlety of our Constitution in terms of providing freedom of the press is being exploited at times for personal or political gains, and we do need a comprehensive act that would address freedom of the press and help us draw a clear line as to what is and isn’t acceptable.

Mahatma Gandhi said it best, “The role of journalism should be service. The Press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so, an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy.”

  • Dr. Farrukh Khan is a managing partner in Delhi-based legal firm Diwan Advocates. He Practices in the Supreme Court of India and writes on various social/legal issues.
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