FREEDOM OF THE PRESS – THE FOURTH PILLAR OF DEMOCRACY? -Aditi Singh, 3rd Year

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”

– Thomas Jefferson, 1786.

A free press is crucial and one of the most basic requirements for the methodical functioning of a democratic society.  Media can therefore be referred to as a symbol of freedom or liberty—a bulwark against oppression and absolute power. Hence, it is an urgent necessity for every democratic government to protect and safeguard the freedom of press so as to maintain the fundamentals of the entire nation intact. In India, this right is legally preserved and well-recognized by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, which gives the fundamental right of ‘freedom of speech and expression’ and includes within its ambit, freedom of press.

The phrase speech and expression is of very wide connotation. Herein, the freedom of expression includes the freedom of the propagation of ideas, their publication and circulation. It is pertinent to note that, Article 19(1)(a) includes the liberty of press [1] and unlike the First Amendment to the US Constitution, it specifically or separately doesn’t provide for the same[2]. The omission has been explained as a means to enrich everyone with the same right—from a private person to the editor of a newspaper—all being able to exercise their rights to free speech and expression.

The crux of the concept of press freedom can be determined by four general points or as the Blackstonian concept of freedom of press defines them to be[3], which are as follows: (i) Liberty of the press is essential to the state, (ii) no previous restraints should be placed on publications, (iii) press freedom doesn’t involve doing actions that violate the law, and (iv) anyone publishing improper, mischievous or illegal material must take the consequence of their own temerity.[4]

Despite the aforementioned, the Indian Constitution doesn’t quantify free speech and expression or free press as an absolute right. In order to safeguard public interest, the Supreme Court in Papnasam Labour Union v. Madura Coats Limited,[5] laid down the reasonability of limitations under Article 19(2) in certain matters like the ones affecting “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”. [6]The curtailment of freedom of the press herein can only be imposed under the aforementioned heads and no other restriction is permissible.[8] 

Notwithstanding the restrictions, the Apex Court has always maintained its stance on the importance of free press for the smooth functioning of the country. In the landmark judgement of Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India[9], it was held that, Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. It is the primary duty of the courts to uphold the freedom of the press and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with it contrary to the constitutional mandate”. Moreover, the Supreme Court has also shrouded commercial advertisements under the protection of Article 19(1)(a)[10] and that the right to know news and information regarding administration of the Government is included in the freedom of press.

It’s undeniable that as an institution the media is cherished by India but that doesn’t imply that there aren’t fundamental flaws surrounding the whole structure in general. Fiercely independent journalism is one of the reasons why various huge scandals and scams have been brought to light. Hence, ‘media is playing a pivotal role in this society’ is hardly an overstatement.

However, inaccurate news, media trials, improper editing, contempt of court and the fact that in the past one year India’s rank on World Press Freedom Index has dropped from 140 to 142 i.e. 45.33 points amongst 180 countries[11], are some of the few concerning aspects of today’s media climate. The media sector is one of the most important instruments accessible to a country for awareness and for being heard, but with ever-changing values, investment of money and politicization, its credibility has been hampered to an extreme extent. Hopefully, the strong base of this country’s democracy is able to withstand the torrential storms of these irregularities.

References

[1] Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305.

[2] Constitutional Law of India, Narendra Kumar.

[3] Press and the Law (1990) by Justice A.N.Grover; pg 7 para 2

[4] ‘Fourth Estate’ in the constitutional ambit analyzing free speech under democracy, Prateek Shankar Srivastava. http://www.rmlnlu.ac.in/webj/prateek_shanker_srivastava.pdf.

[5] AIR 1995 SC 2200.

[6]Article 19(2), Constitution of India.

[7] Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305.

[8] AIR 1972 SC 106.

[9] Tata Press Ltd v Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd., (1995) 5 SCC 139 at 154.

[10] Prabhu Dutt v Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 6.

[11] 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without borders. https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2020.

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