July 16, 2022

Good morning. Every Saturday, we write about one specific right that we possess as citizens in our country. In today’s edition of “Know Your Rights”, we examine the rights of journalists.


Rights of Journalists

Thomas Jefferson once said he’d prefer newspapers without the government than a government without newspapers. The media is often called the fourth pillar of democracy. One of the merits of a democratic system of government is that it provides freedom of expression. The news media is more often than not a mirror of the world, reflecting some harsh truths.

Over the past 25 years, India’s media landscape has drastically changed. It has hundreds of TV channels, radio stations, registered publications, and not to forget millions of citizens who read, watch and listen to the news. As internet usage increased, the news media landscape changed. Social media was the accelerator. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were the catalysts. They continue to be.

On the recommendation of the First Press Commission, Parliament set up the Press Council of India in 1966. While its stated purpose is to preserve the freedom of the press, it’s mostly a statutory body that suggests recommendations. If it finds any reporting unethical, it can warn or censure the concerned party.

There has been a significant rise in attacks against and killings of journalists in India. It’s hard to get an exact number. The UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists confirmed the death of 45 Indian journalists from 1996 to 2020. A study by the Thakur Foundation recorded 40 deaths from 2014 to 2019 alone. What makes it more difficult is that the government doesn’t keep track. It doesn’t maintain an official database.  

After all this and more, India’s report card on press freedom doesn’t read well. In the World Press Freedom Index 2020 from Reporters Without Borders, India ranked 142 out of 180. In the 2022 rankings, India dropped to 150.

Freedom of the Press

Broadly speaking, freedom of the press is the freedom to communicate and express through electronic and published means. Such freedom implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state. This applies to every citizen. It’s somewhat similar in the US, where the constitution recognises Freedom of the Press.

Before independence, the British passed laws to curb the freedom of the press. Before the 1857 first war of independence, the press was instrumental in rallying the masses. It made the British apprehensive of them. Then came the “Gagging Act”, passed by Lord Lytton. The press continued to do its job by circumventing the law. Then came the 1910 Press Act, which was a hammer blow. Nearly 1,000 papers were prosecuted under the law.

Things looked better once an interim government was in place in 1946. The British had to give up their powers, including controlling the Press. In 1950, when the constitution was brought into force, the freedom of the press was incorporated under Article 19.

With the evolution of the media landscape and the way people consume news, freedom of the press includes communication, not just by traditional means. It includes podcasts and social media platforms. Although there’s something to be said about whether social media companies are merely publishers and curators or have a responsibility for the content. But that’s another discussion.

Freedom of Speech and Expression

In India, Parliament defines a journalist as someone who works for a newspaper as a writer, editor, photographer, proofreader, or correspondent. There’s no specific law catering to the profession or practice of journalism in India. The press and media have the same rights – more or less than anyone who can write, publish, and broadcast information. Article 19 of the Indian constitution states freedom of speech and expression for every citizen. Under this article’s ambit comes the freedom of the press.

With the freedom of speech and expression comes some restrictions, as the second clause of Article 19 outlines. If speech violates India’s sovereignty and integrity, compromises its national security or causes public disorder, it can be an offence. If a journalist does violate these, they’re liable for defamation. It’s one of the hurdles for journalists in the country.

Last July, Uttar Pradesh opened defamation investigations against Nidhi Suresh from Newslaundry and Manoj Shukla and Yashwant Singh from Bhadas4Media. The Yogi Adityanath government has been particularly harsh in its war against journalists, as Zafar Aafaq and Saurabh Sharma explain. Reporting criticisms of the ruling disposition could result in a journalist being behind bars and staring at a long legal road ahead.

Under Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), printing defamatory matter is punishable by up to 2 years. There’s also the much-maligned sedition law that can be used. Section 124a of IPC, under which sedition punishable by life imprisonment, is also dangerous to journalists. 

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the Committee to Protect Journalists and nine other press freedom and human rights organisations asked the Indian government to address the deteriorating state of press freedom.

For the world’s largest democracy, a free press is invaluable. Jawaharlal Nehru called the media the “watchdogs of democracy.” There’s also a need to balance free speech and expression and community and individual rights. This responsibility shouldn’t be borne by the judiciary alone.

In October, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to safeguard the freedom of expression. In the face of relentless attacks and arrests, Ressa’s message was clear – hold the line.