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Is the dream of the Makers of the Constitution to have Free Media fading?

Updated: Feb 25

History books across India are packed with great tales of the fight for Indian independence. Turn to any of those texts, and you'll find tales of the brave heroes who fought in direct defiance, even in the face of death, of the British Raj, and of those who followed a peaceful path. There was, however, another element of this battle, one that is not talked about as much as it should be: The Press. As we know, the British Raj was filled with great suffering for the Indian people that lived through great exploitation and stress to be a mere colonial subject instead of their being. Many newspapers did not take the situation well and preferred to highlight people's misery in hopes of establishing a swaraj movement.

It started in 1780 with the first printed newspaper in India, the Irishman James Augustus Hickey's Bengal Gazette, the paper was noted and had fame and notoriety for its sarcastic tone and the British Raj's repeated mockery, which hickey was proud of and escalated with every time he was sued or otherwise impeded. Unfortunately, in 1782, the paper quit functioning, but the legend was preserved. As days progressed, several newspapers took notice of the policy of the Raj to use Hindu-Muslim friction as a tool to divert individuals from any serious effort at nationwide uprising. The Payam-e-Azadi newspaper raises awareness in 1857, during the First War of Independence, that the British would continue to divide and dominate and that people had to rise against it.

The British Raj, of course, had never taken anything that could risk their existence in the country. From the early 1800s, they introduced a variety of censorship initiatives, of which at least one still survives to this day the Sedition. As the nationalist moment gathered traction from the 1900s, especially after the emergence of the Indian National Congress, which had many prominent newspaper editors in its first meeting, the British undertook a huge media crackdown by forcing one Act after another. The Press Act, 1910, which placed over 1000 newspapers under investigation, was the most catastrophic of the Acts enacted. By using underground papers, radio, painting, and artwork, the Newspaper, being the ever-clever body it was, continued its opposition. This lasted until the British relinquished from India at last.

And this is how important the Press was for our freedom struggle. Further, to highlight the importance of free speech and expression and freedom of the press, I would like to quote –

"Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people's idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.” - Winston Churchill
“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.” - Adolf Hitler
And the person on whose principles and teaching, not only one nation but many prosper Mahatma Gandhi who said, “Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego.”

Now, observe the contemporary scenario, since 2015 India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index, has dropped from 132 out of 180 countries to 142 out of 180 countries in 2020 which means it is one of the worst countries to pursue your career as a Journalist. Looking further in the stats, the Global Impunity Index of 2019, by the Committee to Protect Journalist, ranks India 13th among the countries where journalists are killed and their killer goes free. Journalists in India struggle regularly with abuse and harassment, mostly from law enforcement. Legal intimidation techniques are often used by government agencies to punish journalists for the job they do including threatening or arresting them, which is generally considered a technique of media censorship. Furthermore, when talking about censorship on the media, then it is pertinent to note that now after taking the OTT Platforms under their purview, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting regulates every aspect of Press whether it is through television news, social media platforms, or any other online content which we look up to provide an insight of the contemporary world.

The Ministry, which is only entrusted with the task of disseminating information about government policies, schemes, and programs through the different medium of mass communication covering radio, television, press, social media, printed publicity like booklets; posters, outdoor publicity including through traditional modes of communication such as dance, drama, folk recitals, puppet shows, etc. and certification of films for public exhibition, import of films for theatrical and non-theatrical viewing, the export of Indian films, import of unexposed cinematograph films and various types of equipment required by the film industry, all matters relating to the film industry, including developmental and promotional activities thereto, is now used as an instrument to suppress or regulate the ambit of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, 1950. However, the provisos providing an exception to the above provision can also be not ignored so as to maintain the public order. But interpreting it in a manner, to exploit its perusal is unconstitutional and an attack on national democracy. For reference, the proviso states the following –

“Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests 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 offense.”

Let us look into some of the scenarios amidst COVID-19 where information for the people locked in their houses is of paramount importance, but it is being curbed –

  1. Dhaval Patel, an editor of the Gujarati news portal Face of Nation, was arrested on May 11, 2020, and charged with sedition for writing about the change in the political leadership of Gujarat by the BJP after the rapid growth of coronavirus cases by the administration.

  2. Similarly, the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) claims that on May 18, the Uttar Pradesh administration lodged an FIR against Today-24 journalist Ravindra Saxena for reporting on mismanagement and neglect at a quarantine centre in the district of Sitapur.

  3. 10 FIR cases were filed in Himachal Pradesh against at least six journalists for their reports on the migrant crisis in India and the lack of food distribution in the region. The migration crisis turned up to be a disaster as great as the pandemic.

  4. The Maharashtra police arrested Rahul Zori a reporter with TV9 Marathi, for reporting on irregularities at migrant relief camps in Dhule, Maharashtra.

The Indian government has set up a new Index Monitoring Cell in response to its dropping press freedom index. Communication and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted on World Press Freedom Day that the media in India "enjoy absolute freedom" and took a dig at the index, adding that we will reveal, sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray a bad image of 'Press Freedom' in India.” The BJP-led government went so far as to file a petition before the Supreme Court to prohibit any information from COVID-19 that is not cleared by them from being released. The court rejected the petition but ordered the media to "refer to the official version of the developments and publish it."

“A medical emergency should not serve as the pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency,” – The Wire

And now after CAA-NRC and COVID-19, we are seeing protests from farmers because of the grave loopholes in Farm Act, 2020. The government has become so stagnant in its views that it is not even letting the people, who will be directly affected by the implementation of such legislation, express their views.

Let me leave you with a thought – is the pre-independence time trying to repeat itself, where the people of the nation need to fight to resist infringement of their human rights?

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