This article was written by Ananya Patil a student of Sharda University.

“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” – MK Gandhi

There makers of the constitution devised the principle of ‘Separation of Powers’ among the three pillars of the Indian Democracy, the Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary, to ensure that all the powers wouldn’t rest with a single body of the government. While the legislative makes policies and laws, it is upon the executive to implement them and the judiciary to adjudicate upon them. In recent times, media has risen to the fourth pillar. This is because it performs the role of balancing the former three pillars effectively. It keeps the ultimate check by informing, educating and creating awareness among the people. It shapes public opinion and influences our socio-political values. It encourages us to seek solutions to the nation’s problems.

The pivotal role that the media played in the Jessica Lal’s case, the Aarushi Talwar murder case, the Ruchika Girhotra case and most recently the Nirbhaya rape case, is undebatable. But, one may argue, that the media is more business than hardcore journalism. The prime-time news is more like fast food, appeasing and often censored to boost the TRPs. In this process, news channels often blow events out of proportion and miss out on reporting the rare snippets of actual happenings around the world. They may resort to half-truths and often indulge in paid-news.

It falls logically in succession then, to ponder upon the legality of the powers of the media and the extent of such powers. Though the Constitution of India does not expressly mention the freedom of press, it can be implied from Article 19(1)(a), which guarantees to all citizens of India the fundamental right to express their ideas and opinions freely on a public platform vide Brij Bhushan and Another vs. The State of Delhi1 and Sakal Papers (P) Ltd vs. Union of India2, among others. Hence, neither can the press claim any additional privileges that are not available to any other citizen nor can the press be subject to any special restrictions that would not otherwise be imposed on any ordinary citizen of the country. The reasonable restrictions that freedom of press is subject to are mentioned under Article 19(2) as:

  • Security of the State
  • Friendly relations with Foreign State
  • Public Order
  • Decency and Morality
  • To prevent Contempt of Court
  • Defamation
  • Incitement to an offence; and
  • Sovereignty and Integrity of India

In the case of Sakal Papers (P) Ltd vs. Union of India2, the Daily Newspaper (Price and Page) order, 1960, which the number of pages and the size in which a newspaper could publish. This was held as a violence of the freedom of press and not a reasonable restriction under article 19(2).

Rajiv Gandhi, India’s former prime minister once said, “Freedom of press is an article of faith with us, sanctifies by our constitution, validated by four decades of freedom and indispensable to our future as a nation.” To reinforce the essentiality of the freedom of press, the Supreme Court stated in the case of Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) (P) Ltd. v. Union of India3 that, “In today’s free world freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate [Government] cannot make responsible judgments.”

In the case of Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras4, Patanjali Shastri, the Chief Justice observed that: “Freedom of speech and of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organizations, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of popular government, is possible.”

The censorship of the press is however, a very crucial and sensitive issue for any democracy. In general, censorship of the press is regarded as an unhealthy check on the freedom to express one’s views freely. In India, the constitution does not specifically forbid censorship of the press. There is, however, a check on the state:  it must resort to censorship in a way that is reasonable. Though even this check on the government was not there before the first amendment of the constitution in 1951, the Supreme Court held in the cases of Brij Bhusan vs. the State of Delhi1 and Romesh Thapar vs. State of Madras4 that censorship imposes obvious restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. After the last amendment, censorship is permitted if it is reasonable and if it is called for in the interests of the public order. The paradox regarding censorship is that though it stands valid even during an emergency, under article 352 of the Indian Constitution, provided that it is reasonable and in the interests of the public order, article 19 itself stands suspended under article 358 of the constitution.

To conclude, I would only say that the press is necessary to keep the nation informed and to expose the loopholes in the government and its functioning; it is necessary for keeping the common people informed about the current events, the problems facing the country and the many viable solutions to them. It is all the more of importance that freedom and independence should be guaranteed to the press of the largest democracy in the world. But this power should be regulated, as John Dalberg-Acton very rightly said ‘Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely’. That said, nothing sums up the power and necessity of media and the freedom of press better than the following words by Thomas Jefferson, the second Vice President and the third President of the United States –

‘The press is the only tocsin of a nation. When it is completely silenced, all means of a general effort are taken away.’

1 AIR 1950 SC 129

2 AIR 1962 SC 305

3 (1985) 1 SCC 641

4 1950 AIR 124

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