Freedom of the press and journalistic ethics is an important topic today in India — with the word ‘press' encompassing the electronic media also. There should be a serious discussion on the topic. That discussion should include issues of the responsibilities of the press, since the media have become very prominent and very powerful.
In India, freedom of the press has been treated as part of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, vide Brij Bhushan and Another vs. The State of Delhi, AIR 1950 SC 129 and Sakal Papers (P) Ltd vs. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305, among others. However, as mentioned in Article 19(2), reasonable restrictions can be placed on this right, in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Hence, freedom of the media is not an absolute freedom.
The importance of the freedom of the press lies in the fact that for most citizens the prospect of personal familiarity with newsworthy events is unrealistic. In seeking out news, the media therefore act for the public at large. It is the means by which people receive free flow of information and ideas, which is essential to intelligent self-governance, that is, democracy.
For a proper functioning of democracy it is essential that citizens are kept informed about news from various parts of the country and even abroad, because only then can they form rational opinions. A citizen surely cannot be expected personally to gather news to enable him or her to form such opinions. Hence, the media play an important role in a democracy and serve as an agency of the people to gather news for them. It is for this reason that freedom of the press has been emphasised in all democratic countries, while it was not permitted in feudal or totalitarian regimes.
In India, the media have played a historical role in providing information to the people about social and economic evils. The media have informed the people about the tremendous poverty in the country, the suicide of farmers in various States, the so-called honour killings in many places by Khap panchayats, corruption, and so on. For this, the media in India deserve kudos.
However, the media have a great responsibility also to see that the news they present is accurate and serve the interest of the people. If the media convey false news that may harm the reputation of a person or a section of society, it may do great damage since reputation is a valuable asset for a person. Even if the media subsequently correct a statement, the damage done may be irreparable. Hence, the media should take care to carefully investigate any news item before reporting it.
I know of a case where the photograph of a High Court judge, who was known to be upright, was shown on a TV channel along with that of a known criminal. The allegation against the judge was that he had acquired some land at a low price misusing his office. But my own inquiries (as part of which I met and asked questions to that judge and many others) revealed that he had acquired the land not in any discretionary quota but in the open market at the market price.
Also, sometimes the media present twisted or distorted news that may contain an element of truth but also an element of untruth. This, too, should be avoided because a half-truth can be more dangerous than a total lie. The media should avoid giving any slant to news, and avoid sensationalism and yellow journalism. Only then will they gain the respect of the people and fulfil their true role in a democracy.
Recently, reports were published of paid news — which involves someone paying a newspaper and getting something favourable to him published. If this is correct, it is most improper. Editors should curb this practice.
Media comments on pending cases, especially on criminal cases where the life or liberty of a citizen is involved, are a delicate issue and should be carefully considered. After all, judges are human beings too, and sometimes it may be difficult for them not to be influenced by such news. The British law is that when a case is sub judice, no comment can be made on it, whereas U.S. law permits such comment. In India we may have to take an intermediate view on this issue: while on the one hand we have a written Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech in Article 19(1)(a) — which the unwritten British Constitution does not — the life and liberty of a citizen is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21 and should not lightly be jeopardised. Hence, a balanced view has to be taken on this.
Also, often the media publish correct news but place too much emphasis on frivolous news such as those concerning the activities of film stars, models, cricketers and so on, while giving very little prominence to much more important issues that are basically socio-economic in nature.
What do we see on television these days? Some channels show film stars, pop music, disco-dancing and fashion parades (often with scantily clad young women), astrology, or cricket. Is it not a cruel irony and an affront to our poor people that so much time and resources are spent on such things? What have the Indian masses, who are facing terrible economic problems, to do with such things?
Historically, the media have been organs of the people against feudal oppression. In Europe, the media played a major role in transforming a feudal society into a modern one. The print media played a role in preparing for, and during, the British, American and French Revolutions. The print media were used by writers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Junius and John Wilkes in the people's fight against feudalism and despotism. Everyone knows of the great stir created by Thomas Paine's pamphlet ‘Common Sense' during the American Revolution, or of the letters of Junius during the reign of the despotic George III.
The media became powerful tools in the hands of the people then because they could not express themselves through the established organs of power: those organs were in the hands of feudal and despotic rulers. Hence, the people had to create new organs that would serve them. It is for this reason that that the print media became known as the Fourth Estate. In Europe and America, they represented the voice of the future, in contrast to the feudal or despotic organs that wanted to preserve the status quo in society. In the 20th century, other types of media emerged: radio, television and the Internet.
What should be the media's role? This is a matter of great importance to India as it faces massive problems of poverty, unemployment, corruption, price rise and so on.
To my mind, in underdeveloped countries like India the media have a great responsibility to fight backward ideas such as casteism and communalism, and help the people in their struggle against poverty and other social evils. Since a large section of the people is backward and ignorant, it is all the more necessary that modern ideas are brought to them and their backwardness removed so that they become part of enlightened India. The media have a great responsibility in this respect.
(Markandey Katju is a Judge of the Supreme Court of India. The second part of this article will follow.)
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
THE RIGHTS OF THE PRESS
SHOULD PRESS BE REALLY FREE?
A FREE PRESS– THE BACKBONE OF DEMOCRACY
JOURNALISM IN INDIA
“I would rather have a free Press, with all the dangers that may result from a wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed or strangulated Press.” – J.L. Nehru
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I shall not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. -Jefferson
Freedom of the Press is the very foundation of and an essential condition for a successful Democracy. It is the backbone of Democracy. In India, the freedom of the Press has been guaranteed by the Constitution. The Press is supposed to be an active link between the government and the people in a democratic country. It investigates official lapses and makes the facts public. It is, in fact, a watch-dog of democracy. It keeps the government on its toes by exposing its various misdoings and acts as a true mirror of public opinion.
The people in a democratic country have a right to know things and this right is a part of the Fundamental Right of Freedom of Speech and Expression. Hence it is the duty of the Press to keep the people informed, educated and alert. The freedom of the Press does not, however, mean freedom to distort facts, freedom to blackmail people or freedom to indulge in character assassination or cheap sensationalism. The Press is meant to educate public opinion ; it is not meant to incite people to senseless violence. The press is not an enemy of the government ; it is supposed to help government efforts in creating a healthy climate in society. The press is not there to add to the people’s problems and spell misery and dissatisfaction ; it has to work to promote the common weal. The Press has to know its responsibilities. It has to ensure that its writings conform to the national objectives and do not run counter to them.
The Press in India, has by and large, been enjoying complete and unfettered freedom. But, at times, it seems that the Press does not play its part in a responsible manner. The freedom enjoyed by the Press is grossly misused. At times, a section of the Press is clearly committed to a line of thought and refuses to look at things objectively. It looks at things through the tinged glasses of prejudice and indulges in mudslinging and baseless criticism. Not only that, some papers openly promote communal hatred and create unnecessary tensions through baseless news and biased views.
There are some important power groups who start their own papers. These people have either enough money to those papers, periodicals and magazines or have their cells in the government to bag a big chunk of hefty advertisements and mint money. They create a permanent nexus with a particular group or party and go on toeing their line in their papers. They have no scruples or qualms of conscience to do their real duty. Their only duty is to serve their masters and misguide public thought. The government must evolve some mechanism to check all this and make the press accountable to the country in some way.
No one can argue or claim that the freedom of speech and expression is an absolute and unfettered right. No government worth the name can permit irresponsible writings, yellow journalism or slander. The Press should rise to the occasion and assure the government and the people that it would always act as the responsible and enlightened Fourth Estate and would refrain from misusing the freedom granted to it. The Press in India has always been playing a responsible role. In the pre-independence days, it was only the National Press that inculcated a spirit of freedom and sacrifice amongst the masses. It refused to be cowed down by the British threats. The Press must, once again, try to live up to its reputation and try to maintain its noble traditions. It must act as a watch-dog to keep a vigilant eye on the government. Men in power are sometimes likely to run amuck and trample the rights of the have- nots, under their feet. The press must, in such situations, expose the guilty to the full without fear or favour. A vigilant, fearless and responsible Press is an important pillar of strength in a democratic set up. The Press must not, therefore, fail in its duty. The government should also not misuse its powers to scuttle the growth of the Press. Self-restraint and self-discipline alone can contribute to the growth of a healthy Democracy in any country.
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