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Is Press Freedom an Absolute Right?

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Press Freedom is that essential principle that demands all the communication and expression that takes place through various platforms of media. This is inclusive of printed and electronic media, especially published ones to be absolutely free from any kind of influence or hampering. This straightaway implies the absence of any type of interference from an overreaching state.

It is quite understandable that not everything is competent enough for getting published or communicated or shared through media or by media but then under the umbrella of this very fact, the freedom of media does not become an object to be played with. Freedom always comes with certain reasonable restrictions but if such restrictions start strangulating the freedom of the press and start hampering the smooth operations of the press, then this might lead to questions arising upon the functionality of a particular State for that matter.

Press Freedom in India

The freedom of the press is not something that is exactly talked about in the Constitution of India, but Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India deals with the Freedom of Speech and Expression. It says – all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Back then when the Constitution was newly structured and was initiating its functioning, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar during the Constituent Assembly Debates stated that no special mention of the freedom of the press was necessary at all as press and an individual or citizen fall under the ambit of the same category as far as their right of freedom of speech and expression is concerned. This clearly indicates that even the press has got the right to exercise its freedom of speech and expression in the same manner as the citizens of the nation can. This further highlights the fact that the framers of the Constitution considered freedom of the press as an essential and significant part of the freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19 (1)(a).

The press is the most powerful medium of mass communication and therefore it should have the power to play its role freely and fairly in order to build an even stronger and viable society for all. If the press will not be free enough in its functionality, then this will surely undermine the power to influence public opinion and become a counter to the concept of democracy. But, as it has been mentioned above that the framers of the Constitution considered freedom of the press as essential as freedom of speech and expression, similarly just like freedom of speech and expression even freedom of the press cannot be absolute, thereby comes along with certain reasonable restrictions. The public interest is supposed to be safeguarded under the umbrella of Article 19 (1)(2) which mentions some reasonable limitations for the freedom of expression in matters concerning:

  1. Sovereignty and integrity of the State
  2. Security of the State
  3. Friendly relations with foreign countries
  4. Public order
  5. Decency and morality
  6. Contempt of Court
  7. Defamation
  8. Incitement to an offense 

Case Laws

  • In the case of Ramesh Thapar v. the State of Madras, it was observed by the Honorable Court that the freedom of speech and expression along with that of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organizations. Without fair and free political discussions, no public education can be made possible at any cost. Such discussions and circulation of opinions is an essential requirement of the proper functioning of the process of the Government and its decisions or policymaking authority. 
  • In the case of Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms it was observed, One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation, and non-information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce. Freedom of speech and expression includes the right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions.
  • In the case of Indian Express Newspaper v. Union of India, it was held by the Court that the press a really significant role in the democratic machinery of a nation. The Courts have a duty to uphold the freedom of the press and invalidate all such laws and similar administrative actions that abridge such freedom of press in a direct or in an indirect way. The concept of freedom of the press comprises of three essential elements, they are:
    • Freedom of access to all sources of information,
    • Freedom of publication
    • and Freedom of circulation
  • In the case of Sakal Papers v. Union of India, the daily newspapers (Price and Page) order, 1960 which fixed the number of pages and size which a newspaper could publish at a particular price was found violative of freedom of the press by the honorable court. The court further observed that such a restriction did not fall under the ambit of reasonable restriction provided under Article 19(2). 
  • In the case of Bennett Coleman and Co. v. Union of India, also the validity of the Newsprint Control Order, which was fixing the number of pages of the newspaper was struck down by the court with an immediate effect as the court found it absolutely violative of the provision enshrined under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India and further the Court observed that it is not falling as a reasonable restriction under Article 19 (2). 
  • In the case of R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, the honorable Supreme Court held that the Government has got absolutely no authority under the provisions established by law to impose any prior restraint upon publication of defamatory material against its officials. The court further held that no actions in any manner could be initiated against the press if the publications are based upon public records inclusive of court records.

Critically Analysing Press Freedom in India

Press Freedom

The critical analysis of the act of strangulation of freedom of press is two-folded in nature. The press should be provided with the appropriate amount of freedom so that it can raise questions, publish and circulate all the relevant information, details, and facts about anything and everything which is happening or taking place in the society covering all the aspects of legislative, executive and judiciary. Press is that medium which not only provides its honest opinion about an issue rather it also shapes and influences the mindset of all those who are following the press or are choosing the press as a medium for keeping themselves updated. The press is considered the fourth pillar of democracy and therefore it must be respected and appreciated as much as it deserves.

On the other hand, it must also be understood by everyone that just like all other freedoms, even freedom of the press cannot be kept absolute in nature. This implies that similar to freedom of speech and expression, freedom of press also comes along with certain reasonable restrictions. And these restrictions are supposed to be respected equally as they have been imposed after giving much thought to them. There are some types of information that are not competent enough in nature to be publicized or shared with the public. Such kinds of information are in a simple language known as sensitive details. These are those types of details that are supposed to be kept confidential keeping in mind the security of the State, the identity of an individual, and anything in order to promote the larger interest of the citizens of the Nation.

Conclusion

Reasonable restrictions are the requirement for the appropriate functioning of all the freedoms provided to the citizens. But then the restrictions should remain and must be reasonable too. Using one’s power in suppressing the functions of the press, an attempt to silence the voice of the press, an attempt to control the freedom of the press, or influencing the people belonging to the press for one’s personal benefits is an act that stands absolutely wrong and against the morals and ethics too along with the law established by the Constitution of India. Such actions amount to what is called strangulating the freedom of the press.

Limiting the access or functioning of the press, unreasonably or unjustly, in order to benefit an individual or a group of individuals amounts to creating hindrance in the work of the press, thereby amounting to several doubts being raised questioning the meaning and existence of democracy. Since the press is considered as the fourth pillar of democracy, therefore interference with the functioning of the press straightaway leads to an interference with the working of democracy of a State, and when people start doubting the functionality of the State or the Government for that matter, that becomes the moment when the development process of the State begins to strangle badly, further leading to the gradual collapse of the entire working or machinery of the State. 

Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego.

Mahatma Gandhi

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