INDIAN PRESS AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The founding fathers of the Indian constitution had guaranteed freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right in article 19(1)(A).This provision confers freedom of speech and expression to all Indians subject to certain ‘reasonable restrictions’. This was a freedom which was applicable to the press too. But unlike the United States, which in its first amendment specifically guaranteed press freedom in the following words.’ Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of the speech or…of the press.’ But as far as India is concerned Dr.B.R.Ambedkar clarified in the constituent assembly that the press had no special rights which an ordinary citizen did not possess. This implied that any restriction placed on the press was tantamount to gagging freedom of expression and therefore violates Indian constitution.
VIGILANT SUPREME COURT
Despite these implied guarantees, there were instances of efforts being made to curb the freedom of the press. One of the first case that came up in 1950 was that of a magazine called ‘Cross Roads’ which the then state of Madras (Present day Tamil Nadu) banned its entry. When challenged in the court it was struck down by the judiciary commenting that freedom of circulation was essential to the exercise of freedom of expression.
Another case which was a landmark was that of SAKAL Newspapers wherein the Supreme Court held that the newspaper (Price & Page) Act 1956 which was intended to prevent unfair competition and emergence of monopolistic groupings had provisions which were violative of the freedom of expression.
The Supreme Court had consistently been vigilant regarding encroachments and violation of freedom of expression. But the government in order to ensure that this freedom was not abused for certain nefarious objectives introduced two amendments to counter this. One amendment which was introduced in 1951 placed certain restrictions on the freedom of expression which subvert ‘public order’ and this word was inserted in article 29(2) .A further amendments (16) was made in order to protect the sovereignty and integrity of India. The constitution stipulates that there are seven grounds for reasonable restrictions. They are sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign countries, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court and incitement to offense. Goaded by the inclusion of public order in the constitution, the government had tried to impose the Press (Objectionable matter) Act 1951.This was met with stiff resistance by the media and it was repealed by the act of 1957.A similar fate was met by Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act 1976 which was introduced during the emergency. But with the Janata government coming into power, this act too was repealed.
Indian press had a brush with censorship mainly during the emergency from June 1975 to March 1977.The earlier two emergencies first in 1962 and then in 1971 was due to external threats. The media during that period had acted with a great sense of responsibility and self-regulation by consciously not disseminating news which will help the enemy. The internal emergency imposed later was of a totally different kind. The fundamental rights particularly article 19(1) (A) which conferred the liberty of expression were suspended. All news content had to be cleared by the government as a result of which the press was gagged. Excepting very few newspapers most of the others complied with this.
The only act which protects the interest of Central Government from an aggressive press is the Press and Registration of Books Act and the two articles of the constitution. This was apart from provisions in the Indian penal code, official secrets act and criminal law amendment act in a very general way.
There were however some infringement into freedom of expression from a few state governments. States like Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir on different occasions tried to gag freedom of expression. But in most of these cases, they failed and the media was able to survive threats from the executive.
One nebulous area however happens to be the question of parliamentary and legislative privileges. There has always been vexatious issue like who should be admitted to press gallery for coverage, the right to prohibit publication of parliamentary proceedings and the right to punish those violating these privileges. There are interesting anecdotes relating to this. For example A.Raghavan of the BLITZ had in one of his reports called parliamentarian acharya kripalani as ‘Kripaloony’.This resulted in the editor of the tabloid R.K.Karanjia being summoned to the bar of the house and the reporter made to tender an unconditional apology. The common problem which usually crops up while reporting parliament or legislature is that media in its frenzy may go to the press with news items which may later have been expunged by the house. As this is usually ordered later the expunged matter may find its way into the press as a newsbreak. Reporting parliament and legislature is therefore a very complex process. But overall the Indian press has been doing a fine balancing act.