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World Press Freedom Index 2021 – India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries

World Press Freedom Index 2021 – India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries

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  • GS 2 || Polity || Constitutional Framework || Fundamental rights

Why in the news?

In the recently released World Press Freedom Index 2021, India was ranked poorly at 142nd out of 180 countries, which is not a good sign for a democracy.

Why is freedom of press significant?

  • There are three pillars of a democracy viz. the legislative, the executive & the judiciary. The press acts as the fourth pillar of a democracy.
  • The press has played many significant roles in delivering justice, public welfare etc.
  • About the significance of role of media and press, Mahatma Gandhi said: “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.”
  • The existence of free and fair media is a prerequisite to have a healthy and sustainable democracy.
  • Media helps unearth corruption, excesses of authority, raises the voice of poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups and thus strengthens democracy.
  • It is not a mere coincidence that the most democratic countries have the most free media and press.

The history of press in India:

  • The Indian Press has a long history right from the times of British rule in the country.
  • The British Government enacted a number of legislations to control the press, like the Indian Press Act, 1910, then in 1931-32 the Indian Press (Emergency) Act etc.
  • During the Second World War (1939-45), the executive exercised exhaustive powers under the Defence of India Act & enforced censorship on the press.
  • At the same time the publication of all news relating to the Congress activities declared illegal.
  • But after the independence, the constitution framers paid utmost attention to the freedom of press and media. Having experienced the tyranny of executives during the national movement, they ensured that the media remained free of undue authority of executive and state apparatus.

Freedom of Press in India: Constitutional position

  • Freedom of the press [Article 19.1(a)] has been made a right under the freedom of speech and expression [Article 19(1)] which is one of the freedoms granted by Article 19 i.e. Right to Freedom.
  • Freedom of the press grants the print media certain liberty to publish thoughts and opinions on different matters which are required for public attention and also for the regulation of functioning of a Democracy.
  • Also, Freedom of the press is governed by the Press Council Act, 1978.

Restrictions on Freedom of Press in India

  • The freedom of press comes within the ambit of freedom of speech & expression. In a democracy, freedom of press is highly essential as it (the press) acts as a watchdog on the three organs of a democracy viz. the legislature, the executive & the judiciary.
  • But, the freedom of press is not absolute in nature. It is subject to certain restrictions which are mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The following are the grounds of restrictions laid down in Article 19(2) :-
    1. Sovereignty & Integrity of India
    2. Security of the State
    3. Friendly relations with Foreign States
    4. Public Order
    5. Decency or Morality
    6. Contempt of Court
  • The grounds of ‘Public Order’ & ‘Friendly relations with Foreign States’ was added by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act,1951. While the ground of ‘Sovereignty & Integrity of India’ was added by the Constitution (Sixteenth Amendment) Act, 1963.

Freedom of Press elsewhere:

  • The USA: Freedom of press under the U.S.A also restricts defamation which is similar to the Indian situation.
  • Another striking loophole which is included in their press system is the lack of protection to the whistleblowers and lack of access to the information database.
  • In 2020, the U.S was ranked 45th in the Press Freedom Index, to which India was ranked at 142nd position, which clearly explains that the press is a lot more liberal than our country.
  • The UK: Freedom of press under the United Kingdom has a long way of free and inquisitive press but unlike India, it does not have any constitutional guarantee for its reporters. Though it has no constitutional guarantee yet, it is still ranked at 35th position under the Press Freedom Index of 2020.

Press Council of India (PCI):

  • The Press Council is a mechanism for the Press to regulate itself.
  • The Press Council of India was first constituted on 4th July, 1966 as an autonomous, statutory, quasi-judicial body, with Shri Justice J R Mudholkar, then a Judge of the Supreme Court, as Chairman.
  • The PCI consists of a chairman and 28 other members. The Chairman is selected by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and a member elected by the PCI.
  • The PCI have following restrictions on its powers:
    • The PCI has limited powers of enforcing the guidelines issued. It cannot penalize newspapers, news agencies, editors and journalists for violation of the guidelines.
    • The PCI only overviews the functioning of print media. That is, it can enforce standards upon newspapers, journals, magazines and other forms of print media.
    • It does not have the power to review the functioning of the electronic media like radio, television and internet media.

Important judgements:

  • Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras (1950): It was laid down in this case, that the individual cannot convey his thoughts or opinion on his own, but a press collectively at large can be a medium to convey information to others through various modes like electronic, print and broadcasts etc.
  • Tata Press Limited v. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam(1995): It was held in this case that the major source of income of the press is through advertisements and promotions, it was the landmark judgment for incorporating advertising and promoting freedom of speech and expression.
  • Labour Liberation Front v. State of Andhra Pradesh(2004): It was held by the Court in this case, that our country has over-inquisitive media which is the by-product of excessive commercialisation and it is overlapping and intruding on the individual’s privacy. The freedom of speech and expression which is a privilege given to journalism is now being misused.
  • Justice K.S Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017): It was held in this case, that there is a thin line between ‘interest of the public’ and ‘public interest’, and such difference must be well-known to the press. There is no need to make everything truthful to the public; the public has no interest in knowing everything that is true. This was highlighted in this case by Justice Kishan Kaul.

Challenges:

  • Political biases: Generally, when the particular print media gets a sufficient amount of audience, then the political parties tend to invest in such companies, in return of a favour from the press to only propagate a good image to the public and do not publish any disregarding content.
  • Exaggeration: Another habitual disadvantage that has occurred many times is ‘exaggeration’. The media and the press tend to create extensive curiosity in the minds of people by exaggerating the incidents. Though it has not created any chaotic situation until now, it may have such an effect in the future. As exaggeration includes some level of overlapping of the stories, making the press lose its credibility in the eyes of the public.
  • Intrusiveness & Media Trial:: As the press and their different companies are keen to get the fresh and controversial amount of information for their public, such companies often cross their boundaries and instead of respecting the privacy of a person, they become so intrusive which results in the violation of the privacy of a person. It may even cause harm to the reputation of that particular person which can result in disruption of harmony between the press and that particular person.
  • Defamation: When the press on any platform like Newspaper, magazines, journals, articles or even on social media, publishes something which may be true or not, but can possibly harm the reputation of the mentioned authority or person, the print media can be sued against, for the case of defamation. Defamation is caused when anything controversial or subjectively personal about the person is published and when such published post comes in contact with the third party. The defamed person can file a suit against the press for compensation under the Law of Torts or can also seek relief by filing a charge under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1872.
  • Public order versus freedom of press: Any article or post on social media or any magazine, or newspaper which results in creating chaos for the public and disrupts the public order or the peace, then such publication shall not be allowed to be presented. Similarly, any post or article also shall not entice any criminal offence to be committed or support any sort of heinous crime, even if it is a formed opinion, it shall not be published.

Conclusion:

Media is an important pillar of democracy and without it democracy cannot survive. However, an absolutely free media is also not in the best interests of the society as there is always the possibility of missing its powers, reach and influence. The best way is to self-regulate and the media self regulatory bodies such as the Press Council of India needs to be strengthened and encouraged to exercise adequate control over the freedom given to the media and press.

Model Mains Question:

  1. Discuss the status of freedom of press and media in India. Do you think PCI has remained successful as a credible regulatory body for the press? Explain.