Long ago, people used to perform folk songs and dramas in various cultures. It was the media that was used to communicate information to the larger masses. Earlier, it was the print media that had a greater impact on communicating information amongst the people. Amrit Bazar Patrika, Tribune, and the Pioneer are the historic newspapers that were first published and acted as a source of communication in the British era. The advent of mass media has influenced people’s likes and dislikes, opinions regarding many of the important issues, views, behaviour, values, and style. Among its many purposes, one of them is to entertain us. The mass media, be it print, broadcast or social media have been instrumental in shrinking the world to a global village. At present, the concept of media as a communication forum has now been widened by the introduction of TV, radio, direct mail, telephone, fax, and the internet, including the social media platforms. The media is also well-defined in various dictionaries. The role of the media is very significant in a democracy.
They should maintain their sanctity and social responsibility. It is referred to as the guardian of public interest. The editorial board of today’s media is so effective that it could either tarnish or enhance anyone’s personality and character. Hence, the media should also perform their duty carefully in enlightening the people, broadening their vision, and making sure that there exists a vigilant and prosperous society.
Historical Development Of Media
The famous personality which we can relate to the origination of the print media is Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press in 1450. In the British India era, the first newspaper published was the Bengal Gazette in Calcutta. James Augustus is considered to be the father of the Indian press. The first newspaper published in the Indian language was a Bengali weekly newspaper called Samachar Darpan on May 23, 1818. In reference to digital media, it was first adopted in the late 1990s. Digital media is one step ahead of print media as it has a wider ambit including audio, video, and graphics that can be transmitted over the internet and broadcasted on television. Social media has also emerged as a source of media and has now become a wider medium to transmit information. With the emergence of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Youtube, and so on, viral videos, text messages, audio, videotapes, information can be communicated within society quickly.
- The Vernacular Press Act, 1878: This Act empowered the British to exercise control in publishing newspapers. Under this Act, any District Magistrate or Public Commissioner could demand security from the printer and publisher of the newspaper, forfeit such security or confiscate any printed matter considered objectionable in the interest of the British government.
- The Cable Television Regulation Act, 1995: The Act requires that all the programs and advertisements telecasted on television must conform to the program code and advertisement code.
- The Press Council of India Act, 1965: This Act was executed for the freedom of the press and improving the standards of newspaper agencies. The Act also prescribed for the establishment of the Press Council of India (PCI) for achieving the said objective.
Freedom of press vis-a-vis Constitution of India
There is no separate article for the freedom of the press in the Indian Constitution. However, it incorporates the freedom of the press in two segments:
- Preamble: The Preamble of the Constitution mentions the “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship”. The thought and expression are deemed to include the freedom of the press.
- Article 19(1)(a): The Article provides that “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”. Further, Article 19(2) of the Constitution incorporates certain reasonable restrictions in the exercise of the rights provided by Article 19(1) of the Constitution. These restrictions are the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or concerning contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence.
There had been attempts to counter and struck down the freedom of the press as unconstitutional which is seen in various landmark judgments:
Sakal Papers v. Union of India
In this case, the Daily Newspapers (Price and Control) Order, 1960 fixed minimum pages and prices at which the newspaper could be published. The plaintiff argued this order to be unconstitutional on grounds of being against the freedom of the press as laid down in the Indian Constitution. The court affirmed the plaintiff’s contention and said that there could be reasonable restrictions only in exceptional circumstances which are laid under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
Shreya Singhal v. Union of India
This case is related to Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on being violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and could not be saved by any reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2). In this case, the police arrested two women under Section 66-A of the IT Act for posting objectionable comments on the shutting down of Mumbai after the death of a political leader. Section 66-A punished any person who tried to post objectionable comments and information which is false and created annoyance, danger, and insult to any person. However, police released the women soon after a huge public uproar. However, the issue got substantial media attention. A petition was filed on the ground that Section 66-A of the IT Act violates the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Justice Chelameswar and Justice Nariman delivered the historic judgment and struck down Section 66-A of the IT Act as unconstitutional.
Prabha Dutt v. Union of India
In this case, the petitioner wanted to interview two convicts, who were sentenced to death, as his right to information by an interview and contended that it does not violate the rights of other citizens or sovereignty or security of the State. However, Rule 549(4) of the Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Jails provided that every prisoner is allowed to communicate only with his relatives, friends, and legal advisors. So, the court observed that there is no problem in conducting the interview and allowed the petitioner for the same.
Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India
The petitioner filed a petition on the ground that the imposition of import duty on the newsprint would affect the costs of media agencies. Further, it was also contended that the same violates the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and also infringes Article 19(1)(g) i.e., the freedom to practice any trade or occupation. The Supreme Court had a balanced approach and outlined the two basic principles that the newspapers do enjoy the benefits of the State and are also liable to pay reasonable taxes. However, those reasonable duties should not be in excess and unreasonable.
Media law has played a very important role in our country over the years. Sometimes it is used as a freedom of expression and sometimes misused by the higher authorities. Generally, media houses are charged under either defamation or sedition. One of the instances to support this argument took place on May 9 2019 when on Twitter, a woman made a funny meme against the West Bengal CM Mamta Banerjee. But she had to pay a penalty for this post. Having said that, the Press Council of India does have sections that protect the freedom of journalists to criticize the higher authorities if they are wrong anywhere.
In the end, we can say that the media has a lot of importance in a democracy. If the government is doing anything wrong against the public interest, the media plays a vital role in becoming the voice of people by asking tough questions and condemning them strongly. At the same time, the government should also understand that the media is a valuable part of our democracy. There have been instances where the voice of the journalists have been suppressed by the government, irrespective of which political party is in power. There have been many life-threatening attacks and assaults on the journalists whether it is print media or digital media and sometimes even their families are threatened. This is one aspect of our Indian democracy that must be avoided.
Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy in our country and they must have an unbiased approach towards all the political issues that impact society. Ultimately, it should strive to create an environment of transparency and free expression.
1962 SCR (3) 842.
2013 12 S.C.C. 73.
1982 SCR (1)1184.
1985 SCR (2) 287.
BY PRASHANT BHATI | FACULTY OF LAW, DU