Visuality of Freedom of Press: In light of the World Press Freedom Index 2020

    Press is a medium of social, public, and political intercourse. It is a powerful tool of expression of opinion, a means of communication of facts of public life. Freedom is essential for the press, to perform dynamic roles, in the country. The role of the press is a protuberance of de riguer qualities like perseverance, courage, and pertinacity in finding the authentic source for presenting the information to its audience. That’s why the press is considered as “Fourth Pillar of Democracy” or “Fourth Estate of the State” [1]. This right is indispensable to the functioning of democracy subject to limitations. Having said that, it acts as a palladium of the democracy of the country. To have a check on the vector of freedom of the press, the international organization “Reporters Without Borders”, founded with the goal of promoting freedom of the press, releases the World Press Freedom Index every year which is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published based upon their own assessment of the countries’ press freedom records in the previous year.    

    India’s Echelon in the World Press Freedom Index 2020

    In general, freedom of the press is the freedom of communication and expression through digital media and published materials. This implies the existence of freedom from any interference as well as an overreaching state for the effective conveyance of opinions. The media has played also a traditional watchdog and gadfly role, in investigating misbehavior by politicians, officials, and private businesses, a role traditionally summarised as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” [2]

    Freedom of Press includes:

    • Freedom of access to all sources of information (one’s own views borrowed from someone else or printed under the direction of person). [3]
    • Freedom of Publication. [4]
    • Freedom of Circulation. [5]

    Being the heart of social and political intercourse, the degree of its freedom is on high-priority and to project its reality before the public, the ‘Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’ an International Organization determines its degree is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated. This data prepared considering in toto 180 countries. [6]

    To compile the index, a team of specialists, each assigned to a different geographical region, keeps a detailed tally of abuses and violence against journalists and media outlets. The abuses indicator for each country is calculated on the basis of the data about the intensity of abuses and violence against media actors during the period evaluated. Then, accordingly, RSF develops a questionnaire with 87 questions focused on these criteria with translation into 20 languages including English, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, and Korean. The questionnaire is Targeted at the media professionals, lawyers, and sociologists who are asked to complete it. Scores are calculated on the basis of the responses of the experts selected by RSF combined with the data on abuses and violence against journalists during the period evaluated. [7]

    Criteria categories and Indicators:

    On the basis of the following criteria and indicators, India has been placed on 142nd from 140th (rank of the last year). The questionnaire, framed by RSF primarily focuses on certain criteria and categories, and each question in the questionnaire is linked to one of the six following indicators:

    1. Pluralism
    2. Media Independence
    3. Environment and Self-Censorship
    4. Legislative Framework
    5. Transparency
    6. Infrastructure
    7. Abuses

    On the basis of a country’s performance ascertained with the help of the above state indicators, the index is prepared. The index is topped by Norway with “ZERO” abuse score. Abuse score is basically a score calculated and allotted by a specific formula on the basis of data collected in regards to the abuses faced by the journalists/ media persons of that particular country. It ranges from 0 to 100 showing the intensity of abuses faced. One of the interesting things is none of the Asian Countries is in the top 20 of the index. As far as India’s abuse score is concerned, it has been given 31.35.

    Analysing Freedom of Press in India vis-à-vis Indian Constitution

    The analysis is the result of a study of freedom of press on India in accordance with the prescribed indicators:

    1.  Pluralism:

    It measures the degree to which opinions are represented in the media.[8] Putting it differently, pluralism in media/press includes plurality of opinion of the public as well as journalists. Diversity in content is essential to reckon the truth behind the information. Along with that, access to various news sources, for the clienteles to judge the objectivity of news [9], is also foremost thing. The freedom of Pluralism varies to different countries as per their legislative measures and actions. The freedom of press is of high significance in a country like India where democracy is on the top.

    The reason compiled by the Reporters without Borders shows various reasons, out of which one of the best illustrative reason, for India’s declined position is:

    I. India’s score in the index is heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir where, after rescinding the state’s autonomy, the federal government shut down fixed-line and mobile internet connections completely stopped for several months, making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison.[10] The illustration illuminates how the fourth pillar was being obstructed by the power in democracy restraining to present plural views among the diverse interest group.

    Primarily, these data are of the previous year and published in the current year. So, in the current index of the year 2020, the data collected are of the year 2019. The following happenings are of the year 2020 but are presented here just for the understanding purpose:

    • Recently, the two media professionals, Sudhir Chaudhary (Zee News Editor in chief) and Arnab Goswami (Republic TV editor-in-chief and anchor) are in news for the information and views they presented before the public. These are the best examples of the degree and effectiveness of Pluralism in our democratic country. I wouldn’t like to indulge in much discussion on who has done what. But, surely saying that these cases will affect Press Freedom Index 2021.
    1. Media Independence:

    Measures the degree to which the media are able to function independently of sources of political, governmental, business, and religious power and influence.[11] The indicator elucidates the freedom of the press from the pressure and interference of external sources in the working of the media. The analysis of RSF shows: [12]

    • Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to show the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased.
    • The coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers are alarming and include calls for the journalists concerned to be murdered.

    Further, the recent incidents of the year 2020, showing political pressure on the press, are presented here just for the understanding purpose:

    • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says, three weeks after India imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the government is trying to control all aspects of information about the crisis, trampling on journalistic freedom in the process.
    • The government has repeatedly tried to exercise total control over information about Covid-19. On 31 March, it asked the supreme court to “direct” the media to publish nothing about the epidemic “without first ascertaining the facts from the mechanism provided by the government.” This was tantamount to prior censorship, forcing journalists to publish only government-approved information. [13]
    1. Environment and Self-Censorship:

    Analyses the environment in which news and information providers operate. There can be two facets to this:

    Firstly, at times, the environment to present the news to the public is such that it may lead to unpalatable circumstances in the society seeking to have self-censorship as per their professional ethics. Though the news and information providers are free to publish subject to the provisions of the Indian Constitution and Bye-laws.

    Secondly, the environment which the external forces create by coaxing, interfering, and pressuring the services providers to have self-censorship on their content infiltrates vacuum between the public and the news operator. The imposition of pre-censorship is a restriction on the liberty of the press being an essential part of the freedom of speech and expression declared by Article 19(1)(a).[14] The intensity of pressure is such that the published news items disappeared from websites and TV channels dropped interviews or stories done by their correspondents. In such cases, it violates the freedom of press to project pluralistic views and opinions in society. There are certain illustrative incidents of forced self-censorship:

    I. The resignation of the ABP anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai, according to a piece by him in The Wire.in, followed explicit instructions from the proprietor to not mention Prime Minister Modi in his show “Masterstroke” or to even carry any pictures of him. [15]

    II. Quartz reported on July 16, 2014, that after Shah’s election, CNN IBN’s bulletin at night as well as the graphics on air were edited to remove references to the criminal charges faced by him. [16]

    III. The entertainment channel Star Plus decided not to air a comedy act that mimicked Prime Minister Modi. [17]

    1. Transparency:

    It measures the transparency of the institutions and procedures that affect the production of news and information. It includes transparency of the media or news agencies in regard to its news resources. Only a few news professionals cite their sources of information while presenting the news. At times, if news agencies are financially supported by Business tycoons following a particular ideology or a political party has a major influence on the content of the news. In such cases, the truth behind the content cannot be transparently put forward for acquainting the different interests’ groups. These influences try to hide the reality/truth of the situation and leverage the situation for their own purpose fulfillment. Thus, media is the only responsible for exposing the truth and hiding the truth as it acts as a nexus between various interests’ groups of society.        

    1. Infrastructure:

     It measures the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information. Being a part of this profession, it disturbs a person engaged not only while collecting the news but also in every moment of life. Some of the ground reporters have to be on the field at every chime of the clock putting their life at risk in that case life protecting infrastructure facilities must be provided to them by the Government as well as the respective news operators. Wife of Rajdev Rajan [18] (also known as Rajdeo Ranjan who was an Indian journalist for the Hindustan Daily in Siwan, Bihar, India, was shot to death.) uttered:

                              “There is no safety or security for a journalist or their families.” 

    The statement highlights the threat to journalism in the sense that it unsecure the life of the journalists/ media persons demanding the enactment of some concrete steps for protecting those to protects the democracy of India.

    1. Abuses:

    A sixth indicator based on data gathered about abuses and acts of violence against journalists and media. With no murders of journalists in India in 2019, as against six in 2018, the security situation for the country’s media might seem, on the face of it, to have improved. However, there have been constant press freedom violations, including police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials. [19]

    To break the license, the actual scenario behind the data of 2019 was 6 murders [20] and 36 attacks [21] on journalists many during CAA (Citizenship Amendment Bill) protest. This unearths the selfishness of hiding the truth. A quote of George Orwall (Eric Arthur Blair better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist and essayist, journalist and critic) very well settles here:

          “The Further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those who speak it”

    Those who tried to project the truth or very reasons behind the issues had been victimised for their relentless efforts i.e. the society of external forces has shown aggression against the media professionals resulting into the cases of murder and abuses of journalists in 2019 which has staggered the media professionals: 

    Journalist Naresh Mitra Case: Naresh Mitra, a senior environmental and wildlife journalist of the Times of India, died in Guwahati 17 days after he was found injured (assault) under mysterious circumstances near his office.[22] He was in a deep coma since he was admitted. He had an internal head injury and a major operation was carried out but he died. Further, verification was difficult because of curfew and clampdown on online communication due to the agitation in Assam over the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. [23]

    Journalist K Satyanarayan Case: Unidentified assailants hacked to death the local reporter of a Telugu daily in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. K Satyanarayana, 45, reporter died on the spot while the assailants fled after committing the crime. The incident occurred at S Annavaram, Andhra Pradesh.[24]

    Journalist Omar Rashid Case:

    In another shocking incident, Omar Rashid, the Uttar Pradesh correspondent of the Hindu was detained by police for several hours and subjected to communal abuse. His credentials as a journalist were questioned, as were his origins as a Kashmiri journalist. He was let off and police dismissed it off as a ‘mistake’. [25]

    Journalist Abusing Case:

    TDP leader Nandamuri Balakrishna made headlines for slapping a photojournalist during a public rally in his own constituency-Hindupur. The actor used harsh language and threatened to kill a journalist for taking videos and this video went viral on social media and the ‘Legend’ actor was severely criticised for his behaviour. [26]

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

    “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” [27]

    UDHR states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion without interference, irrespective of the profession in which the person is, through any media including digital as well as manual way. But the aforesaid cases are a sheer violation of the freedom of opinion and expression of the press.  

    Abuses to journalists are not limited to above cases rather several have been booked under the sections of Indian Penal code 499, 500, 501( all pertaining to defamation), 504 ( intentional insult), 506 (criminal intimidation), 420 (cheating), 406 (criminal breach of trust), 468 (forgery), 124a (Sedition) for endorsing their views and opinions in truth revealing manner. So the prevailing situation envisages the attention of the power holders of the country to enact a comprehensive, effective, and restrictive law to protect the fourth estate of the democracy.

    1. Legislative Framework:

    The Framers of the constitution have ensured the cherished right to freedom of speech and expression on which our democracy rests and is included in article 19 of the Indian Constitution. With the advancement of law in India, the right to freedom of speech and expression has taken within its ambit the right to receive information. Unlike the US constitution, where the freedom of Press is separately mentioned, in the Indian Constitution, freedom of the press is not expressly mentioned in article 19 but has been held to flow from the general freedom of the speech and expression guaranteed to all citizens.

    This indicator measures the impact of the legislative framework governing news and information activities. As the analysis is of the data of 2019, I would like to mention the case of the year 2019 preserving the right to freedom of speech and expression of the press.

    Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India [28]

    The Supreme court held that there is no doubt that the importance of the press is well established under Indian Law. The freedom of the press is a requirement in any democratic society for its effective functioning. The first case which dealt with the freedom of the press can be traced back to Channing Arnold v the Emperor [29], wherein the Privy Council stated that: 

    “The freedom of the journalist is an ordinary part of the freedom of the subject and to whatever length, the subject, in general, may go, so also may the journalist, but apart from the statute law, his privilege is no other and no higher. The range of his assertions, his criticisms, or his comments is as wide as, and no wider than that of any other subject.”

    During the time of the drafting of our constitution, B.N. Rau, while commenting on the amendments by Jaya Prakash Narayan, who had proposed separate freedom of press, has commented in the following manner:

    “It is hardly necessary to provide specifically for the freedom of the press as freedom of expression provided in subclause (a) of clause (1) of Article 19 will include freedom of the press…”

    Revision of Women’s Legal Age for Marriage

    Thereafter, many judgments of this court including Bennett Coleman v. Union of India [30], Sakal Papers (P) Ltd v. Union of India [31], have expounded on the right freedom of press and have clearly enunciated the importance of the aforesaid rights in modern society. There is no doubt that the freedom of the press is a valuable and sacred right enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution. This right is required in any modern democracy without which there cannot be a transfer of information or requisite discussion for the democratic society.

    Conclusion

     “The Press has no special rights which are not to be given or which are not to be exercised by the citizens in his individual capacity. The editor of a press or the manager is merely exercising the right of the expression, and therefore, no special mention is necessary of the freedom of the press”.

               ~~~ Dr. Ambedkar’s speech in Constituent Assembly Debates, VII, 980

    As the world is changing day by day, everything is getting changed along with. New crimes are emerging for which stringent laws are required to deal with. In the same way, effective laws are required for protecting the liberty of freedom of speech and expression of Press in India. The persons engaged in the Press/ Media profession also needs some sort of safety for themselves as well as for their families. Thus, the words of Dr. Ambedkar have the least effectivity, for recent controversies, requiring the special mention by the way of sui generis law in India where every Journalist/ Media Professional can strengthen his/her life by raising voice for the right.  

    Endnotes

    1.  Mamta Rao, Constitutional Law, Eastern Book Company page no. 172
    2.  Rahul Deo, CNLU Patna, Freedom Of Press: Fourth Pillar Of Democracy.
    3.  MSM Sharma v. Sri Krishna Sinha, AIR 1959 SC 395: 1959 Supp(I) SCR 806
    4.  Mamta Rao, Constitutional Law, Eastern Book Company page no. 172
    5.  Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras, AIR 1950 SC 124: 1950 SCR 594
    6.  Reporters Without Borders, Detailed methodology.
    7.  Reporters Without Borders, Detailed methodology.
    8.  Reporters Without Borders, Detailed methodology.
    9.  The pluralist view of the media.
    10.  Reporters without Borders, India
    11.  Supra note 8
    12.  ibid
    13.  Reporters Without Borders, How India’s government tries to suppress all Covid-19 reporting.
    14.  Jr. Pandey, Constitutional law of India, central law agency, fifty third ed. Pg 203.
    15.  How India’s news media have changed since 2014: Greater self-censorship, dogged digital resistance.
    16.  ibid
    17.  ibid
    18.  Press Freedom Day: Why is India a dangerous place for journalists? | The Quint
    19.  Supra note 11
    20.  Supra note 18
    21.  ibid
    22.  Senior Assam Journalist Dies After Attack, Was In Coma, Say Doctors
    23.  A study on the killings of and attacks on journalists in India, 2014–2019, and justice delivery in these cases.
    24.  Journalist Working with Telugu Daily Hacked to Death in Andhra Pradesh.
    25.  Lucknow Journalist Detained, ‘Abused’; Released After Intervention of UP DGP.
    26.  Balakrishna criticized for abusing journalist.
    27.  Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Right.
    28.  W.P. (C) No. 1031 of 2019 SC
    29.  (1914) 16 Bom LR 544
    30.  (1972) 3 SCR 842
    31.  (1962) 3 SCR 842

    Dhruv Soni | Department of Law, Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat

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