Freedom of the Press-An Indispensable Part Of Democracy

Dr. Manavik Raj

Democracy is an organic system where freedom of speech and expression finds its space in social and political discourse. Free speech and liberty remain the bedrock of any democratic nation. India’s tryst with destiny laid the foundation of democratic institutions and our founding fathers had ensured that India remains a plural, secular, democratic republic.

Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B R Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore and many great minds have contributed to India’s syncretic culture and ethos. 

Since 1947, there have been various conflicts and contentious debates taking centre stage. In 2021, the idea of India sparked off commentaries across television debates, where comedians, artists, filmmakers and activists were at odds with the government. In the ongoing debate, a series of conflicts have raised questions on issues such as citizenship, press freedom, economic policies and nation-building.

The conflicts that exist is the culmination of various events, buffeted by ideas such as freedom, dissent, debate and identity.    

Freedom of the Press – The (RSF) Report 2021

The struggle for the freedom of the press can be traced back to over two centuries. John Milton and John Stuart Mill had emphasized the role of an individual’s freedom, a free press and diverse points of view. While many feel that it’s a fundamental right to debate and dissent, the freedom of speech and expression is often a bone of contention between the state and its citizenry. The freedom of the press is a debate between authoritarian and libertarian schools of thought. Various reports shed light on the deteriorating standards of press freedom. The trend is global and India isn’t an exception. 

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index which was compiled by (RSF) Reporters Without Borders highlight deteriorating standards of press freedom (Across, 180 countries). Mis/disinformation widely passed off as news has posed challenges to the credibility of media as an institution. The pandemic coupled with restrictions on investigative reporting has fueled conflicts confronting mainstream journalism.

The Edelman Trust barometer reveals a startling trend, highlighting the citizen’s mistrust of public institutions and the media at large. An analysis on the RSF website highlights the deteriorating standards of press freedom: Brazil, (4 out of 111), Venezuela (1 at 148), Egypt at 166, Iran (1 at 174). The trend across South Asian countries is also worrisome. In South Asia, Pakistan at 145, Myanmar at 140, Sri Lanka at 127, Bangladesh at 152, China at 177 and India at 142

The (CPJ) Committee to Protect Journalists in a report revealed that political, investigative and war reporters were at a much higher risk of attacks. An increasing number of journalists being killed have missed the headlines many a time. In 2021, Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dimitry Muratov from Russia were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their attempts to safeguard freedom of speech and expression. This necessitates the responsibility of governments to safeguard journalists who are far more vulnerable while reporting issues to the public.

Ideological moorings– Media Scholarship & Praxis

Media scholars Wilbur Schramm, Theodore Peterson and Fred Siebert had postulated their academic theories on mass media in their book- ‘Four Theories of the Press. This was hypothesized during the Cold War when the world was caught between the ideology of Communism and Capitalism. However, even during that time critics had dismissed it as being ‘normative’ and academic. The public service media and development or participatory paradigms differed across countries. The way mass media operated in Asia, Africa or Latin America was very different in its approach to operations between the west and east. Media theories were propounded such as – Authoritarian theory, Libertarian theory, Social Responsibility theory, Development Communication theory and Soviet Media theory.

Media enterprises were different in states such as the former Soviet Union and China, in comparison to many western countries. Similarly, developing countries had their approaches to media operations and policies.

For instance, the First Amendment in the U.S constitution is an embodiment of the Libertarian theory. While the Hutchins report financed by press baron Henry Luce (of the Time magazine) had found that the free-market approach to mass media had not met the social and information needs of the masses and steps to establish Press councils were taken. Media codes and ethics, anti-monopoly legislation was considered the right move to safeguard truth, accuracy and fairness.

James. W. Markham, in his timeless classic – ‘Voices of the Red Giants’, chronicles the media historiography of states such as the former Soviet Union and China. Some leading Soviet periodicals during the Bolshevik revolution were – Pravda and Izvestia. The Chinese communications system also resembled the Soviet model with variations in its approach.

The Soviet media theory derives its legitimacy from Lenin’s view of the ‘Marx and Engles’ dictum (where censorship and restrictions were deemed legitimate) to control mass media that was accountable to the state. While scholars from Latin America such as Paulo Freire and Fernando Reyes Matta opposed political, bureaucratic and commercial control of media enterprises. They believed in the demassification of mass media by promoting the media’s role in the ‘Public sphere’.

India’s Case – The Legal lens

India’s case of media operations and governance has also evolved with time. Many events and conflicts provided a path for media enterprises to grow and various laws are in place. In the Indian constitution, freedom of speech and expression find their space in Article 19(1)(a).

The freedom of the press rests on the same right however these rights are granted no special privileges, unlike the First Amendment in the constitution of the United States. The freedom of the press rests on the fundamental right to print, publish and criticize but these rights are not absolute as public interest and privacy (Law of Torts) have to be guarded.

These rights can be questioned and reasonable restrictions (sub-clause, Article 19 (2)) can be imposed on matters such as – Sovereignty, security and integrity of the state, public order, decency, defamation, contempt of court, incitement to offence and violence etc. In India, the courts have always stepped in where journalists and news organizations have had their petitions heard.

The most recent conflicts have opened a can of worms shaking the fabric of India’s democratic ethos. The ‘Bulli Bai’ app case (targeting women of a particular community) and hate speech by certain groups have shown that these conflicts require serious debate and scrutiny.

The prevailing menace could be attributed to a polarized media environment. Various laws such as Defamation, sedition (section 124A) and IT Rules (The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021) haven’t reached a consensus among legal luminaries.

In India, the courts have been the arbiters and interpreters of legal disputes but the Indian constitution remains the supreme law of the land. The ‘Gandhian model of journalism’ still holds its place in the annals of Indian media history. At this juncture, the role of civil society and citizen journalism needs to reclaim its space in mainstream political discourse.

The Path Ahead

The business of news media has evolved with time. Policies have changed as the ‘Digital communications revolution’ has challenged the dominating ‘Advertising-based model’. The news system in Europe that shares its ideological roots with the United States, has had its tradition of tax-payer funded subsidies for newspapers.

Currently, advertisers and investors are in favor of digital media but the role and business of media enterprises is an evolving debate in India. India’s media landscape is mired with a unique set of challenges. India’s rising media appetite and its shift to news aggregation have confronted traditional journalism by redefining the rules of the game. 

In India, the role of information and news can at times pose as a double-edged sword (If there’s no gatekeeping). Governments have challenges regulating news messages as public and private spaces are contended by stakeholders. Media policies require deeper deliberation among policymakers.

The role of media academicians in policymaking and advisory bodies would be a great step in furthering this discussion. Western countries have such a process where governments consult with think tanks and academicians frequently. India’s federal structure and media universe are pacing steps with new challenges.

The pandemic has dealt a blow to small publications but media conglomerates have always had an edge. Besides, the structures and institutions where media governance is deemed apt require serious overhauling.

When the media is free to report accurately there is greater accountability, leading to better outcomes. Human Rights violations, media laws, transparency, ethics and the quality of news production also matter besides press freedom. Governments need to explore alternative and participatory models while framing media policies.

Denmark and Sweden rank top in media freedom indices. Self-regulation, trade unions and public service media have protected countries like Sweden. Many EU countries follow these principles, instilled and ratified by the convention of international law (Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.) India can collaborate with policymakers in Scandinavian countries and adopt measures where media enterprises and journalists thrive in a safe environment. It’s time, to bring mainstream journalism back to pressing issues that hold national significance.

Dr. Manavik Raj is a policy analyst, academic and journalist based out of Bengaluru, India. He teaches Indian Constitution and Media Laws. He also contributes to various publications and think tanks.

Views are personal

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