This Article is written by Dev Agarwal, a 2nd Year student of Heritage Law College, Calcutta University.
The British often proudly claim that they introduced the newspapers and “independent journalism” in India. James Augustus Hickey, an Irishman is often regarded as the father of the Indian press. Hickey’s Bengal Gazette was the first known newspaper in India which was later in the year 1807 was banned by the British since Hickey often used to publish about various corrupt officials and the scandals done by the British Raj. Before the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, the press was actively involved in reporting various demonstrations and public movements done by the masses against the British. This led to the first act of Press-censorship done by Lord Lytton. The Gagging Act was enacted which aimed to regulated the Press of Indian Subcontinent, it mainly focused on the English newspapers and any press which wanted its newspaper to be published had to obtain a license from the British Authorities and such license could be obtained only when the media organization ensured the British that nothing will be written against them. However it did not make any obligations for those media organizations which published newspapers in vernacular languages, after a decade, Amrita Bazar Patrika published about the 1868 Indigo Revolt and this irked the British Raj.
The first-ever legislation regarding the press was ‘The Press Act’ enacted in 1910 which impacted all the newspapers in circulation. Almost all the publications which published articles and news which were anti-Raj were prosecuted and a heavy fine was imposed on them. Many journalists were also charged with laws of sedition for writing anti- British articles. Another draconian press censorship law that was enacted by the British was the Press Emergency Act 1931 which the British used during the Satyagraha movement.
FREEDOM OF PRESS UNDER THE CONSTITUTION
Our Constitution fathers knew the importance of a Free Press in a liberal democracy like India, therefore the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression was inserted as a Fundamental Right, guaranteed to every citizen of India. This Freedom of Speech and Expression also means that the press or the media will be allowed to report any incidence without the censorship imposed by the government. Since Freedom of Speech and Expression is not an absolute right and subjected to various limitations just like other Fundamental Rights, this also means that even the media and its news coverage is subjected to certain limitations.
Quite interestingly, the 1st Amendment to the Constitution which happened in the year 1951 which sanctioned certain limitations on every Fundamental Right which is also known as reasonable restrictions. Now, parallel to this Constitutional Amendment, the then Nehru Government also enacted a law which was The Press (Objectionable Matter) Act, 1951 was also brought in. This Act was the first legislation of independent India pertaining to media and press.
THE PRESS (OBJECTIONABLE MATTER) ACT 1951
The object of this Act was to put a check on printing and publication of incitement to crime and other objectionable matter. Section 3 of the Act defines the term ‘Objectionable Matter’, “objectionable matter” means any words, signs, or visible representations which are likely to–
- incite or encourage any person to resort to violence or sabotage for the purpose of overthrowing or undermining the Government established by law in India or in any State thereof or its authority in any area; or
- incite or encourage any person to commit murder, sabotage, or any offence involving violence; or
- incite or encourage any person to interfere with the supply and distribution of food or other essential commodities or with essential services; or
- seduce any member of any of the armed forces of the Union or of the police forces from the allegiance of his duty, or prejudice the recruiting of persons to serve in any such force or prejudice the discipline of any such force; or
- promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different sections of the people of India;
- are grossly indecent, or are scurrilous or obscene or intended for blackmail.
The Act also provides for punishment of the individual journalist, the media organization, or the newspaper editor-in-chief, if it is found that they are violating any provision of this Act. Thus, restricting the Freedom of Speech and Expression of the media organizations.
MEDIA TRIAL- A THREAT TO JUDICIARY
The recent episode of media trial in the Sushant Singh Rajput Case is undoubted, one of the classic examples of media and journalists masquerading as judges and delivering the verdict from their newsrooms. This is not the first time that media trial has taken place, there are other examples of media trials which include the Saravjeet Singh-Jasleen Kaur case, 2015, the Jessica Lal case, 2010, the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, 2006 and the Bijal Joshi rape case, 2005.
The impact which it leaves on the minds of the public can even decide the judgment of a case and a similar opinion was held in M.P.Lohia vs State Of West Bengal, The Supreme Court in M.P. Lohia v. State of West Bengal took the view that sensational articles appearing in the media would certainly interfere with the administration of justice and disapproved such practice. Liberty and responsibility come hand in hand and therefore, if media has the liberty of speech and expression and is free to report any matter, then the same media shall also be responsible for every news, article, or coverage which it puts forward in front of the masses. Another case that relates to media trial and fake news was the Harijai Singh, in this case, some of the media houses reported fake news that the then Petroleum Minister allotted all the petrol pumps and gas agencies to relatives and friends of the then Prime Minister, P. Narasimha Rao. It even alleged that such allotments were also done to two sons of a senior Supreme Court judge and two sons of the then Chief Justice of India, The Ministry of Petroleum filed an affidavit and mentioned that no such allotment was done toward any son of any judge of the Supreme Court. This attracted the wrath of the Supreme Court and a Contempt of Court proceedings started against those media outlets which were reporting this news. The media outlets had to unconditionally apologize to the Court and the charges against them were dropped. This is another example of how fake news and media trials are promoted.
Media is an agency of public opinion and therefore it is very obvious that it can influence the masses. If news anchors and journalists start thinking of themselves as judges and the newsroom becomes a courtroom, then this is the biggest threat to our judiciary because if the media houses are able to create a popular perception then it is obvious that it can impact the minds of the masses and if by any chance, the Court gives a verdict which goes against the popular perception created by media then people will start hurling accusations at judges and the judiciary and this may even impact the faith which people have in the judiciary.
- The Hans India, Pre Independence regulation of Indian Newspapers, The Hans India https://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Education-and-Careers/2015-03-13/Pre-independence-regulation-of-Indian-newspapers/137007
- Franz-Stefan Gady, Should India Thank British Rule For a Free Press?, The Diplomat https://thediplomat.com/2015/07/should-india-thank-british-rule-for-a-free-press/
- The Press (Objectionable Matter) Act, 1951
- Harijai Singh And Anr v. Unknown [AIR 1997 SC 73, 1996 (2)]