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Media and the Constitution

2018-02-09



The “freedom of speech and expression” is incorporated in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution. This right means the right to acquire information and disseminate information. It also includes the right to communicate through any available media whether print or electronic or audio-visual, such as advertisements, movie, article, speech, etc. Thus, this freedom includes the freedom to communicate or circulate one’s opinion, without interference from any regulatory authority, to the country, as well as, abroad, as is possible to reach.

However, this right is restricted by Article 19(2) of the Constitution in order to prevent its misuse. The restrictions mentioned are in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offense.

The Constitution through Article 19 has given many freedoms to the citizens including as speech and expression. Through the years, this fundamental right has not only been strengthened but also expanded to different fields and professions. One such field is that of media. The Supreme Court or the Legislature has not yet declared freedom of the press as a separate right and is only implied from Article 19(1)(a).

The freedom of the press has been regarded as a “species of which freedom of expression is a genius” in the case of Sakal Papers v. Union of India. Further, In Printers (Mysore) Ltd. v. Assistant Commercial Tax Officer, the SC has reiterated that though freedom of the press is not expressly guaranteed as a Fundamental Right, it is implied in the freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of the press has always been considered a treasured right in all democratic countries and the press is described as the fourth estate. The freedom the press enjoys in a state is often used as a measurement of democratic credentials of a state.

Importance of freedom of press

The freedom of the press is important from the perspective of a well-functioning democracy as it helps in informing the citizens of the country as well as discussing and disseminating the ideas, views, and opinions that are relevant and current. The freedom should be not only in the matter of content but also the medium used through which people can gain access to new information and ideas.

The SC has emphasized that the freedom of the press is not so much for the benefit of the press as it is for the community because the community has a right to be supplied with information and the government owes a duty to educate the people within the limits of its resources.

That is why since the early times, the Supreme Court has been seen as an enhancer of this freedom as it has passed several decisions that broadened the scope and gave the press more power such as holding excessive licence fee imposed on starting a newspaper was constitutionally invalid and in the case of Bennett Coleman & Co. v Union of India, it stated how the freedom of speech is the “ark of the covenant of democracy”.  Thus, it was starting to see how imposing unreasonable wages or page limits would restrict free speech for media.

Misuse of the freedom by press

The media is vital in the role it plays in uncovering the truth and stirring public opinion, especially in the face of wrongdoing and corruption. Numerous examples exist where the media has played a central role in revealing corrupt practices and shaping the demand for accountability and good governance. However, new challenges have arisen with regards to accountability and responsibility of the media. Recent events related to the news media, such as the proliferation and subsequent curbing of social media, the paid news phenomenon, fake sting operations, trial by media, breach of privacy, etc. pose a set of anxieties.

The exponential growth and reach of media have shown unhealthy trends of competition, leading to sensationalized reporting giving the well-established rule of sub-judice a go-by. Some form of restriction on such media trials has been suggested so as to preserve the administration of justice as also to protect the privacy of the individual. 

Thus, there needs to be a balance and a self-imposed consciousness has to be practiced by media in order to ensure that such malpractices are curbed. It is also important for readers to remember that not all news might be true and to keep an eye on the truth. Similarly, stringent methods of regulation should be put in place to ensure that the freedom of speech and the freedom of the media goes hand in hand.