Press Freedom in India: Myth or Reality?

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In this essay…

Media is considered as the fourth estate, an addition to the traditional European concept of three estates of the realm – the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. From the prism of power, it is the 4th power in the state. Similarly, in a democratic vocabulary, media is considered as the fourth pillar of democracy whereas the other three pillars are – legislative, executive, and Judiciary. These pillars are deemed as important since all these keep their eyes on each other to realize constitutional government in countries like India.

However, it is natural that the powerful stakeholder i.e., the political entity would try to control other stakeholders. In a parliamentary system, the executive is individually and collectively responsible to the legislature. Judiciary keeps eyes on both legislative and executive and contain them from over-reaching power. Similarly, the fourth pillar i.e., media keeps eyes on the other three stakeholders through reporting. Thus, a try to curb freedom of the press by the state gives birth to such debates about whether the free press is a myth or a reality.

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Freedom to the press for democracy

As we know that concentration of power in one hand leads to tyranny. Thus, there is a need to keep eyes on the activities of the government in power. It makes a government responsible and limits the power of the state. Apart from this, it is also essential in democratic government since it connects people’s voices with the establishment. To be more accurate, the free press makes the government accountable between the two elections i.e., after the formation of the new government and the end of the concerned government in power.

Along with the limited and accountable government, the free press also helps in protecting the fundamental rights of the people. For example, whenever a state uses excessive force on their citizen and transgresses their rights, the media reports these events and exert pressure upon the government. It maintains the establishment in equilibrium position similar to blood in our human body – atmosphere exerts pressure on our body but we don’t realize in daily life because that pressure is countered by the blood pressure in our body.

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Speak of the devil: Decoding reality of free press

Reporters without borders, an international NGO releases ranking of the countries in the world in the context of freedom of the press. Its report, ‘World Press Freedom Index 2021’ put India on 142 out of 180 countries. India was ranked in the “bad category” along with Russia and Brazil. According to the same report, India’s ranking has been sliding over the years – India’s rank in 2016 was 133 which was better than the 2021 report.

Similarly, the UNESCO observatory of killed journalists reports that six journalists in India have been killed in connection with the job. It hampers the works of other journalists and obstructs their freedom because the purpose of killing journalists is basically to create a sense of fear among those journalists who are alive. Apart from this, the lack of critical media validates the expression of the myth of the free press since it is expected from the media to criticize the government policies.

Hitting the nail on the head: Curbing freedom by the political entity

It has been witnessed that whenever a media person becomes critical to the political entity, the concerned political party and their leaders boycott the selected media and refrain from allowing for bytes or interviews. It curbs press freedom and compels other journalists to ask convenient questions. Apart from this, female media-person gets trolled and misbehaved while reporting. Such incidences reduce women’s representation in media. Free media also includes free women journalists in media and thus threatens a free press.

Along with this, the political entity also tries to curb freedom of the press through legislation. For example, New IT rules 2021 are being criticized for curbing the digital rights of news outlets. The vague definition of “publisher of news and current affairs content” may allow arbitrariness by the government of the day in the exercise of significant discretionary powers and censor media at their pleasure. Similarly, shutting down of ‘Kashmir Press Club’ by the government of Kashmir has been criticized by the ‘Editors Guild of India’ as a ‘dangerous precedent’ for media freedom.

Triangular nexus curbs freedom: Corporate, Media, and Politics

Along with the lack of freedom in media from the political entity, freedom within the media is also missing. For example, if a media person wants to report independently, he/she is stopped by the concerned media company due to vested interests. If a media person doesn’t agree with this equation, he/she has to quit the concerned job. Developing triangular nexus between the corporate houses, media houses, and the political entity is responsible for this equation that restricts journalists from reporting independently.

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Levinson’s report 2012 on media has also confirmed in its findings of the political interference in Media. The political class needs money as well as goodwill among people for winning elections. Industrialists in return get their work done once the concerned party comes to the power. Business-class supports directly by financing through a donation in party fund. The political entity tries to get favorable coverage for herself with the help of this donation. The output of this process is what we call ‘paid news’. Such dynamics definitely hampers the freedom of the press.

Going back to the drawing board: Revisiting revenue model

Additionally, the revenue model of the media houses is also responsible for declining press freedom. A target rating point (TRP) is used for revenue calculation. It has started a race for sensational news and gave the birth of ‘yellow journalism, a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. For example, irresponsible reporting during the Mumbai attack was witnessed that helped terrorists in their execution.

Such events give a reason to the political class to curb freedom of the press. For example, in 2016, NDTV India has been ordered off-air for a day due to broadcasting sensitive details of the terror attacks on the air force base in Pathankot. It is a kind of two edge sword – it may deter other journalists from reporting freely and another edge is that it would keep checks for responsible reporting. Similarly, an allegation was made on Republic TV for rigging TRP in lieu of officials. In such a case, even if one is free from outside forces but would be limited by the inner forces and may push journalists for such dishonest moves.

Apart from this, due to the TRP model, media houses prefer cost-cutting in reporting and maximizing profit since the motive of private news networks is to maximize profit. Thus, the culture of ground reporting is decreasing and most of news channel prefers to subscribe to news agencies like ANI for purchasing video footage. It brings uniformity in the news instead of diversity in perspective. Subsequently, to show diversity in news with common content, media houses adopt yellow journalism. Thus, it limits the freedom of journalists at desks.

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Another side of the coin

Even the challenges are rising before free media and free journalists, are constitutionally protected. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, which also deals with the ‘Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech’. In Brij Bhushan Case 1950, the supreme court has confirmed that freedom of the press is inherent in freedom of speech and expression. Thus, neither pre-censorship nor post-censorship is allowed for curtailing the rights of media.

Apart from the constitution and protection by the supreme court, legislation has also protected media. For example, the 44th amendment act 1978 amended the constitution and protected media’s publication from any proceedings of the parliament and state legislatures from the civil or criminal case or in any court under Article 361A. The Supreme court of India has also established the autonomy of Doordarshan and AIR in Prasar Bharti Case 1990. That’s why media in India has successfully exposed scams like Bofors Scam, 2G spectrum, etc.

In conclusion

Thus, the supreme court of India has once rightly said that ‘freedom of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organizations’. It should not work like other commercial entities because it has responsibilities to maintain the main ethos of democracy. It is the responsibility of the government of the day to make media independent. Similarly, it is the duty of the media to show responsible reporting because J Pulitzer rightly said that ‘without ethics, media will be a dangerous entity.

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