Freedom of press in a democracy

Omkar Dattatray
It had not been said without valid and sound basis that freedom and rights in a democracy are given by one hand and taken by the other. The freedom of press is no exception to this dictum. Particularly when those who are at helm of affairs assume unnecessary powers and privileges. Any assault on the freedom of press reminds one of the draconian period of emergency of 1975 when late Smt. Indira Gandhi had curbed freedom of press and publication. Undue and unnecessary curbs and restrictions on the freedom of press are very unfortunate and then their remains no difference between a democracy and autocratic rule. Those who usurp the freedom of expression and press should understand that the suppressors cannot remain for long in a democracy. They must learn the lessons from the dark period of emergency. In a democracy executive and its head (PM, CM) is not immune to the criticism of press. Democracy and press are interrelated and interdependent. They can hardly be separated without much loss to either. The role responsibility and the freedom of press in a democratic polity can neither be denied nor exaggerated. It is one of the fundamental pillars of a democracy, the legislature, executive and judiciary being the other three. The strength of democratic institutions rests among other things on the freedom of press. So, the freedom and dignity of the institution of press should be maintained at all costs. The responsibility for upholding the freedom of press lies to a great extent on the government. The journalistic fraternity should also work towards this end with utmost caution, patience and restraint. While performing their function press and journalists should work in an unbiased and detached manner for the betterment of democracy and the society at large. Press has rightly been called as the fourth estate and it should play a constructive and a positive role and not  a negative one which some newspapers are unfortunately playing. A vibrant democracy is meaningless without the freedom of press. It will turn into functional anarchy without the freedom of expression and press. Therefore, all the organs of the state and the citizens should recognize and appreciate the value of freedom of press and should work towards this goal. But executive, legislature, judiciary, press and the public should respect constitutional provisions of the law. No one is above the law of land.
Freedom of press is derived from the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under article 19 (1) of the Indian constitution. Thus there is no freedom of press as such in the constitution. However, courts and legal experts as well as constitutional authority have opined and held that the right to freedom of speech and expression includes the freedom of press and publication.  Hence the freedom of expression and implicitly the freedom of press has got constitutional and legal guarantee. Therefore none has any right to curtail and snatch the freedom of speech and expression and hence the freedom of press saves only in case of an emergency. Thus in a very rare and extra ordinary situation and that also for public good can some reasonable restrictions be imposed on the freedom of press and not otherwise. Press as such is free to criticize the policies and working of the Government. It is within its right to pin point the weaknesses of the powers that be. Press has to project and raise the problems of various sections of the society. Press is the watchdog of the interests of the people in a democracy. It should give vent to genuine problems, grievances, hardships and aspirations of the people without any favor or bias. Constructive opposition rather criticism of policies and programmes are the functions of the Government is the first prerogative and privilege of the press. But while functioning as the vanguard of the public interests and democracy, it should report objectively without any prejudice, favor, pressure or fear. It should not be a mouth piece of the Government or the party in power as it affects the credibility of the press. Journalists and writers should take it into consideration that freedom of speech and thus the right to expression is not final and total but is relative. Article 19 itself lays down the grounds and purposes on which legislature can impose reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and so is the freedom of expression subject to certain reasonable restrictions.
Therefore the freedom of press is not sacrosanct. Newspapers and journalists have some responsibilities and duties and obligations as well. A newspaper should not blindly criticize each and every action of the government and the legislature. It should appreciate the good measures taken by a Government. Press should of course remind the law making bodies about the people’s problems. Press is free to highlight the achievements of the Government without any bias and favor. Journalists should perform their pious function in selfless manner. Service motive should be uppermost in the minds of journalists. Thus the service to society should be their motto. Yes, journalists have to eke out their living and they are not in the field for nothing. But they should maintain professional ethics while reporting facts, giving comments and analysis. Journalism is in fact is a dharma – a righteous duty and the people associated with it should uphold the virtue of true journalism. Press should not indulge in drab and mudslinging. It should desist from accusations. Press should work on the principle of Astoma Satgamayo from untruth to truth. But at the same time press and journalists should see to it that such facts should not lead to communal and caste trouble in our plural, composite and secular democracy. Hence while working on a principle of revealing only truth it should balance the views and news with the tenet of Satyam Bruyat, Prayam Bruyat, Na Bruyat, Satyam Apreyam. While performing the duty the press should not travel beyond its jurisdiction or limits. It should not march beyond its boundaries. Nor should the other organs of democratic polity go beyond their delineated limits. So executive, legislature, judiciary and the press should not travel beyond their scope and jurisdiction. They should also not trespass others field of activity. Rather all these organs are required to act in consonance for the strength of the democracy.
The balance between the freedom of press and the supremacy of legislature should be maintained. Executive and legislature are separate entities and they should not be clubbed together or combined. There is divorce between executive and legislature.
However, the supremacy of legislature and freedom of press doctrine should be balanced and maintained at all costs. In this context, the former PM A.B. Vajpayee has exhorted all organs of democratic polity to respect Laximan Rekha. Let me conclude this write up with age-old dictum that “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.”