Press – In the line of fire

Rajan Gandhi

Brutal gunning down of ‘Rising Kashmir’ Editor in Chief, Shujaat Bhukhari has once again created ripples among the press fraternity across the nation. He is not the first one who sacrificed his life on the altar of his profession and obviously he will not be the last one. Punjab witnessed the sacrifices of many journalists during militancy but these murders cannot only be attributed to terrorism as political motives, scam and corruption exposures as well as mafia are after media one and all. India is ranked dismally as low as 136th out of a total of 180 countries on a global ‘freedom of the press index’ and the best ranking was 80th was in the year 2002 under NDA regime. The freedom of the press in India is threatened by both state and non-state actors. The State uses archaic colonial-era laws to suppress dissent and free expression while gangsters, mining lords, and liquor and building contractors use threats, intimidation, and violence to suppress stories that expose their criminal and illegal acts and that they usually have the police and the political class on their side.
The first great Indian liberal, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the first one to register his protest way back in 1824 to the Government of Bengal protesting restrictions on press freedom. The instant provocations for the First Amendment of our constitution post independence was in the year 1951 itself, within a year of adoption of constitution, when a ban on Romesh Thapar’s Left-leaning magazine “Crossroads” by the Madras government which was set aside by courts on the grounds that it was ultra vires of the constitutional provisions related to the right to freedom of expression; and Nehru’s displeasure with the RSS mouthpiece, “Organiser”. Nehru’s pretext of intolerance was that part of the Indian press is dirty and indulges in ‘vulgarity, indecency, and falsehood’ ,so to teach it manners, Nehru proposed an amendment to India’s constitution that would impose severe restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Nehru’s illiberality evoked a considerable response in Parliament, the fiercest came from Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. However, on October 23rd 1951, he got new act passed called “The Press Objectionable Matters Act”. It was similar to the legislation passed during the British regime in 1908, 1910, 1930 and 1931. The passage of this act brought protest from editors and journalists throughout India. Delegations and protests were made to Nehru and other members of the Government. Finally, in order to pacify the journalists, Nehru, in October 1952, announced the formation of the Press Commission composed of distinguished personalities to look into the whole issue of the press in India and The Press Objectionable Matters Act was allowed to lapse in 1956.
Similarly, during Indira Gandhi’s regime, a propaganda barrage was mounted against the press, which appeared to be not easily amenable to the wishes of the Government .In 1971, the government led by Mrs. Gandhi made its first attempt to control the press when her own ministry of Information and Broadcasting prepared a draft scheme to “diffuse” the so called monopoly press, i.e., ownership of newspapers with a circulation of more than 15,000. When war was declared with Pakistan in 1971, on December 4th the Defence and Internal Security of India Act was signed into law. It prohibited the printing or publication of any newspaper, book or other document detrimental to the defence and security of India. Mrs. Gandhi’s antipathy to the press continued and got further intensified after the declaration of internal emergency on June 26, 1975. The emergency lasted for 19 months and this period is considered to be the darkest period in the post independence history of the freedom of the press. The same day, under her direction, the Government issued the “Central Censorship Order” and “Guidelines for the Press in the present Emergency”. It was for the first time in post-independence India, stringent pre-censorship, which was something unknown and alien to the people of free India, was imposed on the press. The Central Censorship Order addressed to all printers, publishers and editors, prohibited the publication of news, comments, rumours or other reports relating to actions taken by the Government in any newspaper, periodical or other documents without their first being submitted for scrutiny to an authorized officer of the Government. On February 11th  1976, with the approval of the legislature, Mrs. Gandhi’s Government presented journalists with the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matters Act of 1976. It empowered competent authority to serve warning, to confiscate objectionable materials and state police officers were authorized to seize unauthorized newspapers.
In a subsequent report presented before Parliament, it was revealed that during the emergency Mrs. Gandhi ruthlessly distorted and manipulated the country press, radio and television media. Two Commissions were set up by the Government after emergency to enquire into excesses related to the press. According to the Das Commission Report, 253 journalists were arrested during the emergency, 51 journalists and cameramen were deprived of accreditation, 7 foreign correspondents were expelled from the country and 29 foreign correspondents were banned from entering India. The press as a whole did not stand up against the emergency. It crawled during this period whereas it was expected to bend only. The Shah Commission’s findings charged Mrs. Gandhi’s Government resorting to cutting off the electricity of newspaper offices on June 26th , the day after the emergency was proclaimed in order to buy time to set up the apparatus of the censorship. Three days later when the censorship machinery was set up, the power supply was resumed. The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting designated newspapers as either hostile, friendly or neutral and issued instructions to withhold or reduce  advertisements from hostile and neutral newspapers and to increase advertisements in friendly newspapers. With the exception of the few journalists and newspapers, most of the Indian press yielded to the Government’s wishes. The Indian press during the Emergency, used to be filled with the insipid handouts of the Ministry of Information. Every spark of intellectual independence had been snuffed out and what was reported appeared to be nothing more than Government propaganda.
The emergency was lifted in March 1977 and in the subsequent elections Mrs. Gandhi lost power and the Janta Party under the Prime Minister ship of Morarji Desai came into power. This marked the swing from control of the press back to freedom of the press and removal of all restrictions upon it. While Mrs. Gandhi was authoritarian, Morarji Desai was liberal in personality and values. He appointed L.K. Advani as his Minister for Information and Broadcasting. On April 18th , within one month of taking the reins of the Government, Desai obtained the approval of both Houses of Parliament and the signature of the President for repeal of the Prevention of Publication of the objectionable Matter Act of 1976, and approving the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act of 1977. Freedom of the press thus returned to India and the status of the press was restored to that of the pre-emergency era. Mrs. Gandhi returned to power in 1980 and on January 15, the day after taking office, Mrs. Gandhi cautioned the press to be more objective and to exercise self restraint.
Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister after the assassination of his mother in 1984. He came to power on the crest of a wave of sympathy so he had a smooth relationship with the public and the press for the first few years. The press started becoming critical of his government afterwards and so he got the Defamation Bill, 1988, passed in Lok Sabha, again an attempt to suppress the press. This was an indication of a swing from freedom of the press in the first three years to restriction of this freedom in the last two years of his rule. The mounting pressure of the public and the press forced the government to withdraw the Bill without referring it to the Rajya Sabha. In 2009, Section 66A was added to the Information Technology Act again by the Congress-led Government and was subsequently used against Cartoonists among others. The illiberal section was however invalidated by the apex court.
It is evident from the history that freedom of the press since its inception in the 1780s various governments have took measures both during the pre and post-independence period to curtail the freedom of the press. There were more Governor Generals and Viceroys who passed laws imposing restrictions on the press than those who relaxed such restrictions. Shujaat Bhukhari’s gunning down was the last straw in the already strained relationship between two partners – PDP and BJP ; BJP has made it an important issue for pulling out of the alliance . One must understand media is the fourth and vital pillar of Democracy without which credible democracy cannot sustain itself.
“They never fail who die for a great cause.”