Freedom of expression is the concept of being able to transfer ideas or thoughts verbally or otherwise freely without censorship. It was awarded global recognition as a universal human right and ingrained in the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In spite of its status, it is never absolute in any country.
The power that the media wields in a free democratic society is apparent from the status it has earned as the Fourth Estate of the society. Although it is the youngest of the four estates, it is the most powerful of all of them and has been constantly growing in power on account of its increasing command over information, its expanding and deepening reach, and it’s ever strengthening capacity to influence and shape the views and opinions of the people and the policy-makers. The advent of the electronic media and particularly the satellite television and the internet, the growing literacy, the global expansion of the print media propelled by the computer technology, the fast life and increasing dependence of the common man, intelligentsia and leaders of public opinion on the media for knowledge, views and opinions, have among other things, contributed to the intensity of the grip of the media on society.
Free media is one of the basic requirements of a free democratic society. By disseminating all requisite information, it creates an informed society. The law reflects the political system of a country. Different press laws have, therefore, developed along the lines of political philosophies of different countries. The authoritarian press laws, in the early stages of the press following the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, giving control to the rulers over the press, later gave way to the libertarian laws on the advent of the age of enlightenment.
The expansion of the press and the growth in its power in the beginning of this century spawned yet another theory of the press laws – that of social responsibility. Freedom of expression, therefore, is among the foremost of human rights. Such unlimited and unaccountable powers are liable to be misused. Hence there is need for its regulation whether by an imposed law or by voluntarily put enforceable guidelines.
India experienced its first statutory regulation of the press in colonial rule. Adam’s Press Ordinance was the first ordinance brought in by the then Governor General, John Adam. The regulations promulgated by Adam were directed against newspapers published in the Indian languages and edited by the Indians. It is now known that the Adam regulations were the forerunner of the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 and other statutory measures to control the Indian press whose power posed a major factor in the country’s struggle for freedom from colonial yoke. After India gained independence in 1947, the framers of the constitution have placed “very narrow and stringent limits to permissible legislative abridgement of the right to free speech and expression” even though such freedom had potential risk of abuse. As pointed out by the Indian Supreme Court the ‘framers of the constitution may well have reflected, with Madison who was the leading spirit in the preparation of the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution’ that “it is better to leave a few of the noxious branches to their luxuriant growth than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits”. Thus, amongst the Fundamental Rights of the citizen defined therein, Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution provides for all citizens to have the right, inter alia, to freedom of speech and expression. The Constitution which guarantees this freedom as a fundamental right by Article 19 (1) (a), also permits the state under Article 19 (2), to impose reasonable restrictions on its exercise by making a law in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of the country, 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 offence.
In a number of cases the Supreme Court has held over and over again that any restriction, whether direct or indirect, imposed by Parliament upon the right of freedom of speech and expression other than those mentioned in clause (2) of Article 19 would be outside the scope of this Article. Pre-censorship, prohibition on import of printed and published material, placing a ban on printing and publishing material of a specified nature, demanding security from the press or placing any restriction which would amount to an indirect curb on free circulation of a newspaper or a class of newspapers have all been held to be bad in law.
Free media is as essential to a country as water is to fish. A nation can’t prosper and progress without a vibrant, pro-people and independent media. However, freedom also demands responsibility. A responsible reporting doesn’t necessarily mean restricted reporting. It only excludes sensationalism, undue hype and speculation.
Unfortunately, the race for first in news breaking has urged many media outlets, especially in India, to report irresponsibly. Objectivity demands an equal coverage of both the parties. But the TV news channels in India are under the wrong impression that only the anti-government reporting can win them audiences. It is the concern of winning audiences that is considered supreme instead of giving the audiences larger picture of the events. It is sad to see that so-called analysts and pseudo-intellectuals are commanding the air waves these days that deem it their divine duty to comment on everything. The subjective opinions have also marred the news that should base on hard facts. The tilted reporting skewed in favour of some persons or parties brings a bad name to the respectable field of journalism.
This could only be solved through self media regulation and following code of conduct and journalism ethics. Otherwise, the standard of journalism will fall further and people would stop believing the so-called ‘Free News’.