Supreme Court judgment on Freedom of Press and its significance – Explained, pointwise

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The Supreme Court of India’s recent judgment ordered the restoration of the broadcasting license of MediaOne, a Kerala-based television channel. It is considered as a significant victory for the freedom of the press. The ruling has highlighted the mounting political and economic pressures faced by the Indian media and the need for further measures to ensure press freedom.  

About the recent SC judgment on Freedom of Press

judgment on Freedom of Press
Source: CNBC
Read more: Supreme Court says critical views on government policies not anti-establishment 

What are the different views of the Supreme Court on freedom of press in the past?  

Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras (1950): The SC held that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of the press. The Court observed that the press has a significant role to play in informing the public and promoting democratic values. Therefore, any attempt to curtail the freedom of the press would violate the right to freedom of expression.  

Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi (1950): The SC held that freedom of the press cannot be curtailed unless there is an imminent danger to public safety. The Court observed that any attempt to restrain the press must be based on clear and present danger, and not on vague or remote possibilities.  

Indian Express Newspapers v. Union of India (1985): The Court emphasized the importance of freedom of the press in these words: “The expression freedom of the press has not been used in Article 19 but it is comprehended within Article 19(1)(a). The expression means freedom from interference from an authority, which would have the effect of interference with the content and circulation of newspapers. There cannot be any interference with that freedom in the name of public interest.”  

Siddhartha Vashisht v State NCT of Delhi (2010): The court made the important distinction between trial by media and informative media. The case of Sahara vs SEBI is a review of the case law on the point, and it reinforces the line between legitimate comment and usurpation that affects the presumption of innocence.  

Manohar Lal Sharma v Union of India,( 2021): The SC recognised the link between the Right to Privacy and Freedom of Speech, noting that a breach of privacy can lead to self-censorship. They said that press freedom and privacy were allies and that the fear of surveillance is an ‘assault’ on the press, which is the fourth pillar of democracy.  

Vinod Dua v. Union of India & Others (2021): The SC held that criticism of the government and its policies is not seditious and that the right to free speech and expression extends to the press.  

What is the significance of the recent judgment on Freedom of Press?  

Upholding the freedom of the press:  The Supreme Court’s judgment has upheld the freedom of the press as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. This is significant as it reaffirms the importance of the press as a watchdog of democracy.  

Curtailing government overreach: The judgment has put a check on the government’s ability to use vague allegations and opaque claims of intelligence-based evidence to restrict the freedom of the press. This is significant as it ensures that the government cannot curtail press freedom at will, and must provide concrete evidence of wrongdoing before taking action.  

Setting a precedent for future cases: The judgment sets a precedent for future cases involving press freedom in India. It establishes that journalists and media organizations have the right to access vital evidence the prosecution plans to use, and that critical coverage of the government cannot be deemed unacceptable.  

Protecting the rights of journalists:  The judgment is significant in that it protects the rights of journalists who have been arrested or censored by the government under the pretext of national security concerns. It ensures that journalists are not unduly targeted or harassed by the state, and that their rights to free speech and expression are protected.  

Strengthening democracy: The judgment strengthens democracy in India by ensuring that the press can function as an independent and critical voice. A free and independent press is essential to a functioning democracy, as it holds those in power accountable and enables citizens to make informed decisions  

Read here: Open justice – Supreme Court strikes a blow for both media freedom and fair procedure

How is Freedom of the Press regulated in India?  

Constitutional guarantee: The Constitution of India guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression 19(1)(a), which includes the freedom of the press. This means that the government cannot outrightly ban or censor the media without sufficient cause. Article 19(2) provides several reasons to curtail free speech “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 offence”.

Laws and regulations: However, there are laws and regulations in place that impose restrictions on the media. For example, the Official Secrets Act, 1923, allows the government to classify certain information as secret and to punish those who disclose it. Similarly, the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867, requires publishers to register with the government and imposes penalties for non-compliance.  

Self-regulatory mechanisms: The media in India is also subject to self-regulatory mechanisms such as the Press Council of India. This body oversees the conduct of the press and handles complaints against it. It consists of journalists and representatives from the media industry and is meant to act as a watchdog for the press.  

What are the challenges in ensuring Freedom of Press?  

Political pressure and censorship: The Indian government has been known to put pressure on the media to report in a certain way, and has been accused of censoring content critical of the government.  

Violence against journalists: India has a high rate of violence against journalists, with many cases of physical assault, harassment, and even murder reported each year. For example, in 2017, a journalist was shot and killed outside her home in Bangalore, reportedly for her critical reporting on right-wing politics.  

Legal challenges: There are several laws in India that can be used to restrict press freedom, including the Official Secrets Act and defamation laws. Journalists who report on sensitive issues can face arrest, detention, or other legal action. For example, in 2020, a journalist was arrested and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for his reporting on the Hathras rape case.  

Financial pressures: The media industry in India is subject to financial pressures that can impact its ability to report freely. For example, media outlets may rely on advertising revenue from the government or corporate entities, which can create conflicts of interest and limit their reporting on certain issues.  

Misinformation and propaganda: The rise of social media and digital platforms has led to an increase in misinformation and propaganda, which can make it difficult for audiences to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. This can have a chilling effect on journalists, who may be hesitant to report on sensitive issues for fear of being accused of spreading “fake news.”  

What should be done further to ensure Freedom of Press?  

Strengthening Legal Protections: The government should review and amend existing laws to ensure that they do not unduly restrict press freedom. There is also a need to enact stronger legal protections for journalists and media outlets, including laws that specifically criminalize violence against journalists.  

Promoting Media Pluralism: Steps should be taken to promote media pluralism, including increasing the diversity of ownership, funding models, and content. The government should also support the growth of community and alternative media.  

Encouraging Self-Regulation: Media outlets should be encouraged to adopt and adhere to voluntary codes of conduct and ethics. Self-regulation can be effective in promoting responsible journalism and holding media organizations accountable.  

Fostering a Culture of Openness: The government should foster a culture of openness and transparency, including by providing greater access to information and data. This can help to promote public trust in the media and the government.  

Protecting Whistleblowers: The government should enact stronger protections for whistleblowers who reveal information in the public interest. This can help to ensure that journalists have access to important information and can report on issues of public concern without fear of reprisal.  

Supporting Media Literacy: There is a need to promote media literacy among the general public, including by providing education and resources that can help people to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information. This can help to promote a more informed and engaged citizenry.  

Sources:  The Hindu, Indian Express (Article 1 and Article 2), Times of India (Article 1 and Article 2), Hindustan Times, The Quint and The Print 

Syllabus: GS 2: Indian Constitution and Polity – Indian Constitution—historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.

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