In the absence of Freedom of Press law
Oken Jeet Sandham
Democracy will turn autocratic when the press fails to function. In other words, democracy cannot survive without the press. At the same time, the press also cannot function without freedom because they will be simply toothless tigers. Some governments, as early as in 18th century, began realizing the importance of press freedom for the advancement of their countries.
The Swedish Parliament passed the Freedom of the Press legislation on December 2, 1966. This is now recognized as the world’s first law supporting the freedom of the press and freedom of information.
Twenty-five years after the Freedom of the Press Act came into force in Sweden, the framers of the US Constitution enshrined the same principle in their First Amendment (1791) that is part of the Bill of Rights.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assembly, and to petition the Government for a redressal of grievances.”
In our country, we have Article 19 of the Constitution that says all citizens shall have the right:
to freedom of speech and expression; to assemble peaceably and without arms; to form associations or unions; to move freely throughout the territory of India; to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business.
The Freedom of Expression given here is, however, subject to restriction under sub-Clause, whereby the freedom can be restricted for reasons of Sovereignty and Integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, preserving decency, preserving morality in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or (an) incitement to an offence.
Laws such as the Official Secret Act and Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (PoTA) have been used to limit press freedom. PoTA was repealed in 2006, but the Official Secret Act 1923 continues.
The Freedom of the Press is, however, not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution of India.
No wonder, India ranks poorly at 142nd Rank out of 180 listed countries in the Press Freedom Index 2021 released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
People talk so much about investigative journalism because they wanted to read stories of corruption and other unwanted activities. But can any journalist do their job in absence of the Freedom of the Press Law that protects them?
There were celebrations around the world when two journalists – Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia – were awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it was honoring the pair for their efforts to safeguard press freedom.
But when I went through their works, I couldn’t hold my heart. Ressa, who founded the news website Rappler, had been arrested several times. She was convicted of cyber-libel and sentenced to six years in jail. In total, she faced seven separate legal cases brought by the Philippine State. The Manila Court gave her permission to travel to Oslo to receive the award.
Muratov is Editor-in-Chief of Novaya Gazeta. Since 2000, six journalists, who worked for the Novaya Gazeta, have been killed in connection with their work, including top investigative reporter, Anna Politkovskaya.
It may be mentioned that the Novaya Gazeta was co-founded by former Soviet leader and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev called Muratov a “courageous” journalist.
Very sad that since January 1, 2022, 48 journalists and 4 media workers were killed in different parts of the world, and currently 517 journalists and 20 media workers are in prisons, according to the RSF.
The RSF has also announced that 15 journalists and media outlets from around the world have been shortlisted for the 30th Annual Press Freedom Prize. The award ceremony will be held in Paris on December 12. The awards are given in three categories – journalistic courage, impact, and independence. Muratov will attend the award ceremony.
These 15 journalists, who have been shortlisted for the award, have been facing untold miseries while discharging their duties. Most of them are investigative journalists. They are from Nicaragua, Yemen, China, Iran, Myanmar, Ukraine, India, Mali, Brazil, Greece, Afghanistan, Morocco, the Philippines, Liberia and Kyrgyzstan.
Sometimes, it is good to create awareness for press freedom. How much do they need and how much can they do when the Freedom of the Press Law is not there? But one can ask: “In absence of the Freedom of the Press Law, how have the journalists been working in Nagaland where political conflicts have been going on for decades?”
November 16 is normally observed as National Press Day in the country because the Press Council of India (PCI) on this day in 1966 was established. The fact is the Council is a statutory body and its role is a watchdog. The observance of National Press Day is to widely deliberate about the role of the free press. But we observe National Press Day instead of National Press Freedom Day.
It is, however, lovely to see the observance of World Press Freedom Day every May 3 around the world. World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 following a Recommendation adopted at the 26th Session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991.
The press celebrates on this day the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
Most importantly, neither the Code of Ethics nor even the Freedom of the Press would protect the sanctity of the Press when the media practitioners themselves start compromising their professionalism. This is where the role of the press comes into question and their integrity comes under public scrutiny.