Freedom of Speech and Expression With Special Emphasis on Freedom of Press


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This article is written by Tasneem Hussain Legal content writer at Lawyers Troop


Freedom of Speech and Expression

Abstract

Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the basic principles upon which our constitution is framed. This Right not only opens rooms for expressing opinions but also for articulating dissent and any other form of concerns. Press is both a shield and a weapon available to people to voice their concerns. This paper aims at bringing out the importance of the Right of Freedom of Speech and Expression in a democratic society. It also focuses on the role of Press in making this Right accessible to the masses. We shall also draw attention towards the violations of this Right and why has it become an issue of concern.

Introduction and Background

Visualize yourself as a citizen of a country where there is no freedom of speech and expression. The orders of the Government are ultimate. You can neither express dissent nor can you seek relief against any arbitrariness.  You can neither challenge the decisions nor can you hunt for information regarding the same. Every word uttered by you might become a reason to land you behind the bars. Use of social media would remain nothing but a dream. Channels of entertainment might not even exist. Would you fancy living in such a society? 

While we ponder upon this, we realize the significance of the liberty we have. Every day, we exercise these rights without even realising it. But the moment we hear a case of alleged sedition or the arrests of people posting on social media, we apprehend the threat to our Rights. 

India had been under colonial rule for centuries. The British tried everything to suppress the voices of freedom strugglers. Banning seditious activities, censoring the press through laws like the Indian Press Act, 1910, restricting gatherings and associations were the major weapons of the British to establish control.

Post-Independence, this Right was provided in the Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a). However, it is not absolute and is subject to certain restrictions which are provided under Article 19(2) and penalised by laws like that of Sedition.1 These restrictions have often been misused by the authorities to quash dissent. The abuse of such rights hinders the spirit of liberty in a democratic framework.

India’s rank in World Freedom of Press Index has also been decreasing since 2016. India slipped from 133rd position in 20162 to 142nd in 2020.3 The decline in the rank of India depicts serious issues of concerns regarding the functioning of the Press in India.

Issues Faced by the Press in India:

Does Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a) include Freedom of Press?

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India states that All citizens shall have the Right to freedom of speech and expression. The scope of this right has been frequently deliberated upon by the Honourable Supreme Court of India. Discussing the ambit of this article, the Supreme Court, in the case of Bennet Coleman & Co. v. Union of India4, observed that the said article is broad enough to encompass freedom of press in it. Although it is not specifically mentioned, freedom of press and circulation, in both qualitative and quantitative measures comes under the ambit of freedom of speech and expression. 

What is the Status of Press in India?

We always talk about the power of the Press, how the media is a channel through which people can not only form their opinions but can also express them. But is it as powerful as said? Are our opinions guided by a media which is free and not coerced? 

In India, the list of journalists threatened, injured or even murdered is endless. What is more disturbing is that the people behind these attacks roam free. As per the World Free Press Index Report, 2020, there were six reported murders of journalists in India-one of the major reasons for India’s falling rank. It is harder to estimate the unreported attacks.  These threats imposed on free press hinder the spirit of journalism. It is either that the truth gets buried or the person who is trying to disclose it. 

What are the Challenges to Free Press in India?

There are various challenges that instil a sense of fear in the journalists. The fear of the consequences before and after the speech is what poses a threat in itself. 

One of the major challenges is the history of freedom of press in India. During the British era, the colonizers implemented all laws that were necessary to suppress freedom. The Vernacular Press Act, 1878, The Indian Press Act, 1910, The Indian Press Act, 1931 etc. are a few examples. These laws were aimed at censoring and controlling the press in a manner such that nothing against the Government can be propagated. Although these laws are now repealed, they still lay a base for various restrictions that are imposed on the freedom of speech today.

Another reason is the political pressure faced by the press. Speaking against any political figures, having contrary opinions and criticising them is met with the wrath of those in support of these political figures. Apart from this, violence by Police and other corrupt local authorities impose a challenge. 

It is not just the above factors but also the restrictions imposed by the Constitution and other laws that challenge the press. Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India is a restriction on freedom on the grounds of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. But these restrictions, however, are supposed to be applied in a reasonable manner. The instances of misuse of these restrictions are numerous.

The Supreme Court, in the case of Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras5, laid significance on the matter as to what constitutes a reasonable restriction. It held that the State cannot legislate to restrict the freedom of speech and expression outside the scope of Article 19(2). 

In the case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India6, the Supreme Court laid a landmark decision to strike down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 that posed a restriction to freedom of speech over the internet.

The law of Sedition criminalized under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 is one of the most ill-used restrictions on freedom of speech.  Although the conviction rate in cases of sedition remain low7, the moment a false allegation of sedition is charged, freedom of speech gets hindered. Recently, around 49 renowned personalities wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister expressing their concerns but were slapped with the charges of sedition. Though the constitutional validity of Sedition was upheld in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar8 by the Supreme Court, its misuse is still prevalent. 

Censorship is also a major cause of disturbance in the functioning of the Press. Censorship can be done through various forms like suits that are filed for defamation, injunctions on news, etc. Although there are specific laws for filing of such suits, the complexities they bring along hamper the freedom.

Is there a need for specific laws to ensure freedom of press?

As Freedom of press is already covered under Article 19(1)(a), which was held in Bennet Coleman & Co. v. Union of India9 by the Supreme Court, the need for a special law is eliminated. However, the press still faces challenges which are not strictly attended to. In such a case, the role of judiciary becomes very essential. It needs to regularly deliberate upon the scope of freedom of press and its restrictions. 

What we essentially require is to understand the distinction between mere criticism and laws like sedition. Merely because one is acquitted from the false charges of misusing his freedom of speech and expression, does not mean that his right is protected.

Conclusion

The necessity of free press in a democratic state cannot be underestimated. Press is not just a source of information but a platform for people to exercise democracy. From posting pictures on social media to expressing concerns against Government policies, it is this freedom that enables us to do so.

Press plays a major role in creating a channel through which we can exercise this right. The challenges to free press questions the essence of democracy. It is the responsibility of the authorities to create an environment where the press is free to fearlessly inform, form, debate, and propagate opinions and news.


Footnotes

  1. The Indian Penal Code, 1860, Section 124A
  2. 2016 World Freedom of Press Index, Reporters Without Borders
  3. 2020 World Freedom of Press Index, Reporters Without Borders
  4. (1973) 2 SCR 757
  5. (1950) SCR 594
  6. Writ Petition No. 167 of 2012
  7. National Crime Records Bureau, 2017 Report
  8. 1962 AIR 955
  9. (1973) 2 SCR 757

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