Every year May 3 is celebrated as 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.
Freedom of the Press or Media is the belief system that communications to the public through the medium of print, television and, these days, the internet should be free of oversight from the government. It is the responsibility of the media to bring forth news and facts that will shape public opinion and allow the citizens of a country to exercise their rights. The right to freedom of speech and expression isn’t absolute and it is up to the judiciary to decide when the press is being denied this right and when it cannot exercise this right. In other words, if the people are to be free, it is the job of the media to ensure that it keeps a watch on those in power in whose hands the freedom lies. Social responsibility is the obligation to guide one’s actions on the basis of the effect the actions will have on society, economy, culture, and environment.
If we glance at the history of the press in India, the Indian press is deeply rooted in Indian history and had its beginnings under the aegis of the British Raj. During the Indian struggle for freedom, various acts were enacted by the British government to censor press coverage of parties such as the Congress which were at the forefront of the independence movement. These acts included the Indian Press Act (1910), the Indian Press (Emergency) Act (1931-32) and the Defence of India Act during the Second World War (1939-1945). With the advent of independence, Indian leaders laid out the Constitution of India which guaranteed certain rights to all its citizens as part of being a democracy. While there is no specific Act in the constitution regarding the freedom of the press, Article 19 (1) a guarantees the right of freedom of speech and expression to all citizens. The freedom of the press is deemed to be part of this right. Ideally, this means that the communiqués and expressions in various media cannot be censored by the government.
It serves as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. In order for a democracy to work, it needs to have four solid aspects – free and fair elections, protection of the people’s human rights, the participation of citizens and the rule of law applied equally to everyone. The theory of social responsibility of the press lies between total authoritarianism and libertarianism. As per the theory, a free press should be allowed without any censorship but the content should be self-regulated and open to discussion in public panels. There are four pillars that support a working democracy – the executive, legislature, judiciary, and press. Of these, the latter two are vital to the proper functioning of a democracy. Time and time again, recent history has proven that censorship of the press is one of the most common features of a dictatorship. The censorship may not even be direct or obvious at first. A government may often start by discrediting the news media and what is being reported.
If members of the press are intimidated and harassed or are discredited without reason, the people lose the only tool they have to participate effectively in the running of their country. Without freedom of the press, no government can be considered ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. Unfortunately, the past few years have seen increasing curbs, direct or indirect, on the media and its ability to report. In order to be truly effective, the press needs to remember that it has a responsibility to its audience and to society as a whole to be rational and conscientious in its reporting.
(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)