Freedom and democracy are the most echoed words in the world and are often used interchangeably. However, in the present scenario, it can be seen that freedom is taken away by the government or non-state actors in many ways even in the democracy and one such way is censorship of media. When we speak of democracy and censorship, it can be very well understood that the greatest irony just took place imagining moral policing in a democracy can certainly be something that not many people wish to receive or appreciate receiving. Freedom of the press is taken away by the government for the purpose of altering or suppressing parts thought to be objectionable or offensive. It is often argued that censorship is necessary to some extent but what exactly that extent should be, is hardly discussed. With time, the participation of media in various domains has increased and so is the interference of the state in media affairs. Let’s scratch the grounds a bit to know the reality of the biggest democracy of the world, India.
The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech and expression to all its citizens under Article 19 (1) (a). It includes the expression of one’s idea through any communicable medium or visual representation thus including freedom of the press in this category which is also backed by the freedom of circulation. The fundamental right of freedom of the press is essential for political liberty and the proper functioning of democracy. India- the largest functioning democracy in the world with a continental proportion has the freedom of expression and choice guaranteed by none other than the constitution itself in its articles.
Cartoons that are regarded as a medium of expression convey the message of a 500- 1000 word article in just a minute is one of the oldest ways of delivering information. However, there are many instances when cartoons have been banned in the name of the nation’s integrity. One such case is the cartoon drawn by celebrated cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pillai in 1949 which was a comment on the slow pace growth of India’s mammoth constitution-making exercise. The cartoon depicted Jawaharlal Nehru with a whip in his hand chasing Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, seated on a snail, urging him to speed up the work on the constitution. When the cartoon was published, Ambedkar was alive and there is no material available indicating his displeasure over this sketch. The cartoon in question has been in the NCERT textbook of political science since 2006 without any resistance from the quarter. The HRD ministry set up a six member committee to scrutinize these textbooks and replace “inappropriate” material before the academic session resumes.
Another notable and controversial case took place over the biography of the self-styled Godman and now business tycoon Baba Ramdev-beloved of innumerable Indians across the world. Priyanka Pathak’s book Godman to Tycoon: traces the entire orbit of Ramdev’s life- from farm boy to yoga aspirant to television enthusiast to business model. It was banned on the ground that it was extremely defamatory in nature for the protagonist. The most noteworthy thing about the Karkardooma civil judge’s injunction on Godman to Tycoon is that it was granted without hearing the writer or the publisher. In an 11-page order the civil judge stated that he had given the book “cursory reading” and examined the specific portion produced by Baba Ramdev’s lawyers in court which he found to be potentially defamatory. On this basis, he restrained the publication and sale of the book.
The international NGO, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), released its annual World Press Freedom Index (WPFI). The index ranks an amalgamation of 180 countries of qualitative and quantitative analysis that examines pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, quality of infrastructure for news production, and violence against journalists and media persons. India ranked 142 in 2020, down to six points from 2015. India falls behind most of its neighbors, including Myanmar (139), Afghanistan (122), Bhutan (67), Nepal (112), and Sri Lanka (127). The drop in the ranking has been linked to the existence of India’s sedition law that encourages self-censorship particularly in a period of heightened nationalism. In addition, RWB highlights the killing of three journalists in 2018 while they were involved in professional activities. Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of a Bangalore weekly, the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, was an outspoken left-wing journalist. On 5th September 2017, as the journalist Gauri Lankesh was returning to her home from work, a man approached her in the driveway, his face obscured by a motorcycle helmet. He fired a pistol as she ran toward her house, about 10 feet away. She collapsed before she made it inside.
Talking about the current situation of the country of Corona Virus, the situation of freedom of press has deteriorated very sharply since the nationwide lockdown from 24th March. Cases of journalists being arrested for reporting the mismanagement and negligence of the government have been reported. One such case in the arrest of a senior journalist, Gautam Navlakha, a 65-year old human rights activist and former editorial consultant for Economic and Political Weekly was sent to an overcrowded jail in Maharashtra in April 2020 while COVID-19 cases flared across the nation. Scholars and activists have protested sending Navlakha to prison, which could become a potential COVID-19 hotspot and a “death sentence” for the senior activist with a heart condition.
While the freedom of press in often linked with the one political party, it must be noted that the situation in non- BJP led states is not overwhelming either. According to News Laundry, the Maharashtra police booked Rahul Zori, a reporter with TV9 Marathi, for reporting on irregularities in migrant relief camps in Dhule, Maharashtra. Major Singh Punjabi, a journalist with the Rozana Pehredar newspaper, accused two Punjab policemen of beating him on May 22. According to SAMDEN, the reporter was hospitalized, and the cops have been suspended.
In recent Supreme Court hearing, it stated that “free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to one position,” and quashed all but one FIR against the Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami. Nonetheless, it also stated that the freedom of press is not “absolute.” In April, Goswami was charged with various provisions under the Indian Penal Code, including criminal defamation and Section 153A, which makes promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language punishable by three years. The charges stemmed from his coverage of the Palghar lynching of Hindu sadhus.
Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The fundamental principle involved here is people’s right to know, which is essential for the political liberty and proper functioning of democracy. The censorship of media is becoming a daily norm in the country. We must consider this situation alarming and act as responsible citizens rather than just believing in the news we are being delivered.