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Freedom of Press and media and its role amid Pandemics like COVID-19

Freedom of press is a deduced or implied fundamental right in India, which Indian citizens are having by virtue of Article 19(1)(a). The responsibility of press and media in present day scenario has escalated rapidly because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Citizens are solely dependent on media and press as they have no other means to gather information due to the imposition of lockdown to curb the effects of the lethal coronavirus.

In a very recent interview with journalists from Print Media, our honorable PM, Narendra Modi asked the media to act as a link between government and people and provide continuous feedback, at both national and international level regarding COVID-19[i]. This article is regarding freedom of press, the critical role of press and media in times of global crisis, and the need for regulation of press in case of Infodemic in order to mitigate social anxiety created due to the spread of misinformation related to COVID-19.

Evolution of Freedom of Press in India

The necessity to include of Freedom of press in constitution was cognized by other countries after Sweden introduced Freedom of Press Act, 1766 in their constitution on 2nd December, 1766 and became the first country to ratify Freedom of press into its constitution. Similarly, in US constitution, there is an explicit provision acknowledging freedom of press which was adopted on 15th December 1791 by one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

In India, the framers of the constitution didn’t feel the necessity to provide an explicit provision for Freedom of press or freedom of media.

The words of Dr. B.R Ambedkar from Constituent Assembly debates reflected that there is no requirement of any separate law affirming freedom of press:
The press has no special rights which are not to be given or which are not to be exercised by the citizen in his individual capacity. The editor of a press or the manager is all citizens and therefore when they choose to write in newspapers, they are merely exercising their right to expression, and in my judgment therefore no special mention is necessary of the freedom of press at all.[ii]

In 1954, a Press Commission was appointed, which enquired into all matters connected with the working of Press and all aspects of journalism.

Freedom of press in India draws its legitimacy from:

  • Preamble
  • Article 19 (1)(a) of the constitution

Preamble

The following words of the Preamble indicates that Indian constitution implicitly includes freedom of press- Secure to all its citizen the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship

Freedom of press falls within the purview of Liberty of thought and expression. Therefore, the Preamble signifies the necessity of freedom of press which is further recognized as a human right and as a fundamental right in the Indian constitution by virtue of 19(1) (a).

Article 19 (1)(a) of the constitution

Article 19 (1) (a): Every citizen has the freedom of speech and expression.
Freedom of press falls within the ambit of freedom of expression. Therefore, freedom of press is an implied or deduced fundamental right. Article 19 (1) (a) is included in the Indian constitution, by the same token, as Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 which states that[iii]:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 19 (1) (a) has four parts embedded in it:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of press
  • Right to information
Press is the watchdog to see that every trial is conducted fairly, openly and above board, but the watchdog may sometimes break loose and has to be punished for misbehavior.
- Lord Denning[iv]

A very basic principle of Jurisprudence is that no right exists without certain restrictions. Similarly, the freedom of press is also not unfettered or absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions mentioned in Article 19(2)[v]. Misuse of this freedom not only imposes civil liabilities but also has penal sanctions. Following are the reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred on citizens by 19(1) (a):
  • interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India,
  • the security of the State,
  • friendly relations with foreign States,
  • public order,
  • decency or morality or
  • contempt of court,
  • defamation or
  • incitement to an offence

Laws such as the Indian Penal law, law of contempt, Copyright Act , Official Secrets Act, Freedom of Information Act, Law of torts, Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act etc limits the freedom of press in India.

Freedom of press and its essence in a democratic country

Freedom of Press is an Article of Faith with us, sanctified by our Constitution, validated by four decades of freedom and indispensable to our future as a Nation. -Rajiv Gandhi

Freedom of press is acknowledged as the fourth pillar or chamber of democracy[vi]. The fundamental principle of freedom of press is people’s right to know. Blackstonian concept and idea[vii] of freedom of press, expressed in 1769 contained four basic elements which still forms the crux of the concept of press freedom.

They are as follows:
  1. Liberty of the press is essential to the state.
  2. No previous restraints should be placed on the publications.
  3. That does not mean there is press freedom for doing what is prohibited by law.
  4. Every freeman has the undoubted right to lay what sentiment he places before the public, but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal he must take the consequence of his own temerity.

Freedom of press includes right to obtain and publish information, to print information or opinions or to broadcast or circulate the same. Freedom of press is relevant to all types of printed and broadcast material, including books, journals, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, films, radio and television programs and social media.

Freedom of press has three essential elements [viii]:

  1. Freedom of access to all source of information
  2. Freedom of circulation
  3. Freedom of publication
Freedom of press is the bulwark of a democratic government. Media acts as a bridge between the people and the government. In a democratic country like India, it is a sine qua non for people to get informed about the governmental actions on day to day basis. In the same manner, the government officials must also be conversant with the views of its citizens.

People should be given the opportunity to discuss on public matter, which is possible only when press and media are freely allowed to represent different points of views, without any interference of the Government. This indicates that freedom of press is necessary to strengthen the process of democracy.

Indian case laws emphasizing on the importance of freedom of press in a democracy

The Supreme Court, in a series of judgments since independence, has strengthened the freedom of the press.

In Indian Express Newspapers Ltd. v. Union of India[ix], Justice Venkataramiah observed:

In today’s free world freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society.

The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate [Government] cannot make responsible judgments. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to Governments and other authorities.

Patanjali Shastri, CJ, stated in Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras[x]:

Freedom of speech of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organization, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of government, is possible.

The Supreme Court observed in Union of India v. Assn. for Democratic Reforms[xi]:

One sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce. Freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions.

Democracy means Government of the people, by the people and for the people. Therefore, every citizen must be entitled to participate in the democratic process and for this reason freedom of press is very crucial for a democratic county. This demonstrates the constitutional aspect of freedom of press in India.

Supreme Court Cases prioritizing Freedom of press

In Sakal Papers Ltd. v. Union of India[xii],
The Daily Newspapers (Price and Page) Order, 1960, fixed the number of pages and size which a newspaper could publish at a certain price was stated by Supreme Court to be violative of freedom of press as the restrictions were not reasonable under the Article 19(2).

Similarly, in Bennett Coleman and Co. v. Union of India[xiii],

The validity of the Newsprint Control Order, fixed the maximum number of pages, and this was struck down by the Supreme Court stating it to be violative of provision of Article 19(1)(a) as the restrictions imposed were not reasonable under Article 19(2).

In Express Newspapers v Union of India[xiv]

The Supreme Court held that a law which imposes pre-censorship or curtails the circulation or prevents newspapers from being started or require the Government to seek Government aid in order to survive was violative of Art 19(1)(a).

In Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras[xv],
Entry and circulation of the English journal Cross Road, printed and published in Bombay, was banned by the Government of Madras stating it to be violative of freedom of speech and expression, as without liberty of circulation, publication would be of little value.

In Prabha Dutt v. Union of India [xvi],
The Supreme Court directed the Superintendent of Tihar Jail to allow representatives of a few newspapers to interview Ranga and Billa, the death sentence convicts, as they wanted to be interviewed.

Role of Press during pandemic

Media and press plays a very vital role in a society because of the fact that citizens are largely dependent on the press for getting conversant with what is happening across the globe. Moez Chakchouk, Assistant Director General for Communication & Information, UNESCO affirmed that press freedom is now more important than ever and called on all Member States to ensure that journalists can report on COVID-19 without interference. In times of health crises, the importance of accurate and reliable journalism cannot be overstated, he said[xvii]

Journalists out there are doing a commendable job in acquainting people with the adverse effects of COVID-19 pandemic. They are even risking their lives in the accomplishment of the process.

Through press and media, the common people, are getting educated regarding the COVID-19 outbreak in the following manner:

  1. Making people aware of the COVID-19 symptoms and preventive measures to be taken,
  2. Spreading the importance of social distancing and quarantine in order to mitigate the number of COVID-19 cases.
  3. Spreading information regarding effective strategies to help individuals in dealing with social and physical distancing
  4. Making people conversant with the policies and decisions of the government.
  5. Providing regular updates of cases across the globe and chances of cases getting escalated.
  6. Prevailing economic conditions due to the COVID-19 apocalypse.

Prime Minister in a very recent interview on 20th March, 2020, with journalists and stakeholders from Print Media said that media has played a praise-worthy role in disseminating information to every nook and cranny of this nation. The network of media is pan-India and spread across cities and villages. This makes the media all the more significant in fighting this challenge and spreading correct information about it at micro level.

He laid stress upon the importance of social distancing, asked media to spread awareness about its importance, inform people about the lockdown decision by states, and also highlight the adverse effects of spread of the virus, through inclusion of international data and case studies about other countries.[xviii]

Need for Regulation of media/ press during COVID-19

Without high ethical ideals a newspaper is not only stripped of its splendid possibilities for public service, but may become a public danger to the community[xix].- Joseph Pulitzer

The fundamental right of freedom of press is also subject to certain reasonable restrictions. . In this digital era, due to the technological advancements, misinformation gets spread within fraction of seconds. Therefore it is necessary to curb the freedom which citizens are having by virtue of Article 19(1)(a), at times, in order to combat the spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19. In the present day context it is very essential for people to filter out the trustworthy sources of information as relying upon false information will create a situation of panic, making the situation even more worse. Before relying on a piece of information regarding COVID-19,

following verifications must be done:
  • Finding out the original source spreading the information or news
  • If those information sources are trustworthy and genuine.
  • If those information sources are reliable and credible
  • Whether those information are relayed accurately

Media and press has also convoluted public understanding of COVID-19 by spreading unrealistic and fallacious information regarding the pandemic, thereby making the situation more perplex and panicky.

Due to this, even the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which remain pre-eminently credible sources of epidemics and pandemics, found itself battling at the global level because of the infodemic, creating a havoc among the citizens. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), referring to fake news spreading faster and more easily than the virus said[xx]

We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic

People are being misguided by the spread of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 and myths regarding the cure of disease and many more. Some of the innumerable COVID-19 myths, which are clarified by WHO to be myths, are[xxi]:
  1. Transmission rate of coronavirus depends on the temperature.
  2. Taking a hot bath can prevent infection
  3. Non vegetarian food consumption can lead to infection
  4. Vaccines against pneumonia protect against novel coronavirus
  5. The virus affects only the elderly
  6. The Indian immune system is better than the west and thus Indians will survive the infection better

Steps taken to combat the spread of COVID-19 related misinformation
Though censorship of press and media is never a good solution in a democracy, but looking at the panic-mongering situation prevailing due the outspread of misinformation, the government is asking to do so.

There are two types of censorship:
  1. Post-censorship: Post-censorship is when something is taken down after it has been posted because of its deplorable content. They are many laws dealing with post- censorship where people can be booked and punished.

  2. Pre-censorship: There are no specific guidelines or statue regarding pre censorship, hence certain tests are developed by the courts. Pre- censorship is very rarely ordered by the court.
    To tackle the situation, a team of WHO myth busters are working with search and media companies like Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and others to counter the spread of rumours, which include misinformation like: the virus cannot survive in the hot weather, taking a high dose of chloroquine medication can protect us, consuming large quantities of ginger and garlic can prevent the virus etc.
International Press Institute is closely monitoring press freedom restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court of India has also directed the media to refer to and publish the official version of coronavirus-related developments while hearing a government plea to vet media coverage.

The Narendra Modi government has sought to both co-opt the media and curb its reporting in its effort to contain negative Covid-19 coverage. PM emphasized that it is crucial and necessary to control the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumour mongering.[xxii]

Conclusion
Freedom of press is known as the bulwark against secret government and is pivotal for the development of a democratic country like India and is often described as the oxygen of democracy, without which a democratic society cannot sustain. Press and media has an indispensable role to play during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has the responsibility to provide guidance to the people and assist them to deal with this global health crisis. Also, the Union ministry of Information and Broadcasting has directed all states and union territories to set the seal on operational continuity of print and electronic media amid COVID-19 outbreak, and ensure there is no restraint to the printing and distribution of newspapers in all cities.

However, there is a need for regulation of freedom of press in the present day scenario as misleading information related to COVID-19 are spreading around the world with the speed of light, creating a havoc; thereby multiplying the burden of trustworthy media sources, as now, those information sources have the responsibility of not only spreading accurate information but also countering the misleading information. Therefore it is very necessary for people to segregate and chalk out the trustworthy and reliable media sources spreading information related to COVID-19 instead of blindly believing and further spreading any kind of information.

End-Notes:
  1. PM interacts with journalists and stakeholders, available at, https://www.narendramodi.in/prime-minister-narendra-modi-interacts-with-print-media-journalists-and-stakeholders-548937
  2. Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VII p 780 (2nd December 1948)
  3. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available at, https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
  4. Lord Denning, Road to Justice,1955 at page 78
  5. Article 19(2), available at, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/493243/
  6. Printers (Mysore) Ltd vs Asstt. Commercial Tax Officer, available at, 1994 SCC (2) 434
  7. Press and the Law (1990) by Justice A.N.Grover; pg 7 para 2
  8. Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) private ltd. & ors. vs Union of India and ors., available at, 1985 scr (2) 287
  9. Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) private ltd. & ors. vs Union of India and ors., available at, 1985 scr (2) 287
  10. Romesh Thappar vs Union of India, A.I.R 1950 SC 124
  11. Union of India v. Assn. for Democratic Reforms, (2002) 5 SCC 294.
  12. Sakal Papers Ltd. v. Union of India, A.I.R 1962 SC 305
  13. Bennett Coleman and Co. v. Union of India, (1972)2 SCC 788
  14. Express Newspapers v Union of India, AIR 1958 SC 578
  15. Romesh Thappar vs Union of India, A.I.R 1950 SC 124
  16. Prabha Dutt v. Union of India , (1982) 1 SCC 1
  17. UNSESCO stresses over safety of journalists amid COVID-19 pandemic, available at, https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-stresses-importance-safety-journalists-amid-covid-19-pandemic
  18. PM interacts with journalists and stakeholders, available at, https://www.narendramodi.in/prime-minister-narendra-modi-interacts-with-print-media-journalists-and-stakeholders-548937
  19. Gerald Gross (ed.), the Responsibility of the Press, Clarion Books, New York,1966,pp.39-40
  20. UN tackles infodemic of misinformation and cybercrime in COVID-19 crisis, available at, https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/un-tackling-%E2%80%98infodemic%E2%80%99-misinformation-and-cybercrime-covid-19
  21. Novel Coronavirus outbreak: Myths about Covid-19 from around the world, debunked, available at, https://www.indiatoday.in/coronavirus-outbreak/story/novel-coronavirus-outbreak-myths-about-covid-19-from-around-the-world-debunked-1660742-2020-03-28
  22. PM interacts with journalists and stakeholders, available at, https://www.narendramodi.in/prime-minister-narendra-modi-interacts-with-print-media-journalists-and-stakeholders-548937
Written By Poulomi Sen, student of Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law, IIT Kharagpur

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