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The Political Siege on Indian Press : Legal Aspects

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders has placed India at 142nd rank out of 180 countries. The report went on to say that India is one of the worlds most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. As we all know India is a democratic nation and freedom of press in one of the defining traits of a democratic nation. How did the largest democracy in the world descended into a state were basic fundamental rights like freedom of speech and expression are being infringed left, right and centre ? Let us examine .

From the very onset of the nation, freedom of the press in India has been subject to certain restrictions, such as defamation law, a lack of protection for whistleblowers, barriers to information access and constraints caused by public and government hostility to journalists.

The later being the driving force behind the current negative trend. Off late governments at both national and state levels have cracked down on all forms of free speech. This is pretty evident from the way in which the extended Internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir and the Greta Thunberg toolkit fiasco panned out. The crackdown of government censors on social media has also been quite rampant recently.

This repression coupled with the emergence of multiple biased media networks, who act as merepuppets and mouthpieces for those in power, by propagating fake news and political propaganda has only aggravated the situation. Also there has been a flurry of incidents involving violence and brutality against journalists in recent times, most notably the assassination of journalist-turned-activist Gauri Lankesh.

Also a total of at least 55 journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show causes notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats for reportage on COVID-19 or exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown from 25 March to 31 May 2020. These measures were taken in 20 states and union territories and included charges of sedition, promoting enmity among different groups, causing breach of peace and so on.

Laws such as the Official Secretes Act and Prevention of Terrorist Activities act (PoTA) have been used to limit press freedom. Under PoTA, person could be detained for up to six months for being in contact with a terrorist or terrorist group. PoTA was repealed in 2006, but the Official Secrets Act 1923 continues. Freedom of speech is restricted by the National Security Act of 1980. Freedom of speech is also restricted by Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which deals with sedition and makes any speech or expression which brings contempt towards government punishable by imprisonment extending from three years to life.

Now let us examine some of the legal framework development to safeguard the freedom of press.

In India, citizens are free to criticize government, politics, politicians, bureaucracy and policies. There have been landmark cases in the Indian Supreme Court that have affirmed the nation's policy of allowing free press and freedom of expression to every citizen, with other cases in which the Court has upheld restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press.

Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution does not not specifically mention Freedom of Pressit does mention freedom of speech and expression.

19(1)(2) which lays down reasonable limitations to the freedom of expression in matters affecting:
  1. Sovereignty and integrity of the State
  2. Security of the State
  3. Friendly relations with foreign countries
  4. Public order
  5. Decency and morality
  6. Contempt of court
  7. Defamation
  8. Incitement to an offence
And hence every form of expression in lieu to these reasonable restrictions is permitted and if infringed upon is subjected to suitable remedies.

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