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“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”. This quotation is pivotal in terms of understanding the symbiotic relationship between the ‘Press’ and the concept of ‘Liberty’. Liberty is derived from the Latin word liber which means free. It is a word of negative meaning denoting the absence of restraint. It is defined in terms of the degree an individual can exercise his/her agency. According to Laski, “Liberty has evolved for us rules of convenience which promote right living; and to compel obedience to them is a justifiable limitation of freedom.” This highlights the very paradoxical nature of liberty, portraying that liberty does come with its own set of ‘reasonable restrictions.’ These restrictions stem from the understanding that humans are social beings; they contribute to the development of society just as much as society contributes to their development. Liberty, in this sense, can be maximized only when there is mutual respect and goodwill and all follow a simple rule of social behavior: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
The idea of ‘Liberty’ does not exist in a vacuum, it stands at the junction of ideas such as ‘Equality’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Justice’, and so on. It is not only defined in terms of rules but also in terms of implementation of these existing rules. One way via which we can understand this is by studying the relationship primary social institutions share with each other and individuals. The key to understanding this relationship is via analyzing their medium of communication. At its core, a communication medium is related to ‘how’ your message is put forth; However, it is concerned with a lot more than the process itself. One indispensable and inescapable medium is ‘media’; it comes in a variety of forms, be it print, audio, visual, virtual, etc. The discussion boils down to a very simple question, “Who provides the media with information that is further passed on to us?” And while different forms of media may give different answers, one cannot ignore the fact that a major of information presented to our society is from the press.
Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship acknowledged the press as the fourth pillar of democracy, he attributes the origin of the term in his text which quotes the following: ‘Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.’ The connotations of this quotation may appear to be simplistic in nature, however, it’s extremely nuanced and intertwined. And this is simply because ‘Democracy’ as a concept is an amalgamation of various existing concepts and ideas. One of the most pivotal characteristics of an ideal democracy is ‘Liberty’ and the degree of liberty that a state allows its citizens to exercise can be gauged via the freedoms they grant; and ‘freedom of the press is given primary importance while drawing out this equation.
Freedom of the press is important because it plays a vital role in informing citizens about public affairs and monitoring the actions of government at all levels. Vibrant journalism allows us to expand the scope of our knowledge and experience, it enables us to have conversations on issues of public concern and has the power to hold those in positions of authority to account. The very essence of ‘Liberty’ is drawn out from that of a free press.
Freedom of speech and expression is of paramount importance and the Press is undoubtedly the most powerful watchdog of public interest. A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the Government and the people. When the Press examines the government, the nation benefits. This notion can be drawn out from various incidents that have occurred in history.
The French Revolution proves to be symbolic of how mass communication amidst the public has the power to override the power of a monarchy. While keeping the ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity’ in mind the French Revolution can be considered as an event fueled by the existence of media in two ways. First, it resulted from an unprecedented explosion of text, images, and oral media – the democratization of political mass communication which the Revolution, in turn, accelerated. Even though the skill of reading and writing was restricted to the royalty and those belonging to the noble classes, people found ways via which information seeped through to the lower classes. Second, it consisted of a chain of spectacular and sensational key historical events that were communicated throughout Europe by newspapers, translated graphic satires, songs, and printed images. The French revolution further allows us to comprehend the growth of media as a powerful deciding factor of what a democratic state should entail.
What can be interpreted from this historic event is that one of the most salient features of a liberal and democratic state is freedom of the press. The constitution of India does not specifically mention the freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is implied from Article 19 of the Constitution which talks about the freedom of speech and expression. However, the press is subject to the restrictions that are provided under Article 19 of the Constitution.
The case ‘Indian Express v. Union of India’ took place in 1985. The bone of contention, in this case, was that there cannot be any interference with the freedom of the press in the name of public interest. The government levied taxes on the publication of newspapers because in their view, such publication could be characterized as an industry and must be subjected to the same levies as other industries. The Supreme Court of India held the judgment that it is the primary duty of courts to uphold the freedom of the press and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with it contrary to the constitutional mandate. In this case, the levying of taxes was dispelled.
This landmark judgment highlights that the purpose of the press is to enhance public interest by publishing facts and opinions, without which a democratic electorate cannot take responsible decisions. Similarly, the Supreme Court of India also held that the imposition of pre-censorship of a journal, or prohibiting a newspaper from publishing its own views about any burning issue is a restriction on the liberty of the press.
Another similar case is that of ‘Sakal Papers Ltd. v. Union of India’ where the Newspapers (Price and Page) Act, 1956, empowered the government to regulate the prices of newspapers in relation to their pages and sizes and to regulate the allocation of space for advertising matter. Under this Act, the Central Government made the Daily Newspapers Order, 1960, thereby fixing the maximum number of pages that might be published by a newspaper at a price. The petitioner challenged the Act and the order under Article 19 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court held that the state could not make laws which directly affected the circulation of a newspaper for that would amount to a violation of freedom of speech.
It is with the assistance of these judgments and other similar judgments that one is able to holistically understand the trials and tribulations of a functioning democracy. One of the prime roles of a democracy is to constantly live up to the ideals enshrined in the constitution. Taking into consideration the dynamic nature of society, these ideals and their meanings are constantly questioned. While the complementary aspect of the symbiotic relationship shared between the idea of Liberty and Free Press is implied. One cannot overlook the drawbacks involved in the same.
“The term ‘Freedom of Speech’ can be used to cloak a multitude of social sins and a delimitation of the same is desirable”. Liberty of Press is not synonymous to license. Implying that these constitutional provisions should not be looked at as passes that allow libel or slander. This is an important factor to take into consideration while looking to tackle the present challenges of low confidence in media and frequent rhetorical attacks on the press.
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses”. The power of the press should not be undermined since its prime job is to inform citizens. Media undeniably has the power to paint a pantheon of pictures, shape perspectives, and construct/de-construct opinions. Therefore, it is imperative for the Press to publish information with utmost accuracy.
In the case of ‘Ms. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi vs Thiru.P.Varadarajan’ is a classic example of how imperative it is to redefine the limits of the freedom of the press. The petitioner filed a suit of defamation against ‘Kumudam Reporter’. The court emphasized in its judgment that the media ‘cannot in the guise of public interest publish anything and everything, which may be interesting.’ On this aspect, Justice Subramaniam went on to remark, ‘All matters in which the public is interested may not be in the public interest.”
However, one must also take into consideration that the debate between constructive criticism, laying out facts and defamation is a very nuanced and ambiguous debate. The case mentioned previously highlights how freedom of the Press cannot contravene one’s fundamental rights. There have been incidents wherein the name of defamation media houses have been ordered to take articles down. This was viewed in the lawsuit filed by industrialist Gautam Adani’s Adani Group against Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, three other journalists, and The Wire for an article published against the Adani Group. Incidents such as these bring to light how murky the waters are when it comes to truthful reporting, defamation, criticism, slander, and libel. These terms take on a different meaning with varying contexts. Due to the precedents and diverse interpretations of the law and principles enshrined in the constitution. The very idea of ‘Liberty’ is often questioned, put restrictions on, and in many cases, it is often under threat.
A democratic society demands of its members active and intelligent participation in the affairs of its community, be it local or national. There’s a basic assumption that the people are well informed about the issues of the day to be able to form broad judgments about the same. This basic assumption stems from the belief that the individuals that encompass a society are required to participate in processes that are not just purely political in nature. This is primarily why a democratic society requires a clear and truthful account of events. The Press plays an extremely important role in providing individuals with a platform to express themselves, it provides a forum for discussion, deliberation, and debate and most importantly it advocates multiple causes. These are the key determinants of a liberal state and define the very essence of Liberty. It is therefore in the interest of people to ensure freedom of the press for it is the best guarantee of their freedom, their liberty.
The Press and society often engage in cross-pollination. Just as the Press provides the society with information, the society too provides the Press with narratives and frameworks to publish articles of/within. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that the Press is free of government control or restraint. At the same time, the publication of this information must occur without censorship and within the limits of the law of libel. Too often the lines demarcating these are crossed; due to which the degree of liberty and agency that the press exercises comes under question.
In conclusion, “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. You must defend all of it or be against all of it.”- Scott Howard Phillips. In a free society, there will always be unequal outcomes and even unequal opportunities. Given the ever-changing and ever-evolving nature of society, we constantly face complex circumstances where to the notion of equality and of liberty is constantly put to test. These situations demand individuals to make informed choices and indulge in the ongoing discourse of society. The Press is not just a medium that provides individuals with information, but it is also a medium that allows individuals to exercise their agency. A democratic state entails a pantheon of ideas; it seeks to promote equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, and so on. At the grass-root level this is achieved by the freedoms they grant to existing social institutions and mediums of communication. Freedom of The Press is one of the most defining features of a liberal democratic state. Press is the fourth estate/pillar of society, and no society can flourish if its foundation is weak and dysfunctional.
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