What significance does World Press Freedom Day (3 May) have for our country, given the burgeoning media scenario?
The day is an occasion for acknowledging the role and relevance of free media in our society. Though this is often a favourite academic topic of study, it also has significant implications for basic human rights. The generations that witnessed the emergency in the 1970s have first-hand understanding of the implications for press freedom and its value. Plainly, for a healthy democracy to function, citizens must have access to diverse and dissenting sources of information.
The ability to write and speak freely is a privilege not many countries enjoy, even today. In fact, global press freedom declined in 2009 and only one in six people live in countries with a free press. These are the findings of Freedom of the Press 2010: A Global Survey of Media Independence, the latest edition of an annual index published by Freedom House since 1980. Of the 196 countries and territories assessed during 2009, 69 (35%) were rated Free, 64 (33%) were rated Partly Free, and 63 (32%) were rated Not Free. India is rated Partly Free in this report.
The Indian constitution extends the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 and, by proxy, to the press or media as well. However, even this provision in the constitution comes with a clause. Similar to individual rights of expression, the Indian press is barred from reporting an incident or expressing an idea if it violates the integrity and sovereignty of the nation. This legal right also applies in instances that jeopardize India’s friendly relations with foreign nations, disrupt public order and are capable of inciting offences. Additionally, the Indian press is governed by certain other laws, including the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA) and the Official Secrets Act.
Also Read | P.N. Vasanti’searlier columns
These rules are applicable across all media—newspapers, magazines, books, cinema, music, theatre, television, radio, websites, blogs etc. In addition, each of these media have their own respective laws and restrictions. For example, private and community radio cannot broadcast news. In the case of cinema, censor board clearance and certification are required for any new release. These are further augmented with intimidation by non-state actors such as religious groups or political parties or other such moral police.
The intense competition and inadequate accountability mechanisms are sometimes liable to raise issues of credibility and trust.
In spite of the abuse of standards, the threat to free media and even the right to speech are vexing in our country. The Free Speech Hub, an initiative of the Media Foundation and its media watch website thehoot.org, tracks attacks on journalists as well as policy measures that could endanger the freedom of speech and information in the country.
Since January this year, one journalist has been killed, and there have been nine other attacks on members of the media. There have been six instances of intimidation of journalists and writers, the blocking of 11 websites, telephone taps on political leaders and civil society activists, hate speech on Facebook and censorship of books and film.
In 2010, the Hub recorded 27 attacks on journalists, nine arrests or detentions of journalists on various charges, six instances of attacks on writers and civil liberties activists, three cases of sedition against writers and civil liberties activists, 33 instances of curbs by vigilante groups on books, films, television shows, mobile communications or theatre performances and instances of state or judicial restrictions and regulations on books and television shows.
Clearly, even among the current media clutter, there are voices and views that never reach us or find space. However, the good news is that new technologies and tools are facilitating free speech and information flows across physical frontiers or national boundaries. They are enabling participation and also throwing up hitherto unheard voices and unseen images—beyond the barriers created by politics, commerce and vested interests.
Many governments, fearful of this lack of control, are trying hard to restore or fortify barriers to trace, block, target and censor those who offer an alternative view or champion the truth. While checks and balances are required to ensure equity and avoid misuse, it is important to be vigilant about media freedom.
For now, let’s just enjoy our liberty and remember all the media professionals whose dedication has brought us to where we are today.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.