“Censorship is to media as lynching is to justice.”
The Indian constitution in Article 19 (1) (a) grants its citizens the freedom of speech and expression, though with certain limitations. Yet, governments right from Independence have shown their propensity to censor. The Indian media has been plagued with attack on its journalists, on their offices and sometimes, even bans on their channels. We must then ask ourselves: Is freedom of speech even a reality?
The World Press Freedom Index measures the level of press freedom that journalists enjoy. In 2018, India has been placed on the 136th position. Last year, it had ranked two spots higher. India’s poor record can be attributed to the history of intolerance shown towards the opinions expressed by media that are contrary to those of the government. Press freedom is an illusionary term in india, anything that goes against the government is termed as anti-national, channels offices are stoned and there is rampant vandalism. The one day ban on NDTV channel is a testimony to the shrinking liberty granted to the press.
In the colonial times, the British government not only controlled the content circulated by the media but also had the broadcasting monopoly. This was followed by License Raj where the government had the complete monopoly over the media space. Doordarshan was the only channel that was permitted to broadcast news and it was under government control. Even though, the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression given in the constitution was acknowledged, the government still dominated the media broadcasting. Thus, the colonial rules of media monopoly manifested itself in the newly independent India.
The Emergency period of 1975 was a dark period in the history of independent India. All fundamental rights, except Right to life were suspended. A democratic government soon turned into an autocracy. People whose opinions were against those of the government were jailed. Media during the time of emergency was used to spread government propaganda. It was used as a political tool to indoctrinate people. It no longer served as a free space where people could voice out their opinions, criticise the government and their policies and participate in the democratic process by having the power to dissent.
In 1990s, India got on the bandwagon of privatization, liberalization and globalization.The Indian economy opened up for foreign investors in a number of sectors, broadcasting was one of them. 1990s brought about an advent of privately owned media houses. This threatened the government’s control over broadcasting and which eventually lead to the Cable Television Act of 1995. This Act gave a vast amount of censorship powers to the governments. The Centre could not just ban a channel but the channel operator too. The Programme Code is another statute that the media houses had to follow in order to be broadcasted. They were given a laundry list of instructions that the electronic media houses had to comply with. This bizzare act has a watchdog that censors information sent by the media on its own account.
The recent attacks on journalists are a threat to the stature of freedom given by the constitution in expressing our opinions. Majority of the attacks were carried out by the police, leaders of the political parties and their supporters, sand and coal mafia, criminals representing illegal constructions, mob resisting media coverage and even lawyers. The recent case of a journalist being molested and her camera being taken away by the police while reporting a JNU protest has once again sparked the debate regarding the safety of media personnel. An attack on a journalist is indirectly is an attack on their freedom of speech and expression. The physical manifestation of censorship is seen in these attacks. In print media, the censorship and harassment of the Kashmir reader due to a certain news report led to their newspaper offices being raided, their printing press being closed down and a ban on their publication for three months. This hooliganism and vandalism stems from the innate dogmatism of those in power.
Recently, the Supreme court stated that the criticism of the government cannot amount to sedition or defamation under the law. Yet almost all governments have filed lawsuits of sedition and defamation against the media houses. The tug of war between the freedom of speech and sedition still continues. The manipulation of such incidences to censor news is a well known tactic played by the government. This autocratic rule of the governments endanger the transmission of speech and opinion that isn’t in line with theirs, thus censorship acts as a legal gateway to stop any sort of information that isn’t in line with the government’s ideology.
History has repeatedly shown us that no matter which political party is in power, the government is inherently censorious. The freedom of press today is highly restricted with the media houses self-censoring their pluralistic views. This endangers the very core of democracy and the national discourse. The recent events with the attacks and murder of journalists, vandalism on media houses and bans on news channels, there is a significant escalation against India’s press freedom. Free speech threatens authoritarian governments and slowly our democracy might just fade away to autocracy, snatching away our right to dissent, perhaps forever.