Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that the freedom to write, and to decide what is to be written, does not include the freedom to be “less than accurate”, or “factually incorrect.” Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he added: “The press is called the Fourth Estate. It is definitely a power, but to misuse that power is criminal.”
Is PM Modi’s statement on press freedom a veiled warning to dissenting media voices?
Freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the Constitution, is deemed to be in public interest. The burden rests on the government to show why, in a given case or set of cases, what is written or said in the media is not in public interest.
Frankly, it isn’t the government’s business what the editorials of a newspaper are talking about. Freedom of speech means that newspapers are free to set their own agenda, and what they think is public interest. They don’t have to meet arbitrary notions of public interest peddled by the government.
As the law stands, mere factual inaccuracy does not automatically lead to legal consequences. While one can’t take issue with a general exhortation to avoid factual inaccuracies, it is somewhat worrying when the government starts talking about factual accuracy in the context of newspapers.
Every government tries to put forth its own version of facts that serve its interests. It is for the media, in general, to dissect these, and contextualise them properly. While the government can dislike “inaccuracies” when the media does not subscribe to its version of “facts”, the job of determining whether the media is telling the truth or not is that of the courts and public opinion, not the government.
As to whether this statement is a “threat” for dissenting media houses, that will depend on what media houses consider their jobs to be — whether to accept what the government says at face value, or else, critically and clinically dissect what they’re told to print.
If it is the former, it is a reminder to stay within the line; if it is the latter, it is a reminder that they’re doing their jobs just as intended.
Alok Prasanna Kumar is a Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy
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