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?
The political executive has always had an uneasy relationship with the press – on the one hand, extolling its virtue and importance, and on the other, finding ways to curb its freedom.
This history goes back to the colonial period. From the early 1820s, British rulers imposed various onerous restrictions upon the press, and especially upon the vernacular press. These restrictions ranged from pre-publication deposits, to laws such as the Press (Emergency Powers) Act, under which presses could be confiscated, fines imposed, and editors and writers prosecuted.
The passing of the Constitution, unfortunately, represented a moment of continuity with the old colonial regime rather than a moment of transformation. Although the Constitution incorporated a fundamental right to free speech and expression (the early Supreme Court soon read into this a right to freedom of the press), it was also hedged in by a series of wide-ranging restrictions.
This allowed the newly-independent Parliament, in 1951, to pass a Press Act that was almost identical to its 1931 counterpart, which was specifically used to crush political dissent – and this Act was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1953. More recently, the Rajiv Gandhi parliament came very close to passing a draconian Defamation Act, and only backed down after sustained protests from the press and from civil society.
The Prime Minister’s comment is best understood in the context of this long history of hostility between political power and the press. The language of “public interest”, “misuse of power” and “[being] factually correct” are familiar rhetorical moves, used regularly in the past, and resemble a familiar game of intimidation, couched in the polite language of law and populism.
Gautam Bhatia is a Supreme Court lawyer
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