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The safety of our journalists can never be compromised

The Press Council of India needs to be empowered, in a manner similar to the Bar Council, with a separate statute (akin to Advocates Act) helping to elevate the status of journalists while also enabling it to act as a safeguard against unethical and unprofessional conduct

analysis Updated: Mar 09, 2018 14:19 IST
While the murder of Gauri Lankesh on September 5, 2016, managed to dominate conversations among the chattering class, such murders are common in the country’s hinterland(AP)

In 2017, India slipped three spots to 136 in the World Freedom Index (Reporters without Borders, 2017). While we consider our media as being the freest in South Asia, it is considered only partially free by Freedom House, an independent watchdog. Last year, 11 journalists were murdered, 46 were attacked and 27 had cases lodged against them by the police, a reflection of the myriad risks that journalists face while reporting from the ground.

While the murder of Gauri Lankesh on September 5, 2016, managed to dominate conversations among the chattering class, such murders are common in the country’s hinterland. Pankaj Mishra, a journalist with Rashtriya Sahara, in Bihar’s Arwal district, was shot by two bike-born assailants two days after Lankesh’s murder. India’s impunity ranking (measuring incidents when journalists are murdered while their killers go scot-free) has risen by 100% in the past decade; the nation is at 13th position in the Global Impunity Index (Committee for Protection of Journalists 2016 Global Impunity Index).

Threats to the freedom of the Press have always been there. The 1857 rebellion was accompanied by the Gagging Act (passed by Lord Canning), which sought to regulate the establishment of printing presses and what they printed, requiring licences from the government. Any printed material was subject to checks of whether it impugned the motives of the British Raj. When the local Press published reports critical of the colonial government’s response to the famine of 1876-77, the government instituted the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, seeking to suppress local criticism. The Act was targeted at over 35 vernacular papers, including Amrita Bazaar Patrika, in Bengal. Case examples were often made: Surendranath Banerjee (“Rashtraguru”), editor of The Bengali, was arrested for publishing remarks in his paper that were in contempt of court. Even Bal Gangadhar Tilak was jailed twice for writing against the oppressive colonial Raj.

Today, such attacks are frequent in small towns, with most victims being on a freelance basis for regional newspapers or channels, with greater on-field beat reporting instead of being inside a studio. With limited legal protection, Press freedom can be significantly restricted. Such freedom can easily be compromised through online bullying and lawsuits, with the threat of imprisonment under Section 124(a) (the Sedition Clause) being ever-present.

The threat of defamation is commonly used by politicians and celebrities alike to prevent the Press from commenting on them. In Tamil Nadu, in particular, such methods have been common – between 1991-1996, over 120 defamation cases were filed by the Jayalalithaa government against publications reporting over her health and the government’s actions.

We must repeal criminal defamation or seek at the least to cap the size of damages, allowing journalists at regional and local newspapers to work without the fear of being subject to a defamation suit.

Ideally the freedom of speech, and as its corollary, the freedom of the Press, should be absolute. But our current constitutional arrangements impose significant restrictions, subjecting the Press to the limits permissible under clause 2 of Article 19. The Official Secrets Act prevents journalists from reporting matters relating to the country’s defence – however, there is significant scope for abuse. At the very least, Parliament should bring a law protecting journalists from criminal proceedings and limiting their exposure to the sedition law.

As the threat to journalists rises, the quality and quantity of critical reporting is likely to be hit, limiting exposure for important issues and under-reported regions, while making our media landscape more jingoistic and less self-critical. Preventing this self-censorship will require significant reform. The Press Council of India needs to be empowered, in a manner similar to the Bar Council, with a separate statute (akin to Advocates Act) helping to elevate the status of journalists while also enabling it to act as a safeguard against unethical and unprofessional conduct. The ambit of the Press Council should be expanded to cover all forms of media, including electronic, broadcast and new media. We must continue to seek greater protections in this sector, lest we weaken the safeguards of our democracy. For the health of our democracy, the safety of our journalists can never be compromised.

Varun Gandhi is BJP national general secretary and a Lok Sabha MP

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 09, 2018 14:11 IST