करंट टॉपिक्स

How Congress Muzzled Freedom of Press

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Meaning of freedom of Press

Freedom of the press is not explicitly mentioned in article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. In the Constituent Assembly debates, it was made clear by Dr. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee, that no special mention of the freedom of press was necessary at all as the press and an individual or a citizen were the same as far as their right of expression was concerned. The Hon’ble Supreme Court, in the case of Union of India v/s Association for Democratic Reforms, held “Freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions”. In Indian Express Newspapers v/s Union of India, it has been held that the press plays a very significant role in the democratic machinery.

The courts have the duty to uphold the freedom of the press and invalidate all laws and administrative actions that abridge that freedom. In Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras, the Supreme Court has included the press in the definition of freedom of Speech or expression. In L.I.C. v/s. Manubhai Shah, the Supreme Court reiterated as in Indian Express Newspapers v. Union of India, that freedom to circulate one’s views can be by word of mouth or in writing or through audio visual media. This right to circulate also includes the right to determine the volume of circulation. Thus, there is no doubt that journalistic freedom is now recognized as a fundamental right.

Jawaharlal Nehru

It all began when first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to move the 1st amendment to the Indian constitution in 1951, which as per clause 2 of article 19, imposed “reasonable restrictions” on free speech on grounds like – in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court or in relation to incitement of an offence. The then Prime Minister Nehru had justified curbing press freedom through his draconian Press (Objectionable Matter) Act, 1951.

This lack of freedom of expression was also visible when poet and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri was arrested and spent a year in jail for writing a poem critical of Nehru. During Nehru’s rule in 1951, the Chief Commissioner of Delhi passed an order against the Organizer, a nationalist English weekly, under the East Punjab Public Safety Act, directing the newspaper to submit for scrutiny before publication all articles, news, cartoons, analysis and pictures relating to communal issues or Pakistan for printing inflammatory materials with respect to the partition.

Jawaharlal Nehru allegedly got a ‘Times of India’ column discontinued. It used to be written by civil servant AD Gorwala, who wrote under the name ‘Vivek’. It was discontinued as it was too critical of him. The Congress government under Nehru banned the magazine Cross Roads. Later, the Supreme Court overturned the ban imposed on the magazine but Nehru bypassed the SC judgement on Organiser and Cross Roads through First Amendment in the Constitution of India.

Indira Gandhi

The biggest assault on freedom of speech and freedom of press anywhere in the world after Stalin’s Russia was in India under Indira Gandhi. The Emergency she imposed on the country resulted in hundreds of journalists being jailed, people were arrested for writing against the government and independent press was made to struggle for its existence. Emergency under Indira Gandhi saw freedom of speech being suppressed like never before. India slipped in global index for freedom of press. Censorship was the order of the day and every piece of news that was to be published was to be scrutinized by the government before going to print.

In the early hours of June 26, 1975, then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a state of Emergency in India citing threat to the national security by “internal disturbances”. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended the civil liberties – free press among other things – and the Constitution was amended and altered. During the emergency, journalists, Opposition leaders, and activists were thrown in jail under the draconian rule of Indira Gandhi government.

With freedom of speech being suspended as a fundamental right, the printing presses were raided and for the next two days, the newspapers went out of circulation. ‘Motherland’ was the only newspaper in the country which in its edition published on 26 June not only informed people about emergency but also about arrest and protest at national level against emergency. Incidentally, the electricity supply to the office of ‘Motherland’ situated at Rani Jhansi Road, Jhandewalan, New Delhi, was cut though the neighbouring office of ‘Janyug’, the communist mouthpiece, kept on getting power supply.

What the Press was toldAs the media was under an attack in the country during the 21-month emergency period, the foreign media was on its heels to get the stories out about the situation in the country where Constitutional rights were suspended. The Indian media was informed not to pay heed to the rumours. All the newspapers in the country were asked to take permission before publishing any piece by the Chief Press Advisor, a position that was created to censor the news. During emergency, legislation was enacted to make censorship part of the ordinary law of land. Thus, the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act was passed, the Press Council of India was abolished by an Ordinance.

Arrests, threatsMost of the mainstream media newspapers and magazines were under the wrath of Emergency. Some were threatened to be thrown out of publications and others were put in jail. The Indian Express and The Statesman were first ones to protest through their editions.

As a symbol of protest, The Indian Express and The Statesman left their editorial pages blank. This move was soon followed by other publications too. According to IE, journalists from The Times of London, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times were expelled. The Guardian and The Economists correspondents flew back to the United Kingdom after receiving threats.

Mark Tully, the voice of BBC, was also withdrawn by the channel. According to the Home Ministry, in May of 1976, almost 7,000 journalists and media personnel were arrested. According to a survey conducted by the Freedom House globally, the place in the freedom of the press of India, which was third in the beginning of the seventies, was reduced to 34th in 1975 – 1977. The New York Times wrote in a report on December 28, 1975 that due to the harsh curb on the press in India, there is a big blow to the democratic society.

RSS inspired newspapers and magazines played a major role during emergency. This was the reasons many such magazines and newspapers had to face the wrath of the government. Few of such titles are Panchjanya, Organiser, Motherland, Tarun Bharat, Vivek, Vikram, Rashtradharm, Yugdharm. The editor of Motherland and Organiser K.R Malkani was the first journalist to be arrested during emergency and remained in jail till the end of emergency.

To control the flow of information, Indira government used intimidatory measures such as eviction from government houses and shutting down media houses, against journalists and publishers. The Indira Gandhi-led government also implemented the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) Act that limited the reach of media to the audience due to lesser prints.

Other Pressures during EmergencyA Coordination Committee meeting held on June 29, 1976, had asked the Principal Information Officer to prepare a list of newspapers which were to be categorized as friendly, neutral and hostile.

The grading of friendly, neutral and hostile given to a particular newspaper was related to its views on a particular political party.

Political consideration was one of the criteria for giving advertisements.

Contrary to the policy enunciated the government on the floor of Parliament, political considerations were taken into account while releasing advertisements.

The government during this period utilized its advertising policy as a source of financial assistance to newspapers or denial of financial assistance etc. in complete variance with the policy which it had enunciated on the Floor of the Parliament.

Accreditation of a number of correspondents was terminated and a bulk or these decisions was taken as a part of review.

The character and antecedents of a number of journalists were re-verified by the Intelligence Bureau at the instance of the Home Minister.

Functioning of Government Media Units – The Government media units had two main functions during the emergency. They were at once a source of patronage and also, they were used for building up the image of political party and a few of its leaders.

The D.A.V.P. was used on a large scale for giving advertisements to support the various souvenirs brought out by the Congress Party. Opposition parties were denied any such patronage.

Not merely the Congress Party was given extensive advertising support, but there was an instance when rates per page for souvenirs were increased after they had been agreed upon and the souvenirs printed.

A number of films were produced by the Films Division to project the image of Sanjay Gandhi not only as a Youth leader, but as a leader in his own right.

The Publications Division was directed to boost the sales of Smt. Gandhi’s books and to publish informative and interesting sketches with photographs of Smt. Gandhi in various journals and periodicals.

Other Incidents in Indira Gandhi Regime

– In 1980, the Congress government had arrested editors Ajay Mitra and Guru Sharan Singh of Singhbhum Ekta and Samata respectively.

– Congress Chief Minister of Bihar had burnt copies of the magazine ‘Sunday’ because it published stories on him and his family’s misdeeds.

– During the pre-Emergency period, the editors were made to face the wrath of the Indira Gandhi government. In West Bengal, the Congress loyalists had burnt 3,000 copies of Darpan, Bangladesh and Sathya Yugi as it was critical to the government.

– In 1972, the editors of Renaissance, Jantar Mukh and Frontier were told to stop publication by the Congress loyalists or face physical liquidation.

– Hindustan Times editor BG Varghese was sacked by the publication after he had written critically against Sanjay Gandhi and his pet project Maruti.

Rajiv Gandhi

In July 1988, Gandhi had introduced what went down the pages of Indian history as one of the most draconian bills crafted by the Indian government. The defamation bill was a product of the prime minister’s desire to curb ‘criminal imputation’ and ‘scurrilous writings’. Allegedly, what pushed him to introduce the measure was a detailed coverage made by the Hindu and the Indian Express of the Bofors scandal that implicated several politicians of the Congress party, including the prime minister. “We will like them (the Press) to read the bill. We are totally convinced that the bill is needed. I am myself convinced that we are proceeding on the right line.” Gandhi had said in a press statement on September 4, 1988.

However, what followed Gandhi’s assertion on the need for placing control over the media was a unified media and public outrage, of the kind never seen before. Leading journalists addressed public meetings in several cities, towns, and villages, educating the masses on the harmful impact of the bill. The introduction of the bill, in fact, bolstered their argument of a government involved in corrupt activities. The protest staged by the media was unified and strategic. In a detailed reportage of the events by journalist Prabhu Chawla, he writes about a strategy employed by journalists in press conferences held by cabinet ministers. At the start of a press conference wherein, a cabinet minister was invited, the senior most journalist would ask him of his opinion on the bill. If he evaded the question, all other journalists would walk out, causing great embarrassment to the minister.

But it was not just a unified media that jolted the Congress leader’s decision to withdraw the bill. Groups of lawyers, students, trade union members and intellectuals all came out on the streets to protest against the authoritarian move of the government. Most noteworthy, however, was the opposition of members within the Congress ranks itself. Most senior members of the Congress were resolutely against the bill. Interestingly, few MPs of the party collected signatures on a memorandum to be submitted to Gandhi, asking him to withdraw the bill. The mounting pressure on the prime minister was further strengthened by the elections looming in the near future. He finally relented, submitting to the mass outrage, thereby re-establishing the freedom of the press.

Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh’s government which engineered the Section 66A which curbs freedom of speech and expression and violates Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, was Introduced in the 2009 amendments to the IT Act. The expressions used in the Section are “vague” and “ambiguous” and that 66A is subject to “wanton abuse” in view of the subjective powers conferred on the police to interpret the law. It has been abused several times. In a letter to the Prasar Bharti board, its CEO Jawhar Sircar claimed the “shadow of government” dents Doordarshan’s “credibility” and criticised the role of Congress government for ignoring requests for more autonomy. Such regulations against freedom of expression by the Congress have also been seen in this millennium. In 2012 the UPA government blocked access to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and also blocked access to an anti-Islam film.

Other Congress Ruled States

Bihar Press bill – In 1982, under a Congress government, Bihar Press Bill of 1982 was introduced by the then Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra. The bill had given the state government the authority to restrict publishing of ‘grossly indecent’, ‘scurrilous matter’ or one that was ‘intended for blackmail’. Journalists violating the bill could land in jail for two years for the first offence.

West Bengal – In 1975, just before Indira Gandhi had imposed the emergency, the then West Bengal Chief Minister Siddartha Shankar Ray was advised by Congress leader Om Mehta to cut the electricity supply to newspaper offices so that the critical news of emergency being posed did not reach the masses. The Congress government led by Indira Gandhi had reduced advertising on newspapers that were critical of its policies.

Karnataka – In 2018, the Congress-JDS government in Karnataka had arrested Santhosh Thammayya, a journalist with paper HosaDigantha on 13th November 2018 around midnight for making an anti-Tipu speech. The Karnataka police had arrested Santosh after he spoke critically against Tipu Sultan.

Maharashtra – On April 23, 2020, Republic TV Chief Arnab Goswami was attacked by the Congress party workers after he had questioned Congress President Sonia Gandhi over her silence on the Palghar lynching case. On April 27, Arnab Goswami was interrogated for over 12 hours by Mumbai Police at NM Joshi Marg Police station in Mumbai. He was questioned after the Congress party filed more than 150 FIRs against him in various states of the country. Again, in November 2020 Arnab Goswami, was arrested at his home in Mumbai, Maharashtra, for his alleged role in the death of Anvay Naik, who died by suicide in 2018. Later officials of Republic TV were arrested one or the other pretext.

(Source: Freepress Journal, Indian Express, Opindia, Organiser, The Newyork Times)

VSK Chennai

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