By Vivek Pattanayak in Bhubaneswar, March 27, 2024: Harold J Laski in his magnum opus, Grammar of Politics considered as the Bible to the students of political science during the most part of the twentieth century, as early as 1919 while dealing with the subject of sovereignty famously stated that “governments are made responsible less by the laws they must obey than by character they will encounter.

A public opinion that is informed and organized is worth, for this purpose, all the checks and balances that have been described by political philosophers. For as the governments degenerate, they are forced to live at a high level, soalso, improve where they meet the alert and erect intelligence of men. It is integral to this conception of the mechanism of political responsibility that every state should possess a vigorous and independent judiciary.

Judges themselves if they are appointed by, mustalso be irremovable by, the executive…Two otherconsiderations are here of the first importance.The avenue to responsibility lies along the road of critical publicity.The freedom of a persondepends, toa degree we are only beginning to realize, upon the quality of the news with which it is supplied.Its press must be free to attack authority in whatever manner it thinks fit,to publish what it pleases,to defend what program it desires,the only limitation being the law of libel.”

How best to secure the supply of adequate and truthful news is another questionwhich requires open and transparent debate. To quote Laski again, “anyone who has watched, forinstance, the way in which newspaper can turn the public mind to the direction their proprietor’s desire will realize that an alliance between the government and the press might be fatal to the very heart of democratic government.”

Edmund Burke the famously known in the Indian history for impeachment of Warren Hastings, as a liberal thinker described the Press as the fourth estate as independent of other estates like clergy, nobility and commoners represented in the British Parliament. Such was the prestige of journalists, Oscar Wilde stated that we are “dominated by journalism” when others are silent. No wonder in the American system it was considered as the fourth branch of government in addition to executive, legislature, and judiciary, known as fulcrum of government as institutions of separation of power. Character of independence and fearlessness of press was best demonstrated during the Watergate scandal which brought fall of the then President Nixon.

The source of freedom of press under the Indian Constitution is Right to Freedom under Article 19 (1) (a) although not explicitly stated but based upon a number of decisions of the apex judiciary of the country. Further, press freedom is protected under Article 361A of the Constitution which refers to protection of publications of proceedings of Parliament and State Legislatures. It may be relevant to mention that after independence in the year 1956, Feroz Gandhi introduced a private member’s bill which led to enactment of Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act1956, long known as the Feroz Gandhi Act.Constitutional protection to the media replaced the statutory provision soon after the emergency. It is needless to assert that freedom of newspapers in India have evolved even from the colonial times.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression without interference and to seek, receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, in Article 19 reiterates this right.These reflect how fundamental is freedom of media to human rights.

Media in India was under curb during Emergency declared under Article 352 of the Constitution by way of pre-censorship of news. It has also not escaped attacks and curbs when there is no emergency. Discrimination in giving government advertisementsor their complete stoppage has been modes followed by the executive governments in trying to tame the media and restrict its freedom notwithstanding judicial decisions or directives. Attempt to control media through hostile takeover of shares is also another mode. Nexus between business and media also defeatsthe exalted status of media as an independent institution of a vibrant democracy.

Media includes print, TV, radio, and news agency, and embraces also journalists, anchors and most importantly their proprietors. Although with ubiquity of internet in the last many years social media has made an extensive coverage in the domain, traditional media remains the most important source of information, comments, views, and debates which enrich democratic space of a country. Interestingly in dictatorial regimes the media show remarkable autonomy in terms of disseminating information and even criticizing government and its agencies.

No wonder there is expectation that in constitutional democracies the media should remain fearless and retain their freedom and zealously guard against illegal and unethical encroachment.Political alignment of media is unfortunate and disastrous.Attempt is made often to confuse the border between publicity and propaganda.Germany suffered during the Nazi rule when Goebbels sincerely believedthat a lie repeated hundred times becomes truth.

May members of the media community introspect whether they are discharging their sacred duties and inalienable obligations vested on them over decades by laws whether national or international, conventions, customs, judicial pronouncements, and expressions of eminent political thinkers. May the free and fearless media become the guardrails of constitutional democracy.

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