Curtailing Press Freedom

Rajan Gandhi
On February 11, 1976, with the approval of the legislature, Mrs. Gandhi’s Government presented journalists with the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matters Act of 1976. It empowered competent authority to serve warning, to confiscate objectionable materials and state police officers were authorized to seize unauthorized newspapers.
In a subsequent report presented before Parliament, it was revealed that during the emergency Mrs. Gandhi ruthlessly distorted and manipulated the country press, radio and television media. Two Commissions were set up by the Government after emergency to enquire into excesses related to the press. According to the Das Commission Report, 253 journalists were arrested during the emergency, 51 journalists and cameramen were deprived of accreditation, 7 foreign correspondents were expelled from the country and 29 foreign correspondents were banned from entering India. The press as a whole did not stand up against the emergency. It crawled during this period whereas it was expected to bend only. The Shah Commission’s findings charged Mrs. Gandhi’s Government resorting to cutting off the electricity of newspaper offices on June 26, the day after the emergency was proclaimed in order to buy time to set up the apparatus of the censorship. Three days later when the censorship machinery was set up, the power supply was resumed. The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting designated newspapers as either hostile, friendly or neutral and issued instructions to withhold or reduce advertisements from hostile and neutral newspapers and to increase advertisements in friendly newspapers. With the exception of the few journalists and newspapers, most of the Indian press yielded to the Government’s wishes. The Indian press during the Emergency, used to be filled with the insipid handouts of the Ministry of Information. Every spark of intellectual independence had been snuffed out and what was reported appeared to be nothing more than Government propaganda.
The emergency was lifted in March 1977 and in the subsequent elections Mrs. Gandhi lost power and the Janta Party under the Prime Minister ship of Morarji Desai came into power. This marked the swing from control of the press back to freedom of the press and removal of all restrictions upon it. While Mrs. Gandhi was authoritarian, Morarji Desai was liberal in personality and values. He appointed L.K. Advani as his Minister for Information and Broadcasting. On April 18, within one month of taking the reins of the government, Desai obtained the approval of both Houses of Parliament and the signature of the President for repeal of the Prevention of Publication of the objectionable Matter Act of 1976, and approving the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act of 1977. Freedom of the press thus returned to India and the status of the press was restored to that of the pre-emergency era. Mrs. Gandhi returned to power in 1980 and on January 15, the day after taking office, Mrs. Gandhi cautioned the press to be more objective and to exercise self restraint.
Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister after the assassination of his mother in 1984. He came to power on the crest of a wave of sympathy so he had a smooth relationship with the public and the press for the first few years. The press started becoming critical of his government afterwards and so he got the Defamation Bill, 1988, passed in Lok Sabha, again an attempt to suppress the press. This was an indication of a swing from freedom of the press in the first three years to restriction of this freedom in the last two years of his rule. The mounting pressure of the public and the press forced the government to withdraw the Bill without referring it to the Rajya Sabha. However, it showed that like his mother, Rajiv Gandhi could not tolerate criticism of his government and was willing to curtail the freedom of the press.
In 2009, Section 66A was added to the Information Technology Act again by the Congress-led government and was subsequently used against Cartoonists among others. The illiberal section was however invalidated by the apex court. It is evident from the history that freedom of the press since its inception in the 1780s various governments have took measures both during the pre and post-independence period to curtail the freedom of the press. There were more Governor Generals and Viceroys who passed laws imposing restrictions on the press than those who relaxed such restrictions. After independence also, laws continued to be passed imposing restrictions on the press. There was always confrontation between the government and the press and it will remain in future also. Yes present government is also culprit to the extent that it has done nothing to roll back the wrong doings of earlier governments. One must understand media is the fourth and vital pillar of Democracy.
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

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