World Press Freedom Day: Why we also need restrictions

Journalism is under threat --- from itself. Our Constitution that gives citizens the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression has been and continues to be stretched to levels its founding fathers possibly didn’t plan for. The case of a Delhi schoolteacher, who, following a fake sting operation by a TV channel that reported she was forcing students into prostitution, endured a public beating, social stigma and 10 days in jail, may have been forgotten in the age of short attention spans. But the damage to this innocent schoolteacher and her family’s reputation, leave aside the internal scars, could be permanent.

 World Press Freedom Day: Why we also need restrictions


The proliferation of social media has brought a new dimension to this problem. The huge number of online trolls could, at one level, be seen as an expression of anger by people who largely choose to abuse anonymously. Face to face, no sane person would dare to speak what many trolls tweet. I had explored the idea of ending online anonymity in an earlier column. Since then, some of this abusive behaviour has been adopted by fairly well-known faces.

All this is done behind the Constitutional shield called free speech. But neither traditional media like print and TV or new media like internet, social media and their convergence, have unfettered freedom. In judgement after judgement by judges of High Courts and Supreme Court, the protection of free speech under Article 19(1)(a) has been almost immediately followed by the phrase of “reasonable restriction” in the subsequent Article 19(2).

“This freedom is not absolute and unlimited at all times and under all circumstances but is subject to the restrictions contained in Article 19(2),” said justices AN Sen, ES Venkataramiah and RB Misra in an October 1985 judgement. “Unrestricted freedom of speech and expression which includes the freedom of the press and is wholly free from restraints, amounts to uncontrolled licence which would lead to disorder and anarchy,” the judgement ‘‘Express Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. and Others versus Union of India (UOI) and Others’ stated.

“The freedom of the media is not absolute,” said News Broadcasting Standards Authority chairperson Justice RV Raveendran in a discussion on media regulation. “The ability to do good rarely comes without some power to do harm and the free press is no exception to this general rule,” said Broadcasting Content Complaints Council chairperson Justice AP Shah. “Freedom comes with responsibility,” said Press Council of India (PCI) chairman Justice Markandey Katju.

An article in a newspaper or magazine, a programme on TV, an online blog post, a tweet and so on, are all products of public consumption. Even if it is less than 140 characters on Twitter, for instance, assassinating the character of a person or an institution amounts to defamation. This falls under the ‘reasonable restrictions’ clause under Article 19(2) as well as Section 499 under the Indian Penal Code. Remember, there is a ‘media’ in the term ‘social media’.

A reasonable restriction is different from reasonable criticism. Critiquing government policy, a politician’s statements, a company’s actions and so on based on and backed by facts is reasonable criticism and must be encouraged in any democracy, and certainly India’s --- it’s indeed our job and for which we get the protection of Article 19(1)(a). But damaging reputations of citizens, companies, governments, legislative bodies and the judiciary, do not form part of free speech. The ‘reasonable restriction’ clause will come to life, we will have to deal with and be sensitive to Article 19(2).

Right to free speech and expression is a fundamental right that must be protected. But it can’t be an unfettered right --- it not an absolute right anywhere in the world. Reporters and editors in general and citizens on social media in particular would do well to engage with and understand the idea of the expression ‘reasonable restrictions’. And then, armed with that knowledge, deepen India’s democracy. As a new government comes to power later this month, it would be a good time to open out and expand this debate.

Disclosure: The author works as New Media Director for Reliance Industries Ltd, India’s largest company that has sent legal notices to two well-known senior journalists.

The Reliance Group has funded the promoter of Network18, which publishes Firstpost

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Updated Date: May 03, 2014 20:41:26 IST