The Editors Guild of India(EGI) has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored SIT probe into the reports of state surveillance of journalists, activists and politicians using the Isreali spyware Pegasus. The Guild discusses in the petition how the freedom of the press relies on non-interference by the government and its agencies while journalists carry out reporting while investigating corruption, abuse of power and while engaging with confidential sources.
What is the Freedom of Press?
The press have a variety of rights including the right to publish, right to circulate, right to receive information, right to advertise, right to dissent, etc. The freedom of speech and expression involves the right to express by word of mouth, writing, printing, picture or any other manner. It also includes the freedom of communication and the right to propagate or publish one’s view.
The Constitution of India does not specifically mention the freedom of press. However, the rights of the press in India arise out of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Can press freedom be curtailed by the Government?
Yes, the press is subject to the restrictions that are provided under the Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which constitute reasonable restrictions, on grounds of — the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency, morality, or in relation to contempt of court,defamation or incitement to an offence.
Does the press have the right to publish and circulate any information?
The right to free speech and expression of the press includes the right not only to publish but also to circulate information and opinions. Many cases including Romesh Thappar v State of Madras (1950) have held the freedom of circulation to be as essential as the freedom of publication. In Sakal Papers v Union of India (1962) the Supreme Court stated that States cannot make laws which directly violate the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the Constitution. In particular laws, like the POCSO (child sexual abuse) law in India, the press are not supposed to publish the details of any child victims on any forum.
Can the press criticize the Government?
Freedom of speech and expression under Article19(1)(a) of the press also covers the right to criticize the government as well as the right to hold unpopular or unconventional views. The law commonly used to curtail such criticism is known as the sedition law under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Even though FIR’s are commonly filed using the sedition law against the press, Courts have held that commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies is not the same as disloyalty towards the Government. As long as the words used by a person do not lead to people feeling enmity and disloyalty towards the Government and public disorder or use of violence, it is not an act of sedition.
Does the press need to take consent of the people they interview?
Yes, the right to conduct interviews is a limited right of the press and can only be exercised if there is willing consent from the person being interviewed. There are several cases of the Supreme Court where the right of the press to interview convicts or undertrials has been examined. In Prabha Dutt v Union of India (1982) the press was seeking to interview the prisoners in jail. The Court held that the press does not have the absolute or unrestricted right to information and an interview may be conducted only if the prisoners give their consent.
Can the press report court proceedings?
Journalists have the right to attend proceedings in court and the right to publish a faithful report of the proceedings witnessed and heard in Court. Courts also have the power to restrict the publicity of proceedings in the interest of justice. The Supreme Court case Naresh Shridhar v State of Maharashtra(1967) clarified this further stating that Courts can hold “in camera proceedings”, restricting access to the public and the press, where the Court feels that justice would be defeated if the case were to be tried in open Court.
The press also has a right to report legislative proceedings of the Parliament and State Assemblies as long as the publication is untainted by malice. This is a right that is also given in the Parliamentary Proceedings (Protection of Publication) Act, 1977.