‘External regulation could result in perilous departure from cherished principle of freedom of press’https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/external-regulation-could-result-in-perilous-departure-from-cherished-principle-of-freedom-of-press/

‘External regulation could result in perilous departure from cherished principle of freedom of press’

Excerpts from Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam’s speech at the sixth Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards,July 23

Excerpts from Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam’s speech at the sixth Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards,July 23

I am delighted to be invited as the chief guest to the most prestigious Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards. These awards are a class apart from others as they recognise the commitment,courage,enterprise and excellence of the finest in Indian print and broadcast journalism. The Ramnath Goenka Awards have attained their momentum owing to dual reasons. First,it is a tribute to the person who was the kingpin in journalism and,second,the recipients over the years have further boosted the prominence of these awards. I render my appreciation to all the winners of these awards. It is truly an honour to be amongst the finest journalists on this special occasion.

It is universally agreed upon that good journalism and a diverse range of free and strong news media are an indispensable pillar of a democratic government. As James Madison phrased it: “A popular government,without popular information,or the means of acquiring it,is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will for ever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors,must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” It is widely asserted and believed that no one in contemporary democracies does as much to keep people abreast of pubic affairs as journalists do.

The adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 ushered in a global awareness of the recognition and respect for human rights. One common feature of almost all human rights documents is the inclusion of the freedom of,or the right to,speech and expression.

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Freedom of speech and expression,enumerated in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India,is portrayed as the mother of all rights. In the first case involving interpretation of the guaranteed right,Justice Patanjali Sastri said: “There can be no doubt that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of propagation of ideas and that freedom is ensured by the freedom of circulation.” Thereby he upheld the liberty of the press as an essential part of the right to freedom of speech and expression declared by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

It is indeed an indispensable tool,and one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. When this support is taken away,the Constitution is dissolved and tyranny is erected on its ruins. It is the Ark of the Covenant of democracy,because public criticism is essential to the working of its institutions. It is imperative to have a vigorous,vigilant and free press to have democracy blossom to its fullness. A free press means a press free from fear or favour; a press that remains upright in the face of coercion or corruptive allurements. Such a state of the press is possible only if it has enough strength to withstand all these. In order to achieve the same,the press must be made more responsible and should adhere to certain additional norms of ethics,thereby enjoying credibility and confidence in public perception.

An independent judiciary is the bulwark of a free society,as is an independent media and,therefore,it has been designated as the fourth estate,or the fourth branch of government in addition to the legislature,executive and judiciary. As two pillars of democracy,the media and the judiciary need each other,and the public needs both.

The journalist fraternity plays a central role in promoting legal awareness among the masses. While publishing the verdicts of courts,which have in a number of ways expanded people’s rights and protected their interests,livelihoods,privacy and dignity,the media and press indeed generate legal literacy amongst the people.

The media does not merely spread the word but,by publicising wrongs and atrocities,enables the court to take suo motu cognisance of such matters. The media gave justice a million eyes and ears. Therefore,the courts and media must work hand-in-hand for enabling a wider reach of justice to the common masses.

While the role of the media is being acknowledged,it must be mentioned that the free flow of information and free speech is obstructed by limitations and restrictions that are usually brought to bear in the context of constitutional and legal provisions. All the major legal systems of the world,including ours,recognise that the expression of facts and ideas and opinions can never be absolutely free. Words can do damage in many ways even if they are true,such as by prejudicing a trial or by inciting communal hatred. Aptly remarked,“free speech is what is left of speech after the law has had its say.”

It is admitted on all hands that if the freedom of the press is to be safeguarded and cherished by society itself,then it cannot verge on licence. If any section of the press fails to act responsibly,there must be some machinery to deal with it. The temptation to correct the media through an external regulatory authority may seem a dominant urge,but it is surely not the answer. The press is naturally and rightly touchy about it. External regulation could result in a perilous departure from the cherished principle of the freedom of the press as the sine qua non of our democracy. So what can the media do to deal with the lapses from professional ethics?

Gandhiji in his autobiography mentioned,“The newspaper is a great power,but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops,even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without,it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.” Thus,one thought that is fairly straightforward,and is consistent with the freedom of thought and expression,is self-regulation by the profession itself. This supposes two concurrent roles on the Press Council: on the one hand,to deal with cases of violation of journalistic ethics in order to maintain high standards; on the other hand,to uphold and defend the freedom of the press.

To meet the commercial concerns in a highly competitive environment,in an attempt to be the first to break the news,sensational and provocative headlines are flashed even before all facts have been fully verified. The most deceptive aspect in this context is the trial by media. It has resulted in a real conflict because it involves two conflicting principles — free press and free trial,in both of which the public is vitally interested. The ever-increasing tendency to use the media while the matter is subjudice has been frowned upon by the courts on several occasions. Recently,a Constitution bench of the apex court dealt with this issue. It is of extreme public interest that no conduct should be permitted which is likely to prevent a litigant in a court of justice from having his case tried freely and fairly. A media that cherishes its independence must recognise that this freedom is as essential for the judiciary to deliver justice as it is for the media to observe its impartiality.

The press in India is fast-growing ahead of its counterparts in several Western and developed countries. Here comes the responsibility on the shoulders of journalists to ensure that while marching on the road to growth,it preserves its values and heritage that have given our country a unique place in the world.

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These awards celebrate the values that stand for good journalism. I once again congratulate all the winners.

Thank You!