Press and Democracy
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TOPIC: General Studies 2
- Pressure groups and formal/informal associations and their role in the Polity
- Development processes and the development industry the role of NGOs, SHGs, various groups and associations, donors, charities, institutional and other stakeholders
Freedom of the press and journalistic ethics is an important topic today in India — with the word ‘press’ encompassing the electronic media also.
Technology has led to a phenomenal growth in the means of communication, bombarding the public with unprecedented volumes of data, information and, not least, opinion. This has had many positive outcomes: foremost, it has broken the shackles of silence imposed on the powerless. The sense of liberation that the Internet and social media especially, allows, has ensured that everyone has a voice and that even small voices in the remotest areas can be heard. The average citizen has been truly empowered in her ability to speak out and to find out.
All of this growth has resulted in a plurality and diversity in the access to information. There is a whole new information world out there to be tapped by our people across the length and breadth of the country. However, the downside is that the sheer scale and volume of data and information means that much of what is available today remains unfiltered and unmediated. In many cases, even unchecked.
Rise of the Press
Historically, the media have been organs of the people against feudal oppression. In Europe, the media played a major role in transforming a feudal society into a modern one. The print media played a role in preparing for, and during, the British, American and French Revolutions. The print media were used by writers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Junius and John Wilkes in the people’s fight against feudalism and despotism. Everyone knows of the great stir created by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ during the American Revolution, or of the letters of Junius during the reign of the despotic George III.
The media became powerful tools in the hands of the people then because they could not express themselves through the established organs of power: those organs were in the hands of feudal and despotic rulers. Hence, the people had to create new organs that would serve them. It is for this reason that that the print media became known as the Fourth Estate. In Europe and America, they represented the voice of the future, in contrast to the feudal or despotic organs that wanted to preserve the status quo in society. In the 20th century, other types of media emerged: radio, television and the Internet.
Freedom of press – The importance
Flow of information and ideas: It is the means by which people receive free flow of information and ideas, which is essential to intelligent self-governance, that is, democracy.
To create an opinion: For a proper functioning of democracy it is essential that citizens are kept informed about news from various parts of the country and even abroad, because only then can they form rational opinions. Hence, the media play an important role in a democracy and serve as an agency of the people to gather news for them.
Highlight issues: In India, the media have played a historical role in providing information to the people about social and economic evils – the tremendous poverty in the country, the suicide of farmers in various States, the honour killings in many places by Khap panchayats, corruption, and so on.
With great freedom comes great responsibility
The media has a great responsibility to see that the news they present is accurate and serve the interest of the people. If the media convey false news that may harm the reputation of a person or a section of society, it may do great damage since reputation is a valuable asset for a person. Even if the media subsequently correct a statement, the damage done may be irreparable. Hence, the media should take care to carefully investigate any news item before reporting it.
Sometimes the media present twisted or distorted news that may contain an element of truth but also an element of untruth. This, too, should be avoided because a half-truth can be more dangerous than a total lie. The media should avoid giving any slant to news, and avoid sensationalism and yellow journalism. Only then will they gain the respect of the people and fulfil their true role in a democracy.
In an open society like ours, we need a responsible press to hold power to account. This is why freedom of press under Article 19 (1)(A) of the Constitution is subject only to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, public order, decency, contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence.”
The Supreme Court has held that ‘freedom of speech and of the press is the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy’ because public criticism is essential to the working of its institutions. In this age of ‘post-truths’ and ‘alternative facts’ where ‘advertorials’ and ‘response features’ edge-out editorials, “we would do well to recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of the press playing its role of a watchdog in democracy and look at the ethos and principles that powered his journalism.”
Is freedom of the press an absolute freedom?
In India, freedom of the press has been treated as part of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, vide Brij Bhushan and Another vs. The State of Delhi, AIR 1950 SC 129 and Sakal Papers (P) Ltd vs. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305, among others. However, as mentioned in Article 19(2), reasonable restrictions can be placed on this right, in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Hence, freedom of the media is not an absolute freedom.
- Our people face enormous inequalities which need to be articulated and highlighted continuously – by the media — in order to ensure they are addressed by those who govern. For it to be able to aim for the highest standards of professionalism, journalists and media organizations must turn the spotlight inwards, on themselves. They must hold themselves to the standards they demand of others.
- Press and the media are considered to be the fourth pillar of the democracy. It wields extra ordinary powers of not only holding the other three pillars accountable, but also influencing and shaping public opinion like no other institution of democracy can. While this enormous power, to sustain itself requires the basic dictum of freedom of expression, at the same time it puts an equally enormous responsibility of accountability and credibility on the media itself.
- Media must learn the art of withstanding pulls and pressures without sacrificing its commitment to free and fair reportage and always remain on guard against conformity. Because any tendency towards conformity to be enforced, often requires disguising or dissembling the truth and the facts.
The fundamental task of the Press is to stand up and ask questions with honesty and fairness. That’s the sacred compact it has with citizens in a democracy.
Connecting the Dots:
- A biased an insensitive media is the biggest threat to democracy. Do you agree? Substantiate.
- Media is the intellectual fodder of a nation. However, in India, there is an urgent need to make media more responsible and accountable. Do you agree? Examine.
- Censorship and democracy are incompatible. Critically comment.
- When perceptions are being forged by the media and the internet, how can one be objective? Discuss.
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