The freedom of press in the last centuries
Thomas Jefferson, the second President of America, who drafted his countrys Constitution, aptly said that our liberty depends on the freedom of the Press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. The Press, which seeks to entertain as well as educate, informs the readers about global and local happenings, and interprets the same for the common good. Indeed, it is being one of the most important institutions in an open society and is a forum that reaches out to a very large number of people.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy was one of the earliest champions of the freedom of the Press in India. Like John Milton, he, too, championed the concept of freedom in writing. In his words, Where no freedom of the Press existed, and grievances consequently remained unrepresentable and unredressed, innumerable revolutions have taken place in all parts of the globe, or if prevented by the armed force of the Government, the people continued ready for insurrection.
In our Constitution, Right to Freedom (Arts 19-22) is a vital part of the Fundamental Rights enshrined therein. And there is no other way of expressing oneself than through the written word, i.e., the Press. A free Press is, therefore, an essential instrument for ensuring openness in society, as also for reforming it. In a society where over-whelming millions are mute, the access to a forum that reaches them must be viewed as a trust to be operated on their behalf and for their larger good.
The written word is only one of the instruments of change. It has only a limited effect in such a society as ours. Nevertheless, it serves as an important source of information to different sections of the people and has far- reaching effect on government policies and plans.
In our country, too, attempts have been made from time to time to control the Press. The first Indian newspaper, Hickeys Bengal Gazette of 1781 was banned by Warren Hastings, and government censorship of Indian papers continued to be quite strict till 1835 when Lord Matcaife liberated the Indian Press. State interference with the Press did not, however, disappear altogether. During the days of the Partition of Bengal and national movement, the British imposed severe restrictions on the Press.
Even after Independence strict censorship was imposed by the Government during the emergency days of 1975-77. The worst form of control of the Press was found in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Dr. Gobbels completely muzzled the Press in Germany. The same thing happened in Italy. In Russia, too, the Press is not free, although the Russian paper, Pravada, is said to have the largest circulation in the world. In dictatorship, the Press is slave of the government. Journalist and editors write to order. Hence, the press does not, and cannot discharge its primary functions, viz., mirroring public opinion.
The press enjoys freedom in a democracy. In England, for instance, the Press has enjoyed a very large measure of freedom and the British have, therefore, attained a very high level of journalism. The USA, however, extends the greatest freedom to the Press. There freedom of the Press is guaranteed under their Constitution. Under our Constitution, this freedom is implicit in the freedom of speech and expression granted to every citizen as one of the fundamental rights.
Now the question arises Can the Press be completely free ? Not even the greatest democrat would say an unqualified Yes in answer. Liberty of thought may be complete, but the liberty of expressing that thought, is bound to be subject to some restrictions. There would obviously be chaos in the world if everybody were allowed to say or publish what he thought and felt. Sacred subjects like God, religious opinion or personal reputation are beyond the sphere of criticism. Freedom of discussion cannot obviously be allowed to degenerate into freedom of abuse. Every country punishes blasphemy and personal liberty.
Freedom of the Press is sacred privilege, but it requires great tact and patience to exercise it properly. Man is generally governed by passions and prejudices, and newspapers are not independent organs of public opinion. They are usually party papers or are owned or controlled by big business magnate, combines and other interests. They must necessarily echo their masters voice.
They must shape and present news and views only in accordance with the policy of the party or interests concerned, and at their dictation. This advocacy of parties and groups involves great dangers. Unhealthy rivalry and bitter controversies often spring up among papers representing conflicting points of view. Truth is coloured and distorted and the word is made to appear the better reason.
Freedom of the Press, like all other freedoms, carries with it certain obligations. Publication of correct news is one of them. Avoidance of mischievous or malafide criticism of the government , and of abusive .and obscene writing is another. The idea is that liberty should not degenerate into license.