“I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.”
This was the opinion of the first prime minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. A statement made by a stalwart like him shows the essential role of media in the functioning of democracy but he too with subtlety, adduced the dangers involved with a completely free press.
In the words of Benito Mussolini-
“Democracy is a kingless regime infested by many kings who are sometimes more exclusive, tyrannical and destructive than one, if he be a tyrant”. It is the fear of being exposed by the media before the public that most of the politicians keep themselves under control to some extent”
By Mayank Tiwari and Swapnil Nayan 29 October 2020
But the recent events suggest that the media have deviated from reporting the news to making news which has been guided by the hunger of high television ratings. This has often made Media houses mold news to create a sensation. The event of Palghar in Maharashtra has been a perfect example. A renowned journalist was booked for promoting enmity and defamation. It was alleged that the media house wrongly gave a mob-lynching incident a communal angle and also made an outrageous remark on the leader of a national party.
Thus, the liberty bestowed on the media has proven to be a ‘Double-edged sword’. Still, the advocates of a free press argue that curtailing the voice of the media would be curtailing the voice of the people. The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Express Newspapers remarked that,
“Liberty does corrupt into license and is prone to be abused. Every institution is liable to be abused, and every liberty, if left unbridled has the tendency to become a license which would lead to disorder and anarchy.”
The contemporary conundrum has emanated from the expansion of the influence of media vis-à-vis increased omnipresence of the media with a high potent impact on the people. The role of the press as a ‘watchdog’ is a traditional characterization of the role of news media. This traditional approach of the media has been shattered. Media, instead of reporting the functioning of state machinery have also begun running the parallel investigation, trial, and conviction. An extensive proof of this assertion has been the media coverage of the mysterious death of Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput. The media must be acknowledged for its role as a watchdog which unveiled several laches in the investigation by the state authorities, but it must also be criticized on its leap from the traditional approach to its modern incarnated approach of conducting suo-motu investigations showcasing witnesses with impugned credibility in the name of ‘Sensational Revelations’ and arriving at conclusions through various theories. In the act, several actors, politicians, directors, and producers have fallen prey to the various allegations bringing their reputation at stake.
This modern-day practice has been termed as ‘Media Trial’. Strangely enough, the media has been successful in achieving public attention over the matter which has further exacerbated its hunger for heavy TRPs. This has created a very critical situation as a plethora of people stand under the risk of destroyed prospects even if a slight mention of them is made which may or may not to be proved further in the court.
This abysmal situation has brought down the works of media from public services quenching people’s right to know to become a party for criminal defamation.
In the times of the technological revolution, where the electronic media is ubiquitous, it has become a piece of cake for the media houses to make or break the reputation of any public figure or government, as people bestow their trust and do not question the veracity of the news. Therefore, extra caution on the part of the media is necessary.
- Legal Status Of The Press And Media- A Constitutional Perspective
“The democratic credentials are judged by the extent of freedom of press enjoys in that state”
In India, the Apex Court has laid sheer emphasis on the importance of maintaining freedom of the press as the legitimate duty of the press is to furnish the true facts and opinions in the light of public interest. This has been elucidated to such an extent that in, Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) P Ltd v. UOI, the Hon’ble Court opined that, any law or administrative action which interferes with the freedom of the press, should be invalidated. It is pertinent to understand that this immunity or right bestowed upon the press is in the light of Article 19(1)(a). This clearly implies that the press has to act within the sanctioned legal restrictions of this Article, which includes, public order, security/integrity of the state, public decency, and morality of the state.
It is explicitly evident that the press plays a vital role in the domain of public order, as the information may be welcomed differently by different groups and any imbalance may certainly lead to disturbance in public tranquility and thereby hampering the public order. The press has to take extra-ordinary caution while exercising this right, even in the time of COVID, the gap between the outer world and the home is fulfilled by the media.
The freedom of the press is a privilege in the modern democratic state and misusing this right to lower the prestige of Judges and Courts is never justified. This right also leaves a dynamic room for fair criticism in the administration of justice without any attributing motives. The right to freedom also flows through the filter of Defamation, which is viewed from the perspective of the public and through the microscopic view of an individual and this should be exercised keeping in mind the dignity and reputation of an individual. The media must ensure, a legitimate moral element in their content, maintaining contemporary decency at the same time.
Therefore, it is the judicious duty of the press to exercise the right in a legitimate manner, uncompromising the security of the state, public order, the status of the Courts, an individual’s reputation, and morality of the state.
- What Should Be The Role Of Media In A Democracy?
- Media can play a massive role by being a medium for social change and acts as an influencer. The media can perform ground-level research and empirical work for the Government and aid in formulating the policies. The media can ensure public participation and this is the classic essence of democracy. The emotional fallacy and soft fronts captured by the media should be minimized and one-sided opinions, hitting the defamatory notes must be restricted. The media should take care of the “Right to know” an exclusive right of the people so that effective public participation in the true events is possible.
- Media is an institution like the legislature, executive, and judiciary. Therefore, conforming to the principles of democracy, a check on its functioning is needed but it mustn’t curtail the freedom of speech and expression. Therefore, a regulatory measure subject to judicial scrutiny must be devised by the legislature, which would ensure a check on the media considering its multifariousness and extensive impact on the public. Judiciary must ensure that the regulation measures do not infringe on the Freedom of the press and People’s Right to Know. The state must also set up tribunals to adjudge violations conducted by the media. This would ensure fast disposal of matters and also would not increase the burden on the already over-burdened Judiciary.
- For the measures to be effective it is necessary for the public that they do not stay oblivious as people play a significant role in the propagation of news. Therefore, they must examine their fiduciary trust in the media and should not blindly believe anything asserted by the media. People must critically analyse the news and try to develop their conscience and should devise a self-opinion on matters.
- Media and Democracy are the complementary facets of each other. In a celebrated democracy like India, media should reflect the ideology of the Government policies to its subject. The approach of the media should reflect cultural pluralism and act as a vigilant ‘watchdog’ in society. The goal-centric role of the media must conform to the notions of public participation and effective scrutinization of the Government policies and actions. Therefore, the role of media should be instrumental in shaping the democracy, not corroding the constitutional fabric of the nation by misusing the rights and status granted to them.
 Express Newspapers v. U.O.I. (1997) 1 SCC 133
 Printers Mysore Ltd v. Asst. Commercial Tax Officer (1994) 2 SCC 434
 AIR 1986 SC 515
 Re: DC Saxena AIR 1996 SC 2481
 Rajendra Sail v. MP HC Bar Association, (2005) 6 SCC 109