Freedom of Press and Media Laws in India

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“If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson

Recent Updates Related To Freedom of Press In India:

Let's go through the three instances related to freedom of press and media laws in India:

  1. The Supreme Court recently said it did not want press freedom to be muzzled even as it granted interim protection to journalists of a news website from any coercive action by the State of Uttar Pradesh. “We are aware of fundamental rights. We do not want press freedom to be muzzled,” Justice L. Nageswara Rao in a judgment regarding the Foundation for Independent Journalism.
  2. In the second instance, the higher judiciary passed an order that pertains to the regulation of Media. In one order, Andhra Pradesh High Court imposed a ban on the media, and even social media, from mentioning anything in relation to a case linked to the former Advocate General of the State.
  3. In the third case, the Supreme Court passed an interim order which stopped the telecast of the remaining episodes of a news channel, as it was engaged in the vilification of a particular community. Though both the order will have consequences for free speech and the citizen’s right to receive information, they should be seen in different contexts.

While the first order may be envisaged to prevent possible defamation or invasion of privacy or at protecting the fairness of a trial or investigation, the other may be seen as putting a check on the propagation of hate. In this context, there is a need for a fine balance between the rights of individuals and freedom of media.

What is the definition of Freedom of Press?

The term "freedom of press" refers to the government's minimal interference in the operation of the press in any form of communication, including print (newspapers, magazines, journals, and reports); audio (radio, podcasts); video (news channels, OTT platforms like YouTube); and other electronic mediums such as news apps, social media feeds, and so on.

According to Lord Mansfield, press liberty "consists of printing without any permission subject to the consequences of law." As a result, we can conclude that freedom of press refers to the ability to say whatever one wants without seeking permission from the government.

About Freedom Of Press and Media Laws in India:

Freedom of Press in India is indeed an integral part of the freedom of expression and an essential requisite of a democratic setup.  The Indian Constitution has granted this freedom by way of Fundamental Right.  The media, which is obligated to respect the rights of individuals, is also obligated to work within the framework of legal principles and statutes.  These principles/statutes have been framed by way of minimum standards and do not intend to detract from higher standards of protection to the freedom of expression.

Freedom of press and Media Freedom in India is legally protected by the Amendment to the constitution of India, while the sovereignty, national integrity, and moral principles are generally protected by the media laws in India to maintain a hybrid legal system for independent journalism. In India, media bias or misleading information is restricted under certain constitutional amendments as described by the country's constitution. The media crime is covered by the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which is applicable to all substantive aspects of criminal law.

Media systems of the world vary from each other according to the economy, polity, religion and culture of different societies. In societies, which followed communism and totalitarianism, like the former USSR and China, there were limitations of what the media could say about the government. Almost everything that was said against the State was censored for fear of revolutions. On the other hand, in countries like the USA, which have a Bourgeois Democracy, almost everything is allowed.

Historical Background of Media Laws in India

Media laws in India have a long history and are deeply rooted in the country’s colonial experience under British rule. The earliest regulatory measures can be traced back to 1799 when Lord Wellesley promulgated the Press Regulations, which had the effect of imposing pre-censorship on an infant newspaper publishing industry. The onset of 1835 saw the promulgation of the Press Act, which undid most of, the repressive features of earlier legislations on the subject.

Thereafter on 18th June 1857, the government passed the ‘Gagging Act’, which among various other things, introduced compulsory licensing for the owning or running of printing presses; empowered the government to prohibit the publication or circulation of any newspaper, book or other printed material and banned the publication or dissemination of statements or news stories which had a tendency to cause a furore against the government, thereby weakening its authority.

However, the most significant day in the history of Media Regulations was the 26th of January 1950 – the day on which the Constitution was brought into force. The colonial experience of the Indians made them realise the crucial significance of the ‘Freedom of Press’. Such freedom was therefore incorporated in the Constitution; to empower the Press to disseminate knowledge to the masses and the Constituent Assembly thus, decided to safeguard this ‘Freedom of Press’ as a fundamental right. Although the Indian Constitution does not expressly mention the liberty of the press, it is evident that the liberty of the press is included in the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). It is however pertinent to mention that such freedom is not absolute but is qualified by certain clearly defined limitations under Article 19(2) in the interests of the public.

Article 19: Constitutional Provisions of India:

19 (1) (a) secures to every citizen the freedom of speech and expression. This has to be read with clause (2) which provides that the said right shall not prevent the operation of law relating to the matters specified therein.

The freedom of the press is not confined to newspapers, and periodicals, but also includes pamphlets, leaflets, circulars, and every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion. There is no need to emphasise that a free press, which is neither directed by the executive nor subjected to censorship, is a vital element in a free state; but in particular, a free, regularly published, political press is essential in the modern democracy.

Therefore, the press keeps and enlightens the citizens to make political decisions, know the opinion of others to weigh them up against each other. The press, thus provides the information, adopts its own point of view, and thus works as a direction giving force to the public debate. It stands as a permanent means of communication and control between the people and their elected representatives in Parliament and Government.  Banning of publication in any newspaper of any matter relating to any particular subject or class of subjects would be obnoxious to the right of free speech. It is certainly a serious encroachment on the valuable and cherished right to freedom of speech.

The Freedom of speech and Expression includes the freedom of propagation of ideas and is ensured by the freedom of circulation.The right to freedom of speech cannot be taken away with the object of placing restrictions on the business activities of a citizen.

Freedom of speech can be restricted only in the interests of the security of the state, friendly relations with the foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. It cannot, like the freedom to carry on business, be curtailed in the interests of the general public. ‘It is the duty of the state to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the state. The state cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression’.

Significance of Freedom of Press in India:

Free Media promotes open discussion of ideas that allows individuals to fully participate in political life, making informed decisions and strengthening society as a result — especially in a large democracy such as India.

A free exchange of ideas, free exchange of information and knowledge, debating and expression of different viewpoints is important for smooth functioning of democracy. As the free media by virtue of being the voice of the masses, empowers them with the right to express opinions. Thus, free media is critical in a democracy.

With Free Media, people will be able to exercise their rights by questioning decisions of the government. Such an environment can be created only when freedom of press is achieved. Hence, Media can be rightly considered as the fourth pillar of democracy, the other three being legislature, executive and judiciary.

Importance Of Freedom Of Press and Media Laws In India

 Let’s see the importance of Freedom Of Press In India, say media laws in India from different perspectives:

  • Strengthening a nation: Free media works towards strengthening the sovereignty and integrity of a nation.
  • Fundamental to a democratic society: The freedom of press is fundamental to a democratic society like India for it is helpful in strengthening democracy.
  • Check on Government and Administrators: An independent press and news-media press acts as an important check on Government and Administrators.
  • Voice against any social ill or wrong: It is also responsible to raise voice against any social ill or wrong.
  • Acts for the public: At national, regional and local level, it is the public’s voice, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler.
  • Source of information: An unbiased information is important for a democracy and its growth. Media helps in providing critical information to citizens. E.g data on economy, health, education etc. must be correct and accurate without any bias toward the government.
  • Educate: Media is important to educate people on issues that are of utmost importance for society. E.g Increasing number of rape cases are threat to society. It is important to report the exact number of cases and help in sensitising the society.
  • Awareness: Media make society aware of their democratic rights and fight the three institutions of democracy.
  • Watchdog: Media reporting on public affairs and investigations into wrongdoing in the administration of public affairs is must for a healthy democracy. This includes exposing frauds or corruption cases that personally benefit politicians. This helps citizens to vote for the best government, defeating corrupt and dishonest governments.
  • Good Governance: Media plays an important role in auditing government policies and spending. An unbiased media is important for transparent reporting.

Restrictions On Freedom of Press In India

  • The World Press Freedom Index 2021 has been released by the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. Norway topped the index for the fifth year in a row.
  • The report labeled India as “problematic”.
  • It stated that the pandemic was used as means to deny journalists this access and promote government-sponsored propaganda regarding the Covid-19 outbreak.
  • India remained at the 142nd position among 180 countries. India was ranked in the “bad” category, along with Brazil, Mexico and Russia. The report says India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. In 2016, India’s rank was 133, which has steadily climbed down to 142 in 2020. India drew flak for “extremely violent social media hate campaigns” against journalists who “dare to criticise” the government.
  • India slipped two points and 9 places on the World Press Freedom Index ranking and India’s ranking reflects growing bitterness towards journalists. The antagonism towards the media which is openly encouraged by political leaders poses a great threat to democracy. Government’s pressure in the name of Regulation, bombardment of fake news and over influence of Social media is dangerous for the occupation. Security of journalists is the biggest issue. Killings and Assaults on the Journalists covering sensitive issues are very common. Section 124a of IPC under which sedition is punishable by life imprisonment also endangers freedom of journalists. Hate speech targeting journalists shared and amplified on social networks are targeted against journalists using social media. Corruption-paid news, advertorials and fake news are a threat to free and unbiased media. Corporate and political power has overwhelmed large sections of the media, both print and visual, which lead to vested interests and destroy freedom.

Famous Quotes Related to Freedom Of press In India

Former Supreme Court Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman has urged the top court to strike down Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises sedition and offensive parts of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA). Speaking at a function organised by the Viswanath Pasayat Memorial Committee, Justice Nariman said that, "I would exhort the supreme court to not send sedition law cases pending before it back to the Centre. Governments will come and go (but) it is important for the court to use its power and strike down Section 124A and the offensive portions of UAPA. Then Journalists here would breathe more freely." He strongly said that India's rank in the world press freedom index is 142 because of the draconian and colonial laws that still exist. It is ironic that in the biggest democracy of the world, the press and media enjoy less freedom. Media should have enough freedom and must be neutral in airing views. If the media is honest and free democracy is bound to function more efficiently. If the media is biased, corrupt and favours only a particular party or few individuals, it can prove to be very dangerous for the smooth functioning of democracy. In the interest of democracy it is essential that the exchange of ideas take place in an uninhibited manner where all citizens can access information free of bias and prejudice.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru termed the media as the “watchdog of our democracy”. Democracy and freedom are meaningless until people have the freedom to express their opinions freely. Media is the medium of expressing our views and opinions freely. This is why Nehru called the media a watchdog of democracy.

Media’s role in a majority rule framework isn’t just restricted to data dispatching and diversion purposes yet, in addition, to deal with the equitable system. Opportunity of the press is very essential to democratic system. A democratic framework to run possibly needs the assistance of the common people which is feasible by means of help of the media. Rule of law must go with a free press in the country and in order to maintain democracy with a free press, the media must be neutral, not advocating towards private ownership or belonging to the government. There is the need to maintain a balance between free expression and other community and individual rights; this responsibility should not be borne by the judiciary alone, but by all those who enjoy these rights.

“one of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it, another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments, and the third is the fearlessness to expose popular defects.” — Mahatma Gandhi.


1. What is the legal definition of freedom of press and media in India?
2. What are the legal restrictions on freedom of press and media in India?