As an Indian American, I have had the privilege of living in the two largest democracies in the world. One of those, the United States of America, came into being in part because of the free press. The other, India, has the reputation of having the most vibrant and free press in the developing world.
Since its establishment as a free nation, the free press in India has grown substantially and contributed significantly to the evolution of Indian democracy. Sadly, in recent times, the freedom of India’s free press is seen to have been under threat.
In September this year, well known journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh and television reporter Santanu Bhowmik were killed in separate incidents. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based NGO, over the past 25 years, there have been “41 instances” in which Indian journalists have been murdered “in direct reprisal for his or her work”.
Combine this violence upon journalists with a raid on the homes and offices of the founders of NDTV, India’s oldest television news station, by the Central Bureau of Investigation in June this year for “an alleged loss” incurred by a private bank and there is some cause for concern regarding the freedom of the press in India. The New York Times highlighted this in an editorial on the raid that began, “Press freedom in India suffered a fresh blow on Monday…”
Freedom House, an organisation that evaluates countries in terms of their freedom of the press, rated India’s press status as only “partially free” in 2016 and gave it a score of 40, with 0 being the best and 100 being the worst. Consider some key developments:
— The killing of at least two journalists in connection with their work
— A Supreme Court ruling to retain criminal defamation, despite calls for decriminalisation
— Journalists in Chhattisgarh facing tremendous pressure with some relocating due to concerns for their safety
— Heavy-handed restrictions on the press in Jammu and Kashmir with newspapers being shut down and a clampdown on mobile internet services
In sum, the news about the freedom of India’s free press is not very good. Maybe that’s not so bad one might think. Is freedom of the press such a big deal?
Absolutely! In fact, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the free press to a vibrant and vital democracy.
Let me elaborate on why the free press is so essential by using a quote from the Newseum, a wonderful museum in Washington, D.C. In the Newseum is the following etched statement:
“The Free Press is a cornerstone of democracy. People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A Free Press, at its very best, reveals the truth.”
The Constitution of India makes no specific reference to freedom of the press. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, on the other hand, guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression and since then there have been several Supreme Court judgements that have interpreted this article to also include freedom of the press.
There is also an emerging consensus that over the past few years that freedom of the press has been hamstrung. This is neither consistent with the Constitution nor healthy for Indian democracy.
The citizens of India gave the United States and the world a lesson in democracy by turning out in record numbers to vote in the last national elections of 2014. As we move towards 2019, it is time for the current administration in India to give another lesson in democracy by ensuring and guaranteeing the freedom of the free press as an exemplar to the rest of the world.
India remains a vibrant democracy, in large part because of the resilience of its questioning press. The free press is critical to the future of India and its citizens. We should praise the free press, not bury it. There are others who want to do the opposite.
Journalists should not stop asking the hard questions and writing the tough stories. They have the responsibility to seek and report the truth. We need journalists now more than ever. The overriding responsibility of the media is to separate fact from fiction and to hold governments and leaders to the same standards.
(Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader and thought leader based in the Washington, D.C., area. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted [email protected])