The Congress led UPA government has been heavily criticized by free speech activists ever since Union Telecom and HRD Minister Kapil Sibal made public the news that the government had instructed internet giants like Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to screen all the content available on their website and block the objectionable ones. Sibal’s comments were frowned upon by India’s netizenry which puked at the very thought of internet patrolling. Eventually, Sibal had to take back his words and claim that he never pitched for pre-screening of content as it was a near impossibility but for post-screening through an internalized scrutiny-cum-regulation channel developed by the website itself.
This development was followed by yet another sensational one which came at the time of an interview of newly appointed PCI Chief, Retd. Justice Markandey Katju. Katju opined that he did not hold a very ‘high’ view of the media and considered ‘journalists’ to be ‘people with low intellect’. Katju emphasized upon three basic problems of the Indian media. He said that media was involved in dividing the society through irresponsible journalism. He cited the example of media reception to terror strikes to drive home his point. He said that whenever a terror strike takes place in the country, without any verification or veracity of the claims made to them by some organizations, the media starts coming up with some Muslim organization’s name and indicts them for the offence thus demonizing the Muslim community by giving out the impression that all Muslims were terrorists and bomb throwers.
Secondly, Justice Katju felt that the media was deflecting the concentration of the masses from the main problems of the nation which were socio-economic in nature. He said that some news channels were busy airing cricket all the time as if cricket was the problem of the country. He said that in the erstwhile Roman Empire, the emperors used to say, “If you can’t provide the masses bread, give them circuses.” Similarly in India, Justice Katju said, “If you can’t provide the masses bread, give them cricket” as cricket was like an ‘opium of the masses’.
Thirdly, Justice Katju said that the media was responsible for promoting superstitions and casteism in the country through reckless programs. He said that a large number of astrology shows which were being aired in the morning gave testimony to this fact. He described astrology as ‘humbug’. He said that India was going through the age of transition from being an ‘agricultural-feudal society’ to an ‘industrialized one’ and described this transition period in the words of the great poet Firaq as ‘Gunaho ki ghadi’ ie ‘Age of sins’ and a very painful period. He said that the Indian media should play a far more proactive role in promoting good values among people as the European Press did during the Age of Enlightenment. Katju said that the electronic media just like the print media should be brought under the ambit of the Press Council of India and the PCI should be given more teeth ie the power to levy fines on media organizations for propagating yellow journalism, to reduce the sanction of government advertising to those media outlets who were not following the set media standards and ethics and to cancel the licenses of those firms who were bent upon repeating the same mistakes.
Justice Katju’s announcement was met by a very hostile reception as he was heavily condemned and castigated by large sections of the media. He was described as a ‘Congress’ stooge who was taking all these initiatives on behalf of the government to throttle the growth of the ‘Anna Agitation’. Others stated that since there were already media self regulating bodies like the BEA and NBA, there was no need to bring the electronic media under the purview of the PCI as it would compromise on the autonomy of the media. The most apt response to this argument was fielded by Justice Katju himself when he said, “Experience has shown that the claim of the broadcast media for self regulation was futile and meaningless because self regulation was an oxymoron.” Justice Katju cited the examples of bodies like the Bar Council of India and the Medical Council of India. He said that though these organizations were there to safeguard the interests of the lawyers and doctors, respectively but their existence did not mean that the government had no right to look into the proper functioning of the judiciary and the healthcare sector. He said that if they also start sloganeering under the name of ‘self-regulation’ then there was no need for making any laws in the nation now as everybody was capable of governance through self. Katju said, “Regulation is different from control. In control, there is no freedom, but it is subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest.”
In order to understand this stalemate, we need to first realize that Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the foremost fundamental rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution. For democracy to flourish eternally, it is imperative that this particular right is upheld under all circumstances. However, due to contradictory or rather due to lack of clear cut comprehension of this liberty, the society has run into humongous amounts of turpitude which has resulted into colossal commotion, chaotic conditions and conniving controversies. The fundamental approach with which this fundamental right is approached needs to be rectified.
The Constitution of India grants all its citizens the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution but the factor that needs to be kept into perspective over here is that this isn’t an absolute right. As citizens we were bestowed with numerous path-breaking and game-changing liberties but none of those liberties were what can be referred to as “absolute liberties”. All freedoms guaranteed to us are judicially enforceable but none of them are absolute in nature. The Constitution-makers acted with a lot of caution while weaving the Constitution. They ensured fundamental filtration of freedoms before their execution. Most of the pivotal rights which we’ve been guaranteed come with a set of riders and this was done intentionally so as to avoid confrontation. Freedom of Speech and Expression too comes along with a medley of riders or limitations. These riders include that the right of free speech shouldn’t be utilized to promote communal disharmony and hurt religious sentiments, shouldn’t go against public decency and morality, shouldn’t compromise the security and sovereignty of the state, must not affect friendly foreign relations with other countries and shouldn’t amount to contempt of court.
Amidst all this chaos, I failed to realize as to why was the Government being so heavily criticized for enforcing upon the constitution and the laws made therein. The argument that the government would use PCI as a tool to subvert media’s independence is flawed to core since there are already many such institutions whose role is that of a watchdog plus the PCI already has the print media under its ambit. It is merely asking for an institutional revival through strengthening of its arms and elongation of its purview. We now even have the proposal of establishing national judicial commissions which would look into the problems within the judiciary. I personally feel that this scepticism concerning government regulation on the media should be shunned as even the judiciary which has to have the highest amount of autonomy will now be scrutinized by the national judicial commission. The people who are opposing this move on account of absolutionsim in relation to free speech need to realize that absolute free speech is a utopian dream. The First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution quite clearly stated that the Congress would make no law which would abridge the Freedom of the Speech or of the Press but then too in the case of Schenck vs the United States in 1919, Justice Oliver Holmes Jr of the US Supreme Court held that speech which was dangerous and misleading could be curtailed. His judgment popularized the phrase ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ (the actual phrase was falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre) and is seen upon as the first permissible limitation on the First Amendment. On the basis of all these laws and past anecdotes, I personally hold the viewpoint that it is both constitutional and wise of the government to regulate the media.