The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India is wholly accurate when he speaks of the way in which some of the regular faces on news television conduct themselves. Every day, in the manner of 2-minute noodles, instant judgements are given on a miscellany of issues, often in language that is acerbic. As Chief Justice Dipak Misra states, some television anchors appear to believe that they are not mere mediapersons, and therefore bereft of any governmental authority or judicial power, but are instead “overnight popes or guardians”. Comfortingly for those wedded to the doctrines of democracy, the Chief Justice of the nation’s highest court made it explicit that he “would never gag the press”, but they should not write “anything about anyone from their imagination”. Of course, there is already a remedy for such “imaginative” scribes penning what many believe to be imaginary news reports, and this is the transparency created by the World Wide Web. Any news report or opinion piece becomes immediately accessible to the whole world, and any errors of fact or misperceptions in points of view can and do get pointed out, often in far more emphatic language than the original write-up. Such peer review of what gets written was not available in the past, certainly not in the period whose mindsets and customs still linger in our country, the time when it was the Union Jack which flew over Raisina Hill. There are other ways too by which journalists pay a heavy price for their work. Among them is the tactic of filing multiple criminal defamation suits against a particular publication or writer, making that institution and individual expend huge (and often unaffordable) blocks of time and money seeking to protect themselves from fines or prison. India is among the less safe countries for the practice of journalism, and many have paid with their lives for putting into print information that the perpetrators of violence against them sought to conceal. Although Kapil Sibal did not appear to exert himself in the defence of journalists during the decade when he held immense power as an influential member of the Council of Ministers under Manmohan Singh, after the 2014 defeat, the former minister seems to have discovered the virtues of a free press, and the need not to “throttle journalism”, which is indeed welcome.
The words of Chief Justice Misra are suffused with wisdom and need to be not just heard, but made part of the manner of functioning of responsible journalists across the country. Facts are sacred and must be ascertained before going to print. Care should be taken to avoid making insinuations and innuendos that bear scant relation to reality. However, the fact remains that such British-era laws as those relating to criminal defamation are as archaic as colonial rule, and should go the same way, into the wastebasket. The Fourth Estate is easily the most vulnerable of the four pillars of a democracy, and looks to the Supreme Court of India and to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Head of Government to ensure that it is not subjected to harassment for simply doing its duty, which is to present events and facts in a manner not always palatable to some. Modi was the target of sustained media attacks for over a decade beginning with 2002, and this does not seem to have slowed down his further rise in politics, nor lowered the popularity he has won among substantial sections of the populace. PM Modi’s experience shows the limits of press power better than any other can. A press that is free becomes a facilitator for better governance, and as mentioned earlier, the internet provides a channel that can point out errors in copy almost as soon as these get made. Those who regard the sanctimonious tone of certain television anchors to be insufferable have a simple remedy, which is to use the remote button to change the channel. Unlike in North Korea or in some other countries that do not enjoy the attributes of a democracy, no agency is forcing viewers to watch particular television channels or read only specific newspapers and magazines. Every day these go through their own election, and get more or less votes depending on public appreciation or depreciation of their content. This being the case, efforts to use the power of law or the state to prevent parts of the media from functioning in the manner prescribed by the freedoms inherent in a democracy need to be avoided. After all, the most fundamental of the fundamental and basic structures of the Constitution of India is the preservation of democracy, for which freedom of the press is a requisite. In such a context, we welcome the words of reassurance given by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India.