24 May,2019

Ranjona Banerji: The Supreme Court uphold freedom of the press, to a press which does not seem to get it.

“The press in India itself, so taken up with the first day of polling in the ongoing general election, did not really appear to understand what had just happened. That the highest court in the land had struck down the government’s arguments to muffle freedom of expression and emphasised the importance of fundamental rights in a democracy,” writes Ranjona Banerji

The Supreme Court of India on April 11, 2019, shut down the Modi government’s arguments that documents which appeared in The Hindu on the Rafale deal were “unauthorizedly removed” and therefore inadmissible by invoking that inconvenient document, The Constitution. No law enacted in Parliament, said the Supreme Court judgment written by Gogoi and SK Kaul, disallows the press from publishing such documents. In a separate but concurring judgment, Justice KM Joseph wrote that the RTI act a “basket of rights has been given fruitful meaning” and should not be damaged. RTI in fact trumps the Official Secrets Act.

The Supreme Court invoked the freedom of the press more than once in the judgments. Joseph wrote, “The Press in India has greatly contributed to the strengthening of democracy in the country. It will have a pivotal role to play for the continued existence of a vibrant democracy in the country. It is indisputable that the press out of which the visual media in particular wields power, the reach of which appears to be limitless…

“A free person must be fearless. Fear can be of losing all or any of the things that is held dear by the journalist. A free man cannot be biased. Bias comes in many forms…

“In some sections, there appears to be a disturbing trend of bias. Controlling business interests and political allegiances appear to erode the duty of dispassionate and impartial purveying of information.”

CJO Ranjan Gogoi said, quoting an earlier judgment, “The freedom of the press, as one of the members of the Constituent Assembly said, is one of the items around which the greatest and the bitterest of constitutional struggles have been waged in all countries where liberal constitutions prevail… this freedom is attained at considerable sacrifice.”

The court also referred to earlier judgments in Romesh Thappar and Brij Bhushan, which had said that there can be no curb on the freedom of speech and expression other than those mentioned in Article 19(2): “Freedom of press has always been a cherished right in all democratic countries.”

Not surprisingly, N Ram of The Hindu, which continues to publish some rather damning documents on price and discrepancies in the Rafale deal negotiated by UPA and NDA governments, said this was a “red letter day” for the press in India.

The press in India itself, so taken up with the first day of polling in the ongoing general election, did not really appear to understand what had just happened. That the highest court in the land had struck down the government’s arguments to muffle freedom of expression and emphasised the importance of fundamental rights in a democracy.

One can only hope that this landmark day will be celebrated and remembered soon, especially by young journalists still full of hope and idealism and not yet infected by the bias mentioned by Justice Joseph. There is a great need for more independence and in a roundabout way, this election may just bring us to that.

On the other side of the world, the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London brings up more uncomfortable questions about the freedom of the press in democracies. Assange may be a controversial character, but he did reveal to the world the enormously murky universe of big government deals, lies and coverups. He faces serious charges of stealing and leaking government documents in the US.

Assange has been in hiding since 2012. Many have forgotten just what Wikileaks was all about, and why Assange is important, whether you agree or disagree with his zealous view to sharing information. However, for journalists around the world, the arrest of Assange and his possible extradition to the US is a big jolt to global press freedom.

This article by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian explains why whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are important and vital to democracy and freedom of the press as well as arguments about cyber freedom and cyber controls:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/11/julian-assange-cyber-sins-big-tech-wikileaks

Here, Glenn Grenwald and Micah Lee lay out the inherent dangers to the freedom of the press in the arrest of Assange:

https://theintercept.com/2019/04/11/the-u-s-governments-indictment-of-julian-assange-poses-grave-threats-to-press-freedoms/

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