Suppression of media freedom in the Indian subcontinent

Justice Markandey Katju and Amile Gulzar-

Media freedom has been largely suppressed of late in both India and Pakistan. This article seeks to explain this phenomenon.

Historically the media arose in Europe in the 18th century as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time all the organs of power were in the hands of the feudal authorities (kings, aristocrats, etc). Hence the people had to create new organs to represent their interests, and the media (which was only print medium at that time) was one of such organs created by the people. In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, in contrast to the feudal organs which only wanted to preserve the status quo.

The print media at that time was mostly in the form of leaflets, pamphlets, booklets, etc, not regular daily newspapers, and these were utilized by great writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, the French Encyclopedists, Julius, John Wilkes, etc to attack feudalism, religious bigotry and superstitions, and spread modern ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, and scientific thinking. Thus, the media was of great help in transforming Europe from feudalism to the modern age.

A similar role should be played by the media of India and Pakistan. They should help in the great historical transformation of our societies from semi-feudal societies to modern highly industrialized ones by attacking feudal thinking and practices (casteism, communalism and superstitions) religious bigotry and promoting scientific ideas. The media deals with ideas, not commodities. Hence it cannot be regarded as an ordinary business like a shop selling clothes or shoes.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing in both India and Pakistan is that the freedom of the media has been largely suppressed. In India despite the Constitutional guarantee in Article 19(1)(a) of freedom of speech and expression (which was interpreted by the Supreme Court to include freedom of the media ) nowadays it has become dangerous to criticize the government. Those journalists who do so are often arrested and imprisoned on sedition charges, or detained under the draconian preventive detention laws like NSA or UAPA, e.g. Kishorechand Wangkhem, a journalist of Manipur, who was arrested and kept in jail for many months for criticizing the Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh, Pawan Jaiswal, who was arrested on a sedition charge for reporting that in a primary school in Mirzapur children were only given roti and salt as mid-day meal, or Dharavi Patel of Gujarat who published in his portal ‘Face the Nation’ that the Chief Minister of Gujarat is likely to be replaced. The courageous journalist Siddhartha Varadarajan is facing many cases for criticizing the Government.

In this situation, it was expected of the Indian judiciary to check the excesses and illegalities of the executive, but it has largely turned a Nelson’s eye on them. The Supreme Court was created as a custodian of the Constitution and a guardian of the people’s liberties, but of late it has started acting like Bheeshma Pitamah who closed his eyes to the disrobing of Draupadi ( see my article ‘All the times the Supreme Court turned Nelson’s eye to injustice’ published in ). Many TV channels have almost become mouthpieces of the BJP Govt, often spreading communal hatred. One Indian TV anchor, who can be euphemistically called Lord Bhow Bhow, seems to enjoy spouting venom on minorities regularly. Also, the media often diverts attention from the real issues facing India e.g. poverty, unemployment, child malnourishment, lack of healthcare and good education for the masses to non-issues or trivialities like the lives of filmstars, cricket, petty politics, astrology, etc.

L.K. Advani, former Deputy Prime Minister of India said that during the Emergency of 1975-77 the Indian media was asked to bend but it crawled. Under the present Indian regime, the Indian media has done ‘shaashtaang’ i.e. prostrated itself before the Government. Journalists who did brave reporting like Karan Thapar and Punya Prasun Bajpai were sacked.

The same is the position of the Pakistani media. Many brave journalists like Raza Rumi or Sajjad Azhar Peerzada lost their jobs. The arrest and imprisonment of Mir Shakilur Rehman, the owner of the Jang group of publications, the largest group in Pakistan, has sent a harsh message throughout the industry—toe the line, or else.

How does one explain this crackdown on the media of the subcontinent?

In our opinion, this is because of the economic crisis and the deep recession in both India and Pakistan. Historical experience shows that whenever there is an economic crisis fascist tendency arises, as it happened in Italy in 1922, and in Germany in 1933, and freedom of speech and liberty are suppressed. The same has happened in our subcontinent. The economies of both India and Pakistan have tanked, with many industries closing down or drastically cutting production, resulting in massive layoffs and record unemployment, and corona has sent the economies further hurtling downwards.

Consequently, the rulers, feeling their position endangered, since now mass public demonstrations and protests are bound to arise, cannot permit the luxury of giving the people and the media freedom of expression anymore.

The days of media freedom in our subcontinent are over.


[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India and Amile Gulzar, is an Advocate, Lahore High Court. The views expressed are their own].