Press council cannot act as Centre’s puppet, it has to be on people’s side

Kashmir, media, Press Council of India
Kashmir has been experiencing a communication blackout since the Centre abrogated Article 370, stripping the valley off its special status. Photo: PTI

The intervention of the chairman of Press Council of India (PCI) in a writ petition filed by the executive editor of a Kashmir daily, challenging the restrictions on media movement in the Valley in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370, has elicited sharp criticisms from the media fraternity. While such a step taken by the PCI chairman, without the consultation of council members, goes against the very ethics of journalism, his support of the Centre’s restrictions on media in the Valley, goes against press freedom as well as the values and statutory duties on which PCI was constituted.

The chief function of the PCI is to work towards preserving the freedom of press; and journalists during crisis expect the legitimate intervention of an independent PCI to rescue their “freedom of press”.

Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of Kashmir Times, has filed a writ petition under Article 32 before the Supreme Court, requesting the Centre to relax the total block out of media, mobile, internet and landline services and on the freedom of movement of journalists and media personnel in Kashmir and some districts of Jammu, to enable journalists to practise their profession and exercise their right to report, in furtherance of their rights under Articles 14, 19(1 )(a) and 19( 1j(g) and 21 as well as the Right to Know of the residents of the Kashmir valley under Constitution.

Blatant attack on media

Since August 4, mobile phone networks, internet services, and landline phones have been disconnected in the former state, leaving Kashmir and some districts of Jammu completely isolated from possible modes of communication and information. No formal orders under which such an action was taken, was communicated and the power and authority behind such an excessive and arbitrary decision, is still unknown. The communication blockade and strict restrictions on the movement of journalists has resulted in a virtual blackout in the Valley, grievously impacting media reporting and publishing. The civil secretariat of J&K home department, has justified the restrictions stating, “Keeping in view the latest intelligence inputs of terror threats, with specific targeting of the Amarnath Yatra, and given the prevailing security situation in the Kashmir Valley, in the interest of safety and security of the tourists and Amarnath yatris, it is advised that they may curtail their stay in the valley immediately and take necessary measures to return as soon as possible”.

…but a tamed PCI keeps quiet

At this juncture, it is expected of the PCI to facilitate fair criticism and urge the government to allow publications to function. The fairness in the imposition of restrictions on freedom of speech needs to be reviewed and the PCI should offer a way out. The PCI has a statutory duty to remove state obstructions to fair exercise of press freedom, and to intervene to prevent the shrinking of the speaking space.

Under section 13 of the Press Council Act, 1978 the PCI has a mandate to (i) maintain high standards of public taste, (ii) foster “a due sense of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” on part of newspapers, news agencies and journalists and (iii) to “keep under review any development likely to restrict the supply and dissemination of news of public interest and importance”.

In Sakal Papers (Pvt) Ltd vs Union of India (1962) 3 SCR 842, this manner of using indirect means to impinge on the freedom of newspapers was held unconstitutional, stating inter-alia that, “Its (PCI’s) object thus is to regulate something which, as already stated is directly related to the circulation of a newspaper. Since circulation of newspaper is a part of the right of freedom of speech, the Act must be regarded as one directed against the freedom of speech … such a course is not permissible and the courts must be ever vigilant in guarding perhaps the most precious of all the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution”.

Questions that SC should ask 

On Monday, two PCI members said the very wording of the PCI application in Supreme Court that asserted that the (government) restrictions were in “national interest and sovereignty of the nation”, was dangerous and gave an impression that a free and open media was a threat to the nation’s sovereignty.

Assuming that the restrictions on press freedom could be justified in “national interest” or “for national integrity” as claimed by the PCI, the Supreme Court still has a huge scope to examine a) whether total black out was warranted, b) could there be limits on such wide-open restrictions, some parts of happenings could have been allowed to be reported, etc. Even the period for which such a total block out and reasonability of a wholesale blockade for indefinite period could be examined on facts and circumstances.

Reasonability of restriction in the context of the situation prevalent is what was envisaged by the Constitution.  Still there is a scope for judiciary to examine the need and validity of the blockade, its duration, lethal effects on right to know of the people in general. It is not just the freedom of speech of journalists in Kashmir, but the right to know, right to speak out and various other rights of the citizens in Kashmir which are totally curbed.  It is a fundamental right of a citizen to enforce his rights to constitutional remedy, which is a unique remedy incorporated in Indian Constitution, under Article 32. The press council is supposed to act independently as an institution to secure the expression rights of the people at large and those of journalists. An independent  press council cannot act like a subordinate office of the Union Home Ministry.

If there is any weapon that protects democracy, it is freedom to express a critical opinion. Every democratic Constitution must facilitate, declare and protect the people’s right to tell, write, represent, petition and challenge constitutionality of a policy that curbs expression en bloc.

Every citizen, like every journalist, has a right to inputs from the media or other sources to question the wrong steps of any government. Building up people’s opinion and pressurising the government to revise or reverse the policy is a dynamic requirement.

(The writer is a former central information commissioner who currently teaches law at Bennett University, Greater NOIDA)