Constitutional values and the role of media


Author: Aryan Birewar


The government does not want to control the content of TV channels. It respects the right to free speech and the expression of media. [1]

This statement was given by Shri. Tushar Mehta, The Solicitor General of India, in the light of the Tablighi Jamat news controversy in March 2020. 

Free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to one position.[2] 

This statement was given by Hon. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in the of late news battle between Arnab Goswami and the Maharashtra government. 

The media is one of the most powerful institutions in a country. History is witness to the ability of media to mobilize people of different backgrounds to work for one common objective. Even during our freedom struggle, newspapers like Kesari, Young India, Amrit Bazar Patrika, Navjivan, etc., helped in fuelling patriotic fervour in the country. With the advent of technology, the role of media has certainly changed. Gone are the days of simple news reporting. Today, the media is a platform for discussion and analysis of various local and international issues. Indian media has seen growth from James Hickey’s Bengal Gazette of 1780 to electronic news sources like The Print, Quint, Scroll, etc. This generation, through digital campaigns and social media movements, has experienced a novel form of media. However, being the fourth pillar of our democracy, the responsibility of this institution has also intensified. This article focuses on the constitutional and legal alignment of this vital institution of our country. 

Constitutionality of the Media:

Our Preamble, at the very outset, punctuates liberty of thought, expression, and belief. Further, Article 19(1)(a) gives us the freedom of speech and expression. We have the right to acquire, disseminate, and communicate information through electronic or audio-visual means. We also have Article 19(2) to offset the liberty given by the previous article. This article restricts liberty on the grounds of sovereignty and integrity of the state, morality, decency, public order, etc. 

The Supreme Court has always highlighted the importance of media in educating the people. In the case Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India, the Court underlined freedom of the press as ‘Ark of the Covenant of Democracy’.  People deposit their faith in institutions like media for authentic reportage. This faith is puissant to swing public opinion to an unimaginable extent. The Constitution does not shy away from conceding the impact of this pillar on our democracy. This acknowledgment has given birth to the censorship of media.

India was ranked a low 142nd in the ‘World Press Freedom Index’ of 2020.  The influence of media is mammoth to the extent where it cannot go unregulated. It is a vital component of public order and thus needs to be checked democratically. Censorship does not barricade the liberty of the media. As opposed to many superpowers, our Supreme Court, in the case S. Rangarajan & Ors. v. P. Jagjivan Ram & Ors. held open criticism of government policies is not a valid ground to restrict expression. Intolerance is as harmful to democracy as to the person himself. [3]

The media has been at the forefront of batting against unconstitutional legislations, unearthing scams, or corrupt practices, and bridging the voices of the common people. For example, its role in the 2G Spectrum scam, Coalgate scam, CWG scam, or the Satyam scam cannot go unnoticed. During these political stress points, over the years, several media trends have developed which are not in the spirit of the Indian Constitution. 

Despicable Traits:

In recent years, media has been a cesspool of all kinds of malpractices. Paid news is one big contributor to the media’s rising notoriety. As per the Press Council of India’s investigative report of 2010, journalists and media houses are paid by political parties, NGOs, corporates, film producers, and celebrities to maintain their reputation in the public eye. This is done by suppressing unfavourable news and giving positive or reformatory coverage. [4]The Securities and Exchange Board of India explains that this happens through ‘Private Treaties’ between media houses and the interested corporates and individuals. The corporates usually transfer shares to the media houses in return for image-building coverage. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology headed by Shri. Rao Inderjit Singh presented its report on ‘Issues of Paid News’ to the Lok Sabha on 6th May 2013. It identified corporatization of media, contract-based journalism, and lack of accountability to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as the primary reasons.[5] This has compromised the trust of people in one of the most powerful institutions of our democracy.

An abysmal product of the competition in the business of media is fake news. It means spreading false information or inaccurate information. With the advent of social media, this malpractice has spiralled in the forms of memes, clickbait, GIF’s, messages, forwards, etc. India has close to 500 million active users over WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. Thus, these social media platforms become a central hub for the proliferation of fake news. Owing to lack of awareness, paid and fake news get the leeway to oscillate the public opinion as per their whims and fancies. The 2019 General elections were called ‘India’s first WhatsApp election’. Loads of misinformation was circulated on this platform about parties and candidates by unknown sources. The more recent Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 witnessed innumerable miscreants taking advantage of a lack of public awareness to spread false information about the act. Advocate Ashwini Upadhyay filed a plea in The Supreme Court against the misinformation about CAA. He said, “I visited Jamia and Seelampur yesterday. 95% of the protesters do not know about the CAA. They feel the law will take back their citizenship.” [6] This issue of misinformation shot up in the COVID-19 lockdown period. Recently, the Press Information Bureau started a series of fact-checking notifications to debunk frequent false rumours about nationwide lockdowns. The constitutional values of liberty and free speech need to be understood with the power of this institution. The infamy caused by fake news and paid media outlets is the grossest transgression of our constitutional fabric.

Legal Overreach:

The media during the days of Doordarshan has changed on many fronts today. From simply reporting news, today media has become a source of analysis and criticism. The very recent arrest of Siddique Kappan, a journalist working for Kerala Union of Working Journalists, for having objectionably seditious literature in possession shows the deleteriously changing role of media. [7] From the submission of the UP Government to the Supreme Court, we learn that the accused intended to fuel communal and caste violence across the country. [8] A sufficiently clear example would be the case of Mr. Vinod Dua, a journalist of The Wire, who alleged that PM Modi garnered votes through acts of terrorism.[9] These are a few of the many instances when the media has disgustingly exploited their liberty and freedom of speech. Media houses often extend their scope of authority beyond what the law states. The case in point will be the reportage done around the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Chief Justice of Bombay HC Dipankar Dutta and Justice G.S. Kulkarni said, “If you become the investigator, prosecutor and the judge, what is the use of us? Why are we here?” They also said, “When a case is under investigation and the issue is whether it’s a homicide or a suicide and a channel is saying it is murder, is all this investigative journalism?” [10] This was observed in the light of a PIL filed against the yellow journalism conducted by Republic TV. Throughout the investigation and case proceedings, the said news channel ran its set of media trials or parallel investigations.  Clauses (1) (f) and (i) of Rule 6 of the Programme and Advertising Codes, under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 prohibit the cable service from carrying any programme that maligns any individual or groups in segments of social, public, and moral life. The media has the power to build an impression of guilt irrespective of the verdict of the court. Several constitutional values along with the ‘Right to Fair Trial’ can get defeated by a single media release. Instead of exploiting the pulse of the people, the media should direct it in line with constitutional and judicial principles. Indians are emotion-driven, and the media should take extraordinary care not to misuse it. 


Our former PM Rajiv Gandhi said, “Freedom of Press is an Article of Faith with us, sanctified by our Constitution, validated by four decades of freedom and indispensable to our future as a Nation.” Our basic constitutional values like justice, equality and liberty ascertain respect for the rights of every individual and institution. Unfortunately, an institution as powerful as the media is drifting away from the very purpose that the constitution identified. The biggest threat to our democracy is institutions that misuse their power and forget their responsibility. Private self-regulatory bodies set up a decade ago like The National Broadcasters Association (NBA) and The National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) have proved to be ineffective. The root issue can only be tackled by the media outlets themselves, when and how they realize their power. 

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