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Importance and meaning of media freedom

Every free man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public. To forbid this. it destroys his freedom of thought. The freedom of press is basically the freedom of individual to express his thought through the medium of press. This freedom is fundamental to the life of an individual.


Free press is the very basis of democracy. But there had been persistent opposition to freedom of press. There is opposition to all democratic movements from the Government all over the world. Freedom of press is the result of centuries’ hard-won fight by the people.

  1. The concept of free press was explained by William Blackstone long ago in 1769. The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state. This consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications.
  2. Lord Ellenborough in Rex V. Gobbet observed - “The law of England is the law of liberty, and consistently with this liberty we have not what is called an imprimatur; there is no such preliminary licence necessary but if a man publishes a paper he is exposed to the penal consequence as he is in every other act, if it be illegal.”
  3. Prof. A.V. Dicey reiterated the same view as that of Blackstone ”The freedom of press means the right of a person to publish what he pleases in books or newspapers but the laws of England do not recognise any special privilege attached to the press.”
  4. The First Royal Commission on Press (1947 - 48) did choose not to discuss the meaning and significance of the press.
  5. The another Royal Commission on the press (1977) emphasised the freedom of press as “that degree of freedom from restraint which is essential to enable proprietors, editors and journalists to advance the public interest by publishing the facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments.” As Dicey observed: “No such thing is known with us as a licence to print, or a censorship either of the press or political newspaper, leaves no doubt in the mind that it means the right to print and publish anything which is not prohibited by a law or made an offence like sedition, contempt of court, obscenity, defamation, blasphemy, official secrets, public order etc. “
  6. In United States freedom of press has been guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It says “Congress shall make no Act abridging the freedom of the press”. The Fourteenth Amendment bars the states from making any law depriving any person, inter alia, of liberty without due process of law.

Law in India

The freedom of press is accorded recognition under the Indian Constitution as a part of freedom of speech and expression enshrined under Article 19(1) (a). Freedom of press is regarded as a species of which freedom of speech and expression is a genus. This freedom is stated in wide terms and includes not only freedom of speech which manifests itself by oral utterances, but freedom of expression, whether such expression is communicated by written word or printed matter. The freedom of press is included in the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed to the citizens under Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution. In India the freedom of press is an expression which is both elastic and ambiguous. The term press is used in different senses in different contexts. It may mean an establishment where Printing is done. In that sense it includes all plants, machinery and other material by means of which printing is done. The content freedom of press is also differently understood by different persons. Some have understood to mean freedom to publish any matter by printed words without any legal restraint or prohibition. Others take it as freedom from prejudices and preconceived notions. The First Press Commission expressed the view that freedom of press means, “Freedom to hold opinion, to receive and impart informations through the printed words without any interference from any public authority”.

The judgment delivered by the Press Council of India in Verghese's Case views the concept of freedom of press into following words:

Freedom of press is commonly understood as the freedom of expression, idea, views and information through the printed material and published for circulation; and free from interference, pressure, restraint or compulsions from whatever source; Government or social.“

The Supreme Court held in a catena of cases that imposition of pre-censorship, or any order which amounts to prior restraints are a restriction on the freedom of press and, therefore, violative of constitutional provision under Article 19(1) (a). Similarly prohibiting newspaper from publication of its own views or the views of the correspondents about the burning topic of the day is a serious encroachment upon the valuable right of freedom of speech and expression. The freedom of press also includes propagation of ideas, the liberty of circulation and consequently any order under a law curtailing circulation or banning entry on the ground of 'public safety' or 'maintenance of public order' falls outside the scope of reasonable restrictions provided under Article 19 (2). The foremost function of the press is the dissemination of news and to provide the information to the people and this cannot be denied. If any order affects the freedom, it infringes not only the freedom of the press but also the people's right to information so important in a democratic society. The policies of the governments or the orders of the administration either levying excessive tax and thereby putting excessive burden on the press or adopting punitive measures against the press which ultimately curtail the freedom of press are not permissible.

Importance of Press

Emphasising its importance Pt. Nehru once said: “The press is one of the vital organs of life, more especially in a democracy. The press has to be respected, the press has to be co-operated.

Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar, former Chief Justice of India, wrote that freedom of press is of considerable significance in a democratic society as it gives full scope to an individual for his development and ample opportunity for propagation of his views, philosophy and ideology. It plays a vital role in education, growth and development of public opinion on issues of public importance. The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state. Authority is to be controlled by public opinion. The importance of the press has greatly increased with the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication. Its importance lay in the fact that it forms the very root and agency of mass communication. The freedom of press is not a fixed and isolated value. The same has role in every society and in all times.

The Royal Commission on the Press has emphasised the importance of press by saying that, “It advance the public interest by publishing the facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments.”

The Indian Press Commission has reiterated the same views. It expresses “Democracy can thrive not only under the vigilant eyes of its legislatures but under the care and guidance of public opinion and the press is par excellence, the vehicle, through which the opinion can become articulative”.

The judiciary has acknowledged the importance of press in modern society. Lord Denning observed that: ”The reason why in these cases (where freedom of speech prevailed over other rights) the law gives no remedy is because of the importance it attaches to the freedom of press; or better put, the importance in a free society of the circulation of true information. The metes and bounds of this are already staked out by the rule of law.”

In Romesh Thappar and Brij Bhushan's cases, the Supreme Court observed that: “Freedom of speech and expression is the foundation of all democratic organisations and is essential for the proper functioning of the process of democracy, ”

Quoting Blackstone's commentaries he further said that:

Every free man has undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of press

Sounding a note of caution in Sakal Paper's case about the importance of freedom of speech and expression (the freedom of press is a part), Mudhalkar, J. said that:

Courts must be ever vigilant in guarding perhaps the most important freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution The reason for this is obvious. The freedom of speech and expression is of paramount importance under a democratic Constitution which envisages changes in the composition of legislatures and the Governments and must be preserved.“

While according to Ray. J, it is said; “The faith in popular Government rest on the old dictum, “Let the people have the truth and the freedom to discuss it and all will go well”. The liberty of press remains an “Ark of covenants” in every democracy. Steel will yield the products of steel. Newsprint will manifest whatever is thought by man.”

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