Will the BJP-led NDA government restrict press freedom for “ease of doing business” and eliminate colonial-era penalties?
Even otherwise India’s ranking in press freedom has seen a significant decline over the years. The latest report by global media watchdog RSF or Reporters Without borders released on World Press Freedom day, May 3, has ranked India 161st out of 180 countries.
Information and Broadcasting minister, Anurag Thakur talks of decriminalizing several colonial-era legal provisions and making things easier. The Editors Guild of India(EGI) does not share his enthusiasm and has flagged down certain “draconian” provisions in the bill that will majorly impinge on the freedom of the press.
Even otherwise India’s ranking in press freedom has seen a significant decline over the years. The latest report by global media watchdog RSF or Reporters Without borders released on World Press Freedom day, May 3, has ranked India 161st out of 180 countries. India’s ranking in 2022 was 150 and in 2014,before the change of government at the Centre,140. Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka have shown significant improvements from 157th in 2022 to 150 this year and Sri Lanka jumping 11 spots to acquire 135th rank. The decline in India’s ranking continues unrestrained.
In a related development ,on August 3 The Rajya Sabha passed The Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill , 2023 that replaces the existing legislation which governs the registration of the print and publishing industry in the country. The bill replaces the existing Press and Registration of Books(PRB) Act,1867.
Replying to the discussion on the bill, Information and Broadcasting minister, Anurag Thakur said that this will lead to ease of doing business for the media and publishing companies , simplify the process of registration and decriminalize several colonial-era penal provisions.
The Editors Guild of India (EGI), a premier media body of the country expressed concern over the ‘draconian provisions’ of the bill that can have an adverse impact on freedom of the press.
In a statement the Guild said that it would like the proposed bill to ensure that publishing of news in India remains free of encumbrances and intrusive checks on publishers by the registrar, and that the primary emphasis of the registrar and the PRP remains ‘registration’ and not ‘regulation’ as the latter has the potential of restricting freedom of the press. ”The law on this issue should be more respectful of press freedom and should avoid granting vast powers to regulatory authorities to ‘either interfere or shut down the press at their whims and fancies”, it added.
With the bill already passed by the Rajya Sabha, the EGI has urged the Lok Sabha Speaker to refer it to a parliamentary select committee “ to allow a deep discussion on the issues crucial for press freedom”.
The bill introduces a provision granting the press registrar power to deny or cancel the registration of a periodical if an applicant has been convicted of an offence involving a terrorist act or unlawful activity, or for “ having done anything against the security of the state”. Most importantly the bill clarifies that for either purpose , the term ‘terrorist act” and “ unlawful activity” shall have the meaning assigned to them by the UAPA !
Given the liberal and arbitrary application of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act(UAPA),1967, laws on sedition and others such laws can bring any journalist or newspaper establishment within the definition of such provisions. The EGI has pointed out and the fact remains that writings critical of the government may easily be interpreted by the state to penalize such media-persons. The EGI has similarly also drawn attention to the provision that gives the press registrar the power to enter any premise where the business of a periodical is carried out to inspect, take copies of documents and to ask any questions.
The EGI caution on the “ liberal and arbitrary” use of the UAPA should be seen in the case of the October 2020 arrest of journalist Sidheeq Kappan, by the Uttar Pradesh police while travelling to Hathras to report on a gang-rape and murder case. Charged besides the UAPA, also under the Indian Penal Code and the Information and technology Act,2000, Kappan was finally released this February after 850 days in captivity. The state’s attitude is best reflected in the fact that though being granted bail for the first case by the Supreme Court on September 9,2022,he remained in jail due to ongoing investigations in another case. On December 23, he was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court in the second case but ‘procedural delays’ forced him to remain in jail up to February 2. There are other such cases involving journalists as well.
The bill grants the union government the power to frame rules and guidelines for implementing the provisions of the proposed legislation. The EGI has raised concerns “ it has been seen time and again that the power to frame rules under various Acts has been used in arbitrary as well as excessively intrusive manner”. It cited the Information and Technology Rules,2021 and 2023 as examples of delegated legislation which has armed the government with “sweeping powers”. The Guild has urged that all rules should be clearly defined within the primary legislation itself “for the sake of preserving freedom of the press”.
This column was published in the respective newspapers in the edition dated August 15,2023.
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