HC upholds freedom of press

Kashmir Times. Dated: 10/13/2020 10:54:16 AM

Verdict in an old case imbues hopes for the persecuted media persons of J&K

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court ruling last week in the case of a criminal case against a journalist for his reports in 2018 significantly ruled that “Reporting of events which a journalist has bona fide reason to believe to be true, can never be an offence” and that “the right of freedom of speech and expression, which includes within its ambit freedom of the press, is subject only to reasonable restriction imposed by law for specific purpose.” The judgement and the observations imbued hope among the journalistic fraternity that in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the Valley, that continues to operate amidst an all pervasive and deepening sense of fear and persecution. The court’s verdict strikes a different chord from the embedded reality of journalists facing continuous and repeated harassment through intimidation, illegal summons by the police and slapping of criminal charges without any process of accountability. The lack of accountability, in fact, has been provided a seal of legitimacy through the new Media Policy 2020 that was introduced by the government in June this year. Though the rules are yet to be framed, it continues to hang like a Damocles sword over the heads of the media professionals, whose prosecution predates the policy which in turn gives the acts of intimidating and criminalizing journalists a legal cover of impunity. The Media Policy has three main highlights that imply a complete censorship of Orwellian nature. Policy has three main highlights. According to the policy, the government will assume sweeping powers to examine content to identify news items that can be categorised "fake", "plagiarism", "unethical", and "anti-national activities". Those found accused of these offences will be punished. Secondly, the government would monitor content published in newspapers and other media channels and decide what is fake news, anti-social or anti-national reporting. The news organisations involved in “fake, unethical and anti-national” reporting would be de-empanelled and not get government advertisements, apart from facing legal action. Thirdly, the government will do a background check of newspaper publishers, editors and key staff mandatory before empanelling them for government advertisements, apart from security clearance before a journalist is given accreditation. This virtually means putting a freeze on the independence of the media.
The High Court verdict serves as an eye-opener to the Government and calls to question its policy of clamping down on media and virtually treating the media as the amplifier of the state’s actions and policies, as the Media Policy lucidly spells out. The court has ruled against putting the freedom of press “under peril” and observed unequivocally that “the limitations on freedom of the press cannot extend to registration of a criminal case against a reporter, who in discharge of his duties and on the basis of information gathered by him, makes a report about certain incidents which he thought in public interest should be published.” The court verdict thus lays down the basic principles for encouraging a free and independent press while acknowledging that minor inaccuracies by reporters are possible but cannot be criminalized. In the last one year, scores of journalists have been harassed for their reports purely on basis of not carrying official versions or for embarrassing the government. Journalists have been intimidated and slapped with criminal charges on vague grounds of ‘fake news’ or beaten up for use of harsh words. In light of the court verdict, it would only be befitting for the government to go in for a course correction without handpicking journalists it wants protected by the constitutionally mandated freedom of press while depriving others. What is sauce for goose, is sauce for gander.



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