Rejecting the criticism that the government was curtailing free speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Friday said that it was not possible to impose Emergency-like restrictions on press freedom thanks to modern technology that provides multiple platforms to citizens to express their views.
Speaking at an event on the occasion of the National Press Day organised by the Press Council of India (PCI), he also sought to drive home the point through examples that even Nehru and Indira regimes had sought to put restrictions on the press and free speech.
“It is fashionable to say these days it’s another Emergency. Even if Emergency were ever to be reimposed today, it would collapse for the simple reason that one of the strengths of Emergency was press censorship and technology doesn’t permit press censorship,” Jaitley said.
“Technology does not permit any kind of prior restraint today. You will get access to information through various means that technology provides,” he added.
He said that he had not been able to understand the criticism by some who say that free speech was in danger.
“Well, your free speech can’t be in danger if you are criticising seven days a week. You have multiple forums. The technology has made censorship impossible, it has made pressuring impossible. You can pressurise one or two media houses but not thousands,” he said.
Jaitley said that every political viewpoint these days was able to find “some space in some section or the other”, and pointed out that the social media permitted individual citizens to express their opinions freely.
“With these multiple platforms now available nobody can seriously complain that their free speech is in danger,” he said.
The Minister emphasised that the biggest challenge the media faced today was not that of curtailment of free speech but that of retaining its own credibility.
“The biggest challenge today is how the media retains its own credibility so that it continues to become a maker of public opinion,” Jaitley said.
The Minister pointed out that although the Constituent Assembly after an intense debate had kept ‘public order’ out of the criterion for putting restrictions on free speech, the first Constitutional Amendment brought by the Jawaharlal Nehru government was to introduce ‘public order’ back into the law.
“It also smuggled in another restriction — a restriction can be imposed if free speech tends to disturb relations with foreign countries. So strictly speaking, an editorial which adversely comments on your approach towards a foreign state, the state can take objection. Thankfully it has not been used so far but it remains the part of law,” he said.
“Today, slightest of offence or comment can attract allegation of media or free speech being attacked. In 1952, the then I&B Minister decided that cricket commentary should not be broadcast on All India Radio (AIR).
“He felt film music was unnecessary in any language and only classical music should be broadcast. There was objection to using Urdu words in Hindi. Therefore from 1952 to 1962 we didn’t have any of these,” he said.
Jaitley mentioned the ‘price page policy’ brought by the government in 1962 under which newspapers had to fix their price depending on the number of pages they had.
“In 1974 there was a move that size of newspaper should be restricted in national economic interests because newsprint was expensive. Every paper was told certain number of pages it could publish. And if you publish news you could not publish advertisements. But ads keep the news alive by financially supporting the publication. So cutting down advertisement is effectively denial of your right to publish news,” the Minister said.
The PCI gave away awards to a number of journalists including N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, for excellence in journalism.