Trying times for journalism

Governments increasingly invoking national security and anti-terrorism measures to impede the work of journalists is disturbing

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 30th Aug 2019   12:05 am Updated: 29th Aug 2019   10:54 pm

Free speech and independent journalism continue to face challenges from the establishment in India. All international norms of journalism are being questioned here by the authorities. A police officer now can dictate a news outlet to remove a particular news item and can even assert that there is no journalistic privilege or any codification, which prevents the media from disclosing their source of information.

Recently, a Special Superintendent of Police in Meghalaya sent a notice under Section 91 of CrPC to Guwahati-based ‘Northeast Now’ asking it to remove a news report related to the State’s opposition leader Mukul Sangma and also provide the authenticity of the information source. The news item that offended the Meghalaya police pertained to the possibility of Sangma joining the BJP. The Meghalaya police strangely weaved a logic that publishing of the impugned report is alarming and contains rumours, which may incite hatred or ill-will between communities.

Public Interest

Later, in a press release, the Assistant IG (A) JK Ingarai asserted that there was “no journalistic privilege or any codification that prevents media houses from disclosing their source of information as and when required”. This action of the Meghalaya police was condemned by journalist organisations across the country, which also stressed on the need to uphold journalists’ right not to disclose their sources of news.

The fact is that there is no extra journalistic privilege for journalists in India, though the Press Council of India clearly mentions in Section 15(2) in The Press Council Act, 1978: “Nothing in sub-section (1) shall be deemed to compel any newspaper, news agency, editor or journalist to disclose the source of any news or information published by that newspaper or received or reported by that news agency, editor or journalist”.

The 93rd Report of the Law Commission on ‘Disclosure of Sources of Information by Mass Media’ in 1983 did not recommend any change in the law to accommodate privileges of journalists, particularly that of the right not to disclose sources of information. However, the Law Commission report citing numerous national and international judicial observations justifies journalists’ right to withhold the identity of its news sources and asks judges to consider public interest while judging such cases.

Protecting Sources

News sources require anonymity to protect them from physical, economic or professional reprisals. Forcing journalists to reveal confidential sources and disclose confidential information infringes on the newsgathering process and erodes their independence, especially from the government. Many acts of investigative storytelling — from Watergate to Offshore Leaks undertaken by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in 2014 may never have surfaced without confidential sources.

Journalists from time to time the world over have upheld their right not to disclose the source of news even by courting arrest. In British India, two journalists preferred to court punishment rather than disclose anything. Kali Prasanna Kabya Bisharad, editor of ‘Hitabadi’, declined to say who was the writer of a poem published in his paper for which he had been charged with libel. The manuscript was produced in court, but the portion in which the name appeared was torn off. He was sent to jail for nine months. In another case, Bipin Chandra Pal was sentenced to six months of imprisonment for his refusal to depose on who was the author of an article for which Aurobindo Ghosh was being tried for sedition.

In 1972, William Farr, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was sent to jail for 46 days for refusing to identify his confidential sources for an article on the Charles Manson murder trial. In 2001, a freelance writer Vanessa Leggett served 168 days in jail for refusing to disclose information obtained during her research for a book on a Texas murder case. The New York Times reporter Judith Miller joined the ranks of these journalists when she too was ordered to jail by US District Judge Thomas F Hogan for refusing to reveal her source in connection with a government investigation.

There are many such instances where journalists upheld their right to confidentiality of news sources. International organisations such as the United Nations or Unesco, Organisation of American States, African Union, Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have specifically recognised journalists’ right to protect their sources. The European Court of Human Rights has found in several cases that it is an essential component of freedom of expression.

Alarming Trend

Notwithstanding frequent attempts to curb freedom of the media and free speech by the ruling classes in some of the democracies, the international community has endorsed freedom of the media and their rights. Cases of surveillance, espionage, direct or indirect intimidation, trolling and attacks on journalists are regularly reported from many countries. A report by The Guardian in 2015, based on files leaked by Edward Snowden stated that a United Kingdom Government Communications Headquarters information security assessment had listed “investigative journalists” alongside terrorists and hackers in a threat hierarchy.

Governments invoking national security and anti-terrorism measures to interfere with protections for journalists and their sources is an increasing global trend. The classification of information as being protected by national security or anti-terrorism legislation increases the reluctance of sources to come forward.

The trend no doubt is disturbing. However, no country directly clamps tight restrictions like complete ban on internet, telephone, movement of newspersons and other logistics, which make newsgathering impossible, and all in the name of fighting terrorism and in the interest of national security as we are now experiencing in Jammu & Kashmir.

When the journalists fraternity of the country and from across the world are expressing solidarity with their suffering counterparts in J&K, it is surprising that the Press Council of India, whose mandate is to safeguard freedom of the press and bring excellence in journalism, has justified the curbs by seeking to intervene in a writ petition filed by Kashmir Times executive editor Anuradha Bhasin in the Supreme Court. This is another glaring example of how the present Central government has bulldozed all the democratic institutions in the country. Independent journalism in India is facing a bigger challenge than even during Emergency.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)