New Delhi | Ashita Singh: Press is an essential element of world development and is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. It acts as the watchdog of society and plays a vital role in a country’s social, political, economical, and international affairs. It is said that "freedom of the press is the mortar that binds together the bricks of democracy — and it also the open window embedded in those bricks and therefore it is a privilege that no country can forego." Thus, it is not wrong to say that freedom of the press is important for a democracy to survive and thrive and preserve the ethos of good and transparent governance. To mark press freedom and honour a journalist’s inherent right and duty to unravel and bring forth the truth, World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3 annually.

Declared by United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), World Press Day is observed to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression written under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The day was proclaimed by UNGC in December 1993 after a recommendation of UNESCO's General Conference. The day is marked by awarding deserving organisations and individuals from across the world who make constant efforts to protect the press's freedom and promote it. UNESCO confers such organisations and individuals with the Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

In India, which is the world's largest democracy, the press played an important role in the freedom struggle, highlighting the plight of the Indians and the cruel and discriminating policies of the British government. However, with the help of the press, freedom fighters, journalists, columnists, and writers collectively defied the British tyranny. Let's have a look at how the press played an important role in the freedom of India. At the time when India was struggling and fighting for its independence, many papers and newsletters were started in the nation and were used to highlight the plight of the people in hopes of creating a movement for swaraj.

Where it all began - Hickey's Bengal Gazette:

It began when James Agustus Hickey, known as the father of the Indian press, started the first newspaper of India in 1780, which was known as the Bengal Gazette or Hickey's Gazette. In his newspaper, Hickey used to write about corruption and scandals without naming the officials of the British government. Later leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Bala Gangadhar Tilak, Sisr Kumar Ghosh, Bipin Chandrapal, Rabindranath Tagore, Subramaniam Iyer, Rajagopalachari also started writing their opinions in newspapers and magazines to take forward the legacy of the Indian press.

However, in 1872, Hickey's Bengal Gazette was seized as it was critical of the British government. But, it was confirmed that freedom of the press was of utmost importance as it was a powerful tool to propagate political ideas and help arouse national awakening.

Rise of Vernacular Press:

Newspapers such as Payam-e-Azadi, Bangadoot of Ram Mohan Roy, Samachar Sudhavarashan, and Rastiguftar of Dadabhai Naoroji helped in India's freedom as the main aim of these newspapers was to highlight the issues of Indians. In 1857, during the first war of independence, the newspaper Payam-e-Azadi helped in spreading the message that the British would continue its divide and rule policy in India, urging people to stand against it. Slowly, many local newspapers and newsletters started printing in different parts of India which alerted Britishers, and to slow down the nationwide rebellion, Lord Lytton passed the 'Gagging Act' or Vernacular Press Act. The act was passed under the curtail to control the Indian publications’ content and it compelled all Indian publications to apply for a license from the government and to ensure that nothing is written against the British Raj.

Despite all the threats and suppression, Indian newspapers, journalists and leaders started underground journalism and started spreading the idea of 'Swaraj' through pamphlets, printed books, journals, and newsletters. Some underground publications were working secretly after authorities imposed restrictions on major publications. The Vernacular Press Act was not imposed on English publications so Amrita Bazaar Patrika took matters into its hands became solely an English weekly and started the development of investigative Indian journalism. It was fierce, politically vocal, and unputdownable. Several journalists and publications, including the Amrita Bazar Patrika, were charged under sedition law for publishing anti-government articles.

Censorship on Press:

However, as the nationalist movement gathered steam, the British government began a major crackdown on the press bypassing one Act after another, including the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act of 1911, Press Act of 1910, and Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908.

The Press Act 1910 impacted almost all newspapers. It is believed around 1,000 publications were prosecuted under the Act, and the government collected Rs 5 lakh securities and forfeitures from the papers during the period of the first five years the Act was enacted.

In the last 10 years of British rule, when the Civil Disobedience Movement was well underway and Mahatma Gandhi had taken out the Salt March, the Press (Emergency Powers) Act was passed in 1931. The Act gave the British government power to suppress propaganda for the Civil Disobedience Movement.

Rise of press and journey to India's independence

The editors later raised concerns regarding the freedom of expression and safeguard of the press. The All-India Newspapers Editors' Conference also emerged during the period. It demanded the government lift the restrictions on the press. In 1941, Mahatma Gandhi criticised the authorities for restricting media, citing that "in the name of the war effort, all expression of opinion is effectively suppressed."

Despite varieties of criticism, the government continued to prohibit the press. It restricted the press and rebellion activities under the Defence of India Act 1915 from making announcements to the masses. It also extended imprisonment to five years, while the Official Secrets Act was passed to provide a death sentence to those involved in anti-government editorials.

In 1942, following the Quit India Movement, the press was instructed not to cover any news about political parties and the All-India Newspaper Editors' Conference subsequently decided that newspapers will observe caution and refrain from publishing on Quit India Movement.

However, the press, being the clever and rebel entity it was, continued its resistance by using underground papers, radio, art and graffiti. This continued till the British finally abdicated from India.

Posted By: Aalok Sensharma