People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

June 26, 2005

Emergency & Press Censorship Revisited

S K Pande


THE promulgation of Emergency and Press Censorship on June 26, 1975 constituted the darkest chapter in press history in free India.  The period had its immediate and long term repercussions for the press.  The moot question today is how far have the lessons been learnt by succeeding governments and the press? In fact, in the past decade, dark shades of press censorship were indeed hovering over the country. And more dangerously, new forms of have been invented in the changed scenario of globalisation.


First, a bit of flash back into the past.  It was the censorship of 1975, which showed how the press at large became a tool in government hands. News was moulded purely to serve the party in power and its leader and the ministry of information and broadcasting became a virtual caricature of the Hitlerian German Information Minister Dr. Goebbels set up.  It is true that in Delhi some papers and editors donned the mask of crusaders, only to later on become government tom-tommers.


Here are some examples as the Shah Commission of Enquiry pointed out:


The guidelines issued by the Chief Censor even exceeded the scope of the Rule 48 of the Defence and Internal Security of India Rules insofar as they prevented editors leaving editorial columns blank or filling them with quotations from great works of literature or from national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, or Rabindranath Tagore. The I&B ministry did not attempt to find out whether these guidelines were within the scope of Defence and Internal Security of India Rules or not. Parliament and court proceedings were also subject to censorship.


Not merely publication of court judgments was censored, but directions were also given as to how judgments should be published.


In practice, censorship was utilised for suppressing news unfavourable to the government, to play up news favourable to the government and to suppress news unfavourable to the supporters of the Congress Party.




The press today, often without any justifiable reason, is sought to be gagged by the executive, suppressed by the legislature, silenced by the judiciary or muzzled by motley pressure groups.  It is an easy victim not only to government's wrath but also one finds more and more instances of what even the Press Council had to say on the subject, editors being reduced to doormats by the governments and lately by press barons.  The devaluation of the institution of editor in general has become a reality It had to be commented upon by no less than two chairpersons of the Press Council.


The Emergency undoubtedly left behind it shades and censorship, its hangovers and residues.  Journalists for a while, however, found themselves more united to fight for their rights and opposition to the Bihar Press Bill, the Karnataka Press Bill and the J&K Bill were a few instances.  In some cases, Delhi showed the way on how to resist. Some all-India joint movements yielded dividends.




Subsequently, however, one saw another facet under the BJP regime when newspapers were sought to be muzzled either by ham handed attempts or by black mail or by direct threats and in many cases by a carrot and stick approach.  In fact, it was this approach which was perfected during the BJP-led NDA regime.  It was controlled by unofficial means where wily BJP spin-doctors perfected a quid pro quo policy and became selective in denying access to information. From Tehelka  to Outlook to Iftikar Gilani, one saw this approach. The rise of papers like The Pioneer tell the other part of the story. And the India Shining TV shows, mixed with religious mumbo jumbo tell the final story.


In the last ten years, contractualism, or hiring of journalists on contract, has also taken its toll as it has given rise to a new kind of censorship. The former Press Council Chairman P B Sawant agreed with many organisations of scribes on the dangers of contractual journalism to press freedom.




Now the threat of foreign direct investment in the media sector is posing another danger to press freedom. New forms of censorship by way of invasion of the media by vested interests represented by the foreign players leading to abridgement or exclusion of our sovereignty cannot be far behind. With permission for facsimile editions of foreign newspapers already granted, a look at the US scenario would be revealing. Whereas you had three newspapers in a town, most towns in the US today are single newspaper towns.  There are chains and the number of top players has come down to fifty or so. As scholar Bagdikian commented "Together, they exert a homogenising power over ideas, culture and commerce that affects populations larger than any in history.


As for what Rupert Murdoch represents, Bagdikian says “He is the world's principal purveyor of blood-and-breasts journalism. This has become the standard at almost all his publications, a mix of lurid crime tales under souped up headlines and pinups with bare breasts pushing out of page three.” In India, in the hot race for foreign collaborations, what to talk of the English papers, even the Hindi chain, Jagran group has struck new foreign pastures after its earlier date with saffron.and Hindutva.




It is acknowledged that in America today, step by step, a new system of information imperialism is taking root. Two years ago Rupert Murdoch became the world’s “most honoured ‘Star’ entertainer”. Recognised officially by US President George Bush for giving a super information propaganda edge to Bush and Blair and their allies’ invasion of Iraq and the deceitful hunt for illusive weapons of mass destruction. His information conquests, of course, are more diverse with India, China, all in the news kitty.


Years ago, the famous cartoonist and columnist, our very own Abu, in an article titled 'Dial M for Murdoch' stated “So desperate is the competition all around for circulation and advertising that almost the entire range of newspapers is engaged in entertainment rather than imparting serious information and commentary.  The tabloid formula and trivia is triumphant.  Everything is trivialised. If there is any variation in the personalities of the newspapers, it is only in their size or style of printing.” Today, in India the position is worse. You have advertorials - advertisements converted into editorials - and what not. In Delhi alone, two leading dailies are engaged in a cut-throat war in trivia. 




The defeat of the BJP-led NDA government and the installation of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the centre raised expectations of significant changes in some journalistic circles.  However, many of the media community’s hopes were dashed.  The repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTA) was welcomed. But caution: Unlawful activities (Prevention) Act contains several draconian measures that may well curb democratic rights.


In sum, since the Emergency and Press Censorship period, clear facets can be discerned. However unlike the past, there has been no Third Press Commission or Media Commission, in view of the expanding media bazaar with  international linkages. Add to this the shrinking journalist and devalued editor and contract worker amidst crumbling small and medium papers, cooperatives and trusts.  The BJP government would not concede this demand because its findings could have been embarrassing to it. The Congress seems to be at its old game of “under consideration and active consideration”.  The trouble is that governments have to cover up their lapses and the patronage doled out to the sections of the media, for a good quid pro quo.


In conclusion, it can be said that real freedom of the press today is indeed a chimera.  Successive governments have sought to muzzle the press.  There have been attempts made by several governments to muzzle or at least whittle down press freedom and curb free flow of ideas as they would aid the struggle against the very system.


TAILPIECE: A prominent national newspaper has its own code for coverage of news pertaining to organisation of journalists. The code makes it clear that news of journalist bodies, trusts and clubs, and their elections specially should  appear only if cleared by the top management. The result: even the death of their own scribes cannot figure in the paper and obituaries are rarely allowed. Well, is this not another form of censorship? (INN)