IN LATE MAY, soon after the results of the general election were announced, the Law Commission of India released a consultation paper on media laws, and invited comments from members of the media and the general public. Twenty law commissions have been constituted since Independence, but this is the first time media laws have been taken up substantively. One might have expected the primary objective of this exercise to be a discussion on the protection of press freedom—especially since India currently ranks an abysmal 140th of the 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. However, the terms of consultation spelled out in the paper, and the discussions the commission has organised with various stakeholders, have focused largely on just one aspect of media laws—that of regulating the industry—while ignoring the important issue of their implications for press freedom.
The Indian legal system is a complex mesh of rules and regulations, many of which run contrary to the interests of a free press. Governments can control the media by either directly taking up a cause in the realm of thoughts and ideas, or by muzzling creators or disseminators of information or opinion with bureaucratic and economic stipulations that make them—whether organisations or individuals—financially and operationally vulnerable.
In the first category of methods of control are the myriad Indian laws that pertain to subjective issues such as obscenity, blasphemy, communal harmony, sedition, and more. These are legitimate concerns, and we need sound regulatory mechanisms to address instances where the media errs on these issues. However, there is always some arbitrariness and ambiguity in interpreting these laws, and this can allow government agencies to stifle, or at the least harass, the media. Furthermore, the current legal framework bestows powers to initiate action onto a large number of government agencies, and at multiple organisational levels, rendering the media vulnerable to the whims and fancies of concerned officials.