‘Press must remain free if a country is to remain a democracy’: CJI DY Chandrachud

A functional and healthy democracy must encourage the development of journalism as an institution that can ask difficult questions to the establishment said the Chief Justice of India delivering his address at the Ramnath Goenka Awards


Written by D Y Chandrachud (Courtesy; Indian Express)

At the very outset, I extend my heartiest congratulations to the winners in all the categories of the awards presented today. Earlier today, I was browsing through the categories in which awards are presented as well as a few stories by previous winners and I must say that I am tremendously impressed by the depth and breadth of the reportage that journalists in our country engage in. To those journalists who have not won today — you are no less a winner in the game of life for yours is a noble profession. To have chosen it at all (especially when more lucrative options are available) and to continue to pursue it despite the many difficulties which arise, is admirable indeed.

As I was reflecting on the profession of law and that of journalism, it occurred to me that journalists and lawyers (or judges, as in my case) share some things in common. Of course, persons of both professions are fierce believers of the aphorism that the pen is mightier than the sword. But, they also share the occupational hazard of being disliked by virtue of their professions — no easy cross to bear. But members of both professions keep at their daily tasks and hope that one day, the reputations of their professions will receive a makeover.

The magnitude of the task that journalists face in their careers was well described by G K Chesterton, who said “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive”. Journalists are constantly engaged in the endeavour of simplifying complex information for the consumption of the public, which is frequently unaware of even the most basic facts underlying the issues sought to be exposed. This simplification of information must not be at the cost of accuracy, which further complicates the journalist’s job. This is true, the world over.

The media sparks debates and discussion, which are the first step towards action. All societies inevitably become dormant, lethargic and immune to the problems that plague them. Journalism (in all its forms) is one of the key aspects which prods us out of this collective inertia. The media has always played and continues to play an important role in shaping the course of current events, and by extension, the course of history itself. Recently, the #MeToo movement was sparked in part by the publication of stories concerning the accusations of sexual harassment against prominent figures in the film industry in the US. The #MeToo movement had cascading effects all across the world and was a watershed moment in history. In India, the media’s coverage of the rape of Jyoti, or Nirbhaya, by certain men in Delhi resulted in widespread protests and later, in reforms to criminal law. Even on a day-to-day basis, some news stories prompt questions and discussion in Parliament and in the legislative assemblies of states.

The media is the fourth pillar in the conception of the State, and thus an integral component of democracy. A functional and healthy democracy must encourage the development of journalism as an institution that can ask difficult questions to the establishment — or as it is commonly known, “speak truth to power”. The vibrancy of any democracy is compromised when the press is prevented from doing exactly this. The press must remain free if a country is to remain a democracy.

India has a great legacy of newspapers that have acted as catalysts of social and political change. Prior to independence, newspapers were run by social reformers and political activists in order to raise awareness and also as a means of outreach. For instance, Dr. Ambedkar launched several newspapers such as MooknayakBahishkrut BharatJanata, and Prabuddha Bharat to create awareness about the rights of the most neglected communities in India. The newspapers and other publications of pre-Independence India also give us a picture of the detailed history of those times. These newspapers are now a source of knowledge, a historical record of the times when courageous men and women acted against the colonial rulers and fought fiercely for our independence. The newsprint voiced the aspiration of the soul, a yearning for freedom.

Many journalists, both in our country as well as across the world, work in difficult and unfriendly conditions. But they are relentless in the face of adversity and opposition. It is precisely this quality which must not be lost. As citizens, we may not agree with the approach that a journalist has adopted or the conclusions that they reach. I, too, find myself disagreeing with many journalists. After all, who amongst us agrees with all other people? But disagreement must not distort into hatred and hatred must not be permitted to evolve into violence. As you must be aware, the Supreme Court of India has emphasised on the rights of journalists in a number of judgments. In one judgment, the Supreme Court held: “India’s freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak truth to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal.”

Initially, the outreach of journalism was limited to print media, but this expanded with the introduction of television. I was taking a flight to the United States in 1982 to pursue a Master’s degree in law. Coincidentally, it was the day of the launching of colour television in India. In the recent past, social media has been a game changer for journalists in more ways than one. Online platforms have provided an opportunity to individuals to launch their own online media channels. In that way, online platforms have led to the democratisation of the media. Years ago, it was the paucity of space which was a constraining factor. Now, perhaps, it is the paucity of reader patience. Readers have short attention spans. News is reduced to shorts on YouTube or reels on Instagram.

Our attention spans have seen a steady decline with the advent of social media. It is now the norm for short tidbits of information to be conveyed through 280 characters or in a few seconds. This is, however, an unsatisfactory replacement for long-form or investigative pieces. In fact, there can be no replacement for such reportage. It is also proving to be a challenge for journalists to penetrate the echo chambers that social media has created and illuminate the truth.

Local or community-based journalism has played an important role in encouraging social cohesion and political activism. It has the ability to not only educate citizens but also to raise the little-known concerns and set the agenda for debate on those issues at the policy level. Local journalism shines a bright light on local issues, people, and causes, which many times may not get covered by the media at the national-level. As several studies have shown, the composition of mainstream media is not representative of all communities.

Community journalism opens the avenues for the members of marginalised communities to be a voice for their own issues. The emergence of social media enabled them to create their own space and come up with independent media platforms.

The relevance of the media was best highlighted during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Electronic, print and social media facilitated the State to disseminate relevant information to the general public at large even during the lockdown. The citizens were constantly reminded of the various precautionary as well as preventive steps which they were expected to take in order to ensure their well-being. The media highlighted administrative loopholes and excesses. Various high courts and the Supreme Court of India relied on news reports in taking suo motu cognisance of instances of violations of people’s rights during the pandemic.

I was recently asked as to which newsperson I followed with keen interest. My answer did not name a newsperson but a cartoonist – the famed late Mr R K Laxman. Although he was not a journalist, he succeeded in accomplishing the core of the journalist’s mission by holding a mirror up to the powers that be. I am sure most of India will join with me in considering Mr RK Laxman’s cartoons to be incisive and witty commentaries. He was what we call an “equal opportunity offender” — everyone stood the risk of being the subject of his cartoons and most took it in good spirit when they were ridiculed. My favourite anecdote about him was that he thought that the famous UK cartoonist David Low was actually David Cow because of the manner in which Mr Low penned his signature.

I also joked that my favourite journalist (so to speak) was the one in the Hindi movie Nayak, which was a remake of the Tamil film Mudhalvan. Those who have watched either of these know that the protagonist is a journalist who is invited to take the place of the Chief Minister for a single day. He becomes wildly popular after doing this and becomes a politician. I see some young faces in the audience today and I hope that they have not taken up journalism after watching this movie in their youth.

In recent years, we are also witnessing a rising interest in legal journalism. Legal journalism is the storyteller of the justice system, shedding light on the complexities of the law. However, selective quoting of speeches and judgments of judges by journalists in India has become a matter of concern. This practice has a tendency to distort the public’s understanding of important legal issues. Judges’ decisions are often complex and nuanced, and selective quoting can give the impression that a judgment means something entirely different from what the judge actually intended. It is thus essential for journalists to provide a complete picture of events, rather than presenting a one-sided view. Journalists have a duty to report accurately and impartially.

As with every institution, journalism is facing its own challenges. Fake news poses a serious threat to the independence and impartiality of the press in the current society. It is the collective responsibility of journalists as well as other stakeholders to weed out any element of bias or prejudice from the process of reporting events. A comprehensive fact-checking mechanism should be in place to verify all news items before reporting. Media houses are expected to act cautiously while publishing news. Fake news can misguide millions of people at once, and this will be in direct contradiction with the fundamentals of democracy which form the bedrock of our existence. Across the globe, fake news has the capability to create tensions between communities by misleading people. Therefore, to save the democratic values of fraternity which can be damaged, if not destroyed through biased reporting, there is a strong need to bridge a gap between truth and lie.

Another issue affecting the media is that of legitimacy. A diverse and representative newsroom is essential for media institutions to provide well-researched and complex stories that explore a multiplicity of perspectives and voices.

Maintaining a diverse workforce is imperative for the longevity of any media platform. This is not just about providing different perspectives and viewpoints. Media institutions need to ensure that their newsroom culture reflects the diverse news content they are producing. Otherwise, audiences may question their authenticity. Journalism ought not to be elitist, exclusionary or for that matter, a selective profession.



Related Articles