The powers and influence of the press are really unlimited. But they can be misused as well. They are like double-edged swords. In wrong hands, they may be used by vested interests and anti-social elements to further their own selfish ends at the cost of national and social interests. They may give distorted views and half-baked or false news. If confined in the hands of capitalists, they may be used to suppress and crush labour movements and anti-poverty campaigns as these pose a threat to their monopolistic ventures and business interests. In dictatorships, the press is not free and the newspapers are used only to promote the interests of a few, forming the nucleus around the dictator. Then they are not the voice of the people but the mouthpiece of the despotic ruler. It is only in a democracy that a newspaper is a common man’s representative, voice and counselor, all rolled into one.
As a friend, guide, counselor, educator, representative and voice of the people, a newspaper has to be impartial, truthful, sincere and fearless. It has to be a guardian and watchdog of the interests of the people. To perform these duties and functions, the freedom of the press is a must. Newspapers should be free to criticism or encourage government policies and activities on merit. But freedom is meaningless without fairness. There should be no biased reporting’s, comments or expression of views. If they do not observe decency, fairness and impartiality and indulge in false, misleading and biased reporting, they can make themselves liable to penal action. In India, newspapers enjoy a fair amount of freedom of expression. It was only during the Emergency in 1975 that their freedom was curtailed for a short period, but then the people responsible for it had to pay very dearly. It is the duty of the editors, reporters and journalists to be fair, impartial, honest and constructive in their profession. It is only the yellow journalism that indulges in blackmail, extortion of money and concessions or such other benefits.
A journalist, loyal to his profession, will not colour his reporting or exaggerate and distort his news. He will not betray the readers for personal gains, gifts and advantages. Yellow journalism is as great a danger to a nation and society as are the acts of smugglers, mafias, drug-traffickers and people engaged in espionage against their own country. A journalist should never forget his mission of unbiased, frank, fearless and truthful reporting. An honest, fearless and frank newspaper is a perfect antidote for political corruption, irregularities, favoritism, nepotism, and blackmail, etc., indulged in by the people in authority and power. The government and the people that run it cannot remain indifferent to criticism, comments and opinion expressed against them in the newspapers in a democracy. Sometimes the administration may try to tame a newspaper by threatening to stop advertisements to it because they are a must for the survival of a newspaper. But no newspaper, truly loyal to its commitment to the people and society, should succumb to such pressures. Rather, it should expose such conspiracy to suppress the freedom of the press.
Obviously, newspapers can play a vital role in the reconstruction and regeneration of a country. During our struggle for independence, the press played its important, constructive role. It reminds us of Tilak; Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders who published and edited newspapers and magazines or wrote articles, and reviews, etc., for them. These played a very positive role in quickening the process of national struggle for freedom. Their heroic, bold and missionary writings had the desired impact on the masses and, consequently, they got actively involved in the movement. Tilak was jailed and sent to Mandalay, in Burma (Myanmar), for his writings that were full of patriotic fervor and nationalism, but for the Britishers these were seditious. Similarly, Gandhiji and many other national leaders had to pay for their journalistic freedom, courage and honesty.
The history of Indian newspapers and journalism is quite old. Bengal Gazette was the first newspaper published in India in the middle of the 18th century. Raja Ram Mohan Roy published his newspaper Kaumudi, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Prabhakar. Indian newspapers include 41 centenarians. The Gujarati daily Bombay Samachar published from Mumbai is the oldest existing newspaper. It began its publication in 1822. Anand Bazaar Patrika, Punjab Kasseri and the Times of India are the three biggest newspapers as far as circulation is concerned. By the end of the year 2000, there were as many as 49,145 newspapers, including dailies, tri/ bi-weeklies, weeklies and other periodicals. Uttar Pradesh ranks the first, with 8,415 newspapers, including 844 dailies. The highest number of newspapers is published in Hindi followed by English, Urdu and Bengali. The circulation numbers of newspapers are gradually increasing appreciably with the spread of literacy and political and social awakening amidst the public. The number of newspapers owned and published by individuals is the largest. Their share in circulation is estimated at over 40%.
This reflects the monopolistic position of certain individuals and business houses in the world of newspapers in India. Therefore, these people have certain advantages, but Indian journalism is now quite mature, responsible and free, which ensures that no group or business house can take liberty in the matter. Then there is the Press Council of India, established for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the press, maintaining and improving the standards and quality of newspapers, news agencies and journalism in the country. The Council is a quasi-judicial body and does not possess any punitive powers. However, it exercises a moral authority. It considers and decides complaints and grievances received both from the public against the newspaper and from the press. It may also direct an earring newspaper to publish the complainant’s reply/rejoinder, with an apology in appropriate cases. On the one hand it helps newspapers and news agencies to maintain their independence, on the other, it ensures, the maintenance of high standards of public taste and fostering a sense of rights and responsibilities of citizenship. So it is freedom with responsibility.