Part 2 of the series ‘Free to Air’
In 1981, the Indian government began levying import duty on newsprint imported from abroad along with an auxiliary customs duty. This resulted in an increase in the price of newspapers and reduced their circulation. These levies were challenged by several publishers, editors and printers of daily newspapers for stifling their freedom of speech and expression. In response, the government argued that these duties had been levied on newsprint in ‘public interest’ so as to augment revenue.
While deciding this matter, the Supreme Court held that the freedom of press was encompassed within the contours of the ‘freedom of speech and expression’. This freedom, the Court explained, means freedom from interference from any authority which would have the effect of interference with the content and circulation of newspapers.
The Court arrived at this conclusion by recognising how a free press is integral to social and political discourse:
“[T]he press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments …”
The Court further held that there could not be any restriction on the freedom of the press in public interest. The Court ventured into the complex question of ‘Press versus Government’ and noted:
“… Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to Governments and other authorities. The authors of the articles which are published in newspapers have to be critical of the actions of Government in order to expose its weaknesses. … Governments naturally take recourse to suppress newspapers publishing such articles in different ways.”
On the question of permissible levies on newsprint, the Court’s attention was drawn to a particular statement by the then Finance Minister – that one of the reasons for the Government to impose customs duty on newsprint was that the newspapers contained “piffles”, or “foolish nonsense” which could be done away with. The Court confronted this by saying that even if the writings in the newspaper are piffles, “it cannot be a ground for imposing a duty which will hinder circulation of newspapers.” The government cannot arrogate to itself the “power to prejudge the nature of contents of newspapers”, and imposition of such a tax restriction amounts to conferring on the government the “power to pre-censor a newspaper”.
The Supreme Court ultimately held that the government was indeed empowered to levy taxes affecting the publication of newspapers but within reasonable limits and so as not to impinge on the freedom of expression. In the particular facts before it, the Court observed that the excessive nature of the burden owing to the levy of duties on newsprint was neither adequately proven by the petitioners nor adequately refuted by the respondents. In a finely nuanced judgment, the Court directed the government to re-examine the taxation policy by evaluating whether it constituted an excessive burden on the newspapers.
This judgment is a landmark for establishing a cogent connection between the freedom of speech and expression, the role of the press in a democracy, and people’s right to know. It is of particular relevance in present times, given that in 2020, India was ranked 142nd on the World Press Freedom Index, released by the international organisation Reporters Without Borders. At a time when the means of access to information have substantially increased, the quality of such information is critical. To ensure this, it is imperative that the press remains free from censorship imposed at the state’s behest. At the same time, the judgment places a weighty obligation on the press to report responsibly and in a manner which befits its role as the educator of the masses. A free press is part of our cherished constitutional values, and it is indeed urgent for this beacon to continue shining.
This piece is compiled by Veera Mahuli, Research Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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