Freedom of Speech is a fundamental right of any journalist or even common citizen, and lately, it has been threatened with the arrests of many journalists and media groups who dared to speak against the ruling government. The landmark judgement delivered by the Supreme Court of India on a recent sedition case has brought big relief to the journalists who dare to raise their voices against the faulty policies of the government.
The judgement came after Justices UU Lalit and Vineet Saran quashed the sedition case registered by Himachal Pradesh police against journalist, Vinod Dua, for posting a video online criticising the central government’s handling of the lockdown. He had also hit out at Prime Minister Modi for the miseries of the migrant workers.
The recent verdict of the Supreme Court that every journalist has the right to criticize and comment on the government, and that they are entitled to protection has come as a victory for not just media personnel but is a triumph for every citizen too.
The Supreme Court stressed that “A citizen has a right to criticize or comment upon the measures undertaken by the Government and its functionaries, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law”.
In recent times, journalists have come under attack quite too often, with FIRs lodged against them for just doing their duty. The court commented that as a journalist he was within his rights to highlight and report issues of great concern so that adequate attention could be given to the prevailing problems.
Of late, there has been a high number of sedition cases against journalists, politicians, and even common people. Reporters like Rajdeep Sardesai, politicians like Shashi Tharoor, and journalists like Vinod Dua, against whom the sedition case was filed by Himachal Pradesh Police, and quashed by the SC, are all examples of people who chose to speak out. The case of the Bengaluru-based activist Disha Ravi too is to be remembered.
Sedition is an outdated law brought into force by the British in the 1860s. Several freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were tried under sedition law. But in today’s age, how valid is this law? By definition, it states that
“Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”
With this law, it is absolutely possible to imprison anyone who calls out the shortcomings of the government, anyone who highlights issues of concern. Sedition charges are used like bandages for the bruised egos of those in power. The minute anyone raises slogans against the government, or criticizes their policies, they are tagged ‘anti-national’. With the advent of social media, it isn’t just about saying or writing controversial words, but even the forwarding of content that is seen as a threat.
Where, then, is the right to Freedom of Speech? Ours is a truly democratic nation, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, as well as to the expression of that opinion. With most people being politically inclined or at least aware, the expression of dissent or assent is highly probable and should be expected. Even diamonds are subjected to scrutiny, so how can the govt escape the scrutiny of the people?
Of course, it must also be kept in mind that there is a fine line between criticizing the government and spreading false propaganda. Trying to highlight the inadequacies is different from propagating exaggerated shortfalls with the intention of destabilizing the government. It requires certain wisdom, to recognize when to not use this right. It forms every citizen’s responsibility to weigh out each word, before it is uttered, or written. As with everything in life, there is always a Time, Place, and Manner for expression too.