Driven by the idea of a Hindi-speaking Hindu rashtra, shaped by India’s Right in the 1940s and encouraged by the ruling coalition led by the BJP, a large part of the Hindi media has been promoting a vision of India as Bharat Mata (depicted as a Hindu mother figure wearing a crown, dressed in red and gold and holding a saffron flag against a map of undivided India) as central to Indian patriotism. It has also, in editorials and articles, been prophesying that one day soon Hindi will be India’s national language.

The fears and worries of the non-Hindi states, ignited by such blatant propaganda, have been further strengthened with some important and senior owners and editors from within the Hindi media being nominated by the government to grace the Upper House of Parliament. One of them was handpicked as deputy speaker. Their presence and the plenitude of government advertising that Hindi papers have begun to carry has had a considerable influence on the fortunes of individual dailies and their owners. But it has also repeatedly convinced voters in the Hindi belt that the Hindi media is India’s authentic mouthpiece and an apt vehicle for the core political and cultural beliefs of Hindus.

The legacy media’s idea of the last century, of the identity of its audience as secular and multitudinous, appears nostalgic, irrational and inaccurate to many within India’s mediascape today. As the ground begins to shift beneath our democracy and the old-style media, must Hindi media just race ahead gathering revenue and audiences, leaving wider ethical questions to be tackled by others?

The Indian media may not be preoccupied with questions of media ethics, but other serious questions will not go away. What about consumers’ individual rights? Or the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression? What are the guarantees against commercial and political misuse of private data that citizens are increasingly mandated to hand over to lobbies they do not know or see, which in the wrong hands may pollute their minds with fake news and disinformation?

Can even the most perfect information pathways be stopped from herding citizens and using their personal data commercially without their permission? No matter how grand the vision of a mighty India, reducing a nation and its peoples to one format, one database, taking away from them their essential humanity and democratic rights in the name of securing the nation is still not convincingly justified.

Our legislations pertaining to the regulation of new media in India remain thin on the ground. The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 (amended in 1961 and 2004), still governs the field of mobile telephony in India. And Article 19(1)(A) of the Constitution gives the print media the same right to freedom of speech and expression as citizens.

It is not a fundamental right of the media as in the USA. It comes accompanied by Article 19(2), which lays down that the state can make laws to impose reasonable restrictions on these freedoms, in the interests of the “sovereignty and integrity” of India. The free press that has played a vital role in India’s democratic functioning is regulated by the Press Council of India with the statutory backing of the Press Council Act, 1978. The print media’s right to know has been upheld in a number of judgments.

In a judgment delivered in March 2015 (Priya Pillai v. Union of India & Ors), the Delhi High Court observed that the new information technology has created a global village and thus the government’s action of restraining a Greenpeace activist from travelling abroad and sharing her views with British Parliamentarians was a violation of her fundamental right to free speech and expression.

On 5 August 2019, the Government of India chose to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution and bifurcated the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was swiftly followed by a total ban on media and internet in the area. To protest against this ban, the editor of Kashmir Times filed a petition at the apex court. Surprisingly, many Hindi papers and TV news channels chose to support the government’s blanket ban on media in the state in the name of national security.

In the 1990s, the Press Council had strongly defended the media’s freedom when Punjab had faced terrorism. But in August 2019, the Press Council chairman, Justice Chandramauli Prasad (retired), supported the home ministry’s decision to block some types of news and information, saying, “No matter how liberal one is ... the fact [is] that some news is best not reported.”

The question has been hotly debated since, but the ban is in place at the time of writing.

In September 2019, a young Hindi journalist from Uttar Pradesh posted a video online showing how already malnourished children in a government school in Mirzapur were being served just rotis and salt by way of a midday meal, even though they were supposed to be getting a proper meal consisting of lentils and vegetables with rice or rotis. Obviously, this was a case of embezzlement of resources. The video went viral, but the district magistrate said that a print media journalist did not have the right to take videos and post them online. Following this logic, the district police registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the journalist on the charge of deliberately defaming the state government. This was followed by a media furore and in December 2019, the UP police cleared the journalist of all charges.

It is obvious that the definition of defamation is in the eye of the political/bureaucratic beholders.

Laws against defamation stem from Article 19(2). Civil defamation in India is not statutorily provided for and is dealt with under the law of torts. But of late, the media has been faced with the rising incidence of being slapped with criminal defamation charges.

In an age where information within the digital world goes viral in seconds, defamation remains a tricky issue, particularly for vernacular reporters who are short of finances and legal leverage. It is easy for digital portals to retract objectionable news within seconds, but not for print. And while the laws against disinformation for the digital media remain unclear, frequent use of criminal defamation laws against the print and threats of stringent punishment and prolonged litigation have, on occasion, resulted in undemocratic censorship and the freezing of dissident voices. The case from Mirzapur shows it clearly.

Excerpted with permission from The Journey of Hindi Language Journalism in India: From Raj to Swaraj, Mrinal Pande, Orient Black Swan.