"Dissident press essential for democracy": Fali S Nariman

Eminent jurist calls India's falling rank on freedom of press a "matter of grave concern for democracy"

Fali S Nariman in his home office/library (photo courtesy @advsanjoy/X)
Fali S Nariman in his home office/library (photo courtesy @advsanjoy/X)


A "dissident press" is a "free press" and it is essential for democracy, eminent jurist Fali S, Nariman said today, 9 February, as he termed India's slipping ranking in the press freedom index a "matter of grave concern for democracy".

At an event here to give away the IPI-India Award for excellence in journalism, he expressed concerns over the freedom of the media in the country.

"We are now past preserving free speech; we are entering another age, an age of thought control. What you say is what thought control prompts you to say...," Nariman said. 

On the state of press freedom in the country, he said, "There is bad news for the Indian press. In the World Press Freedom Index, (our) ranking remains abysmally low. In the year 2002, when the World Press Institute was first inaugurated, in its report for that year, India was ranked at number 80 in 180 countries. In 2010, the number fell to 122; in 2016, it fell to 133; and in 2023, the Indian press is ranked almost rock bottom at number 161."

This, Nariman said, is a matter of "grave concern for democracy; it is also a matter of despair".

"The reason for this drop," he added, "is ascribed to external circumstances, often said in whispers—which frankly means that governments in office, centre or state, operate in (such) a manner that much of the Indian press and electronic media are compelled to keep looking over their shoulders to see if the concerned officials in government are smiling at them, a condition not at all conducive to a free press." 

"A dissident press is necessary for press freedom. Politicians and governments not just in India but many parts of the world will continue to behave the way they have done in the past. But for us citizens, journalists all over the world as well as newspapers are special... A good press is a critical press. That is a free press," he said.

In his speech, retired Supreme Court judge Madan B. Lokur expressed concern over rising incidents of hate speech and noted that the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) stopped recording data on hate speech after the apex court issued a direction to take steps to control it. 

"Over the last few years, we have been having an overdose of hate. In most instances, it was restricted to hate speech, but soon the venom became more poisonous and resulted in violence against innocent persons, including youngsters," said Lokur. 

"In the absence of any restrictive or coercive action by police, vigilante groups were converging... Large number of our citizens were lynched... in some places without any reason at all, and it all began with a hate speech," he said.

Lokur said the Supreme Court issued guidelines in July 2022 which required appointment of nodal officers in each district to prevent incidents of mob violence and lynching and the constitution of a special task force to procure intelligence report on people who are likely to commit such crimes in spreading hate speech, provocative statements and fake news. 

"While implementation of these directions leaves much to be desired, one of the unintended consequences of these directions was that data of lynching vanished from the public domain, and the National Crime Record Bureau stopped collecting data on lynching," he alleged. 

Lokur also said that despite the Supreme Court's directions, hate speech continues to thrive as the administration is not taking action

"The tough talk of the Supreme Court continues, but hate speech also continues..." Lokur said. "It is clear hate speech has not disappeared from our society. Rather, it is alive and kicking and entrenched in the psyche of the vigilante groups who are acting mercilessly and taking the extreme step of lynching, and in some cases economic boycott is being encouraged. The administration is unfortunately silent," 

Author Shobhaa De also said dissidence is a necessity for a democracy: "We need dissidents because without dissidents, there can be no true democracy."

"(The) pen will always remain mightier than sword," she added.

The IPI India Award for Excellence in Journalism, 2023 was awarded jointly to Neel Madhav and Alishan Jafri for their article 'Clicks and Bait', published in the Caravan, December 2022.

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