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Around the third week of April, the world learned that India still sat at the alarming 142nd rank of the World Press Freedom Index published by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This was despite the appointment of a Central Index Monitoring Cell last year by Cabinet Minister Rajiv Gauba, aimed at improving India's rank. Last year at the National Press Freedom Day (November 16), the Prime Minister had commended the media’s exceptional service during the COVID pandemic. However, one needs to remember that media hasn’t just started now. Our press has always been a fundamental force behind the story of our nation.
It all started with The Bengal Gazette launched by James Augustus Hickey in 1780. It targeted British authorities, individuals, and their private affairs. Hickey was arrested in 1782 for discriminating against the East India Company, ending his short journalistic adventure. A few government-guided papers came into existence after this, including Madras Courier and Bombay Herald. The introduction of newspapers also brought a new platform for social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy for the social upliftment of people. Roy published a Persian newspaper, Mirat- ul- Akhbar and stopped its production as a protest against the government’s regulations. He also launched a Brahmanical Magazine in English as an effort to counteract Christian Missionaries’ propaganda.
Other newspapers like Chandrika Samachar and Bombay Samachar also came into existence in 1822.
More newspapers began to publish in regional languages like Urdu, Persian, Marathi, and Bengali, focusing more on the daily problems of Indians and probing into the British government. It all came into together with the revolt of 1857 which made the divide between the British and Indian media crystal clear. The British government under Lord Canning had to bring in the Gagging Act of 1857. This act sought to regulate the printing presses and to restrain the media’s tone.
While social issues like sati, widow remarriage, crimes, and opposition to studying only in English continued to be at the forefront, the criticization of the British increased exponentially.
Kesari - founded by Lokmanya Tilak and Amrita Bazaar Palika - worked hard to oppose the attempts to suppress the nationalist agendas. The Registration Act of 1867 required the name of the printer, the publisher, and the place of publication of all printed materials.
In 1878, Lord Lytton introduced the Vernacular Press Act providing extensive rights to the government for censoring reports and editorials in the regional press. However, papers such as Amrita Bazaar Patrika began to publish in English to go against this act as it was not imposed on English publications.
The British passed four more acts to control the press from 1908 to 1912. The Press Act of 1910 empowered the local government to demand a security fee for any “offensive content”; prosecuting almost 1,000 papers. The press rallied the masses against the British during Mahatma Gandhi’s salt satyagraha as well. The Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931 gave the provincial governments censorship powers and brought further restrictions in 1939.
As the freedom struggle continued, the press also continued to fight. With the Independence and introduction of radio and television, the media started expanding. In many ways, the story of our media shaped our country too. Let’s hope that the watchdog of our democracy continues its legacy.
This article has been written by Ruchi Thakur for The Paradigm
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