David Astor, the extraordinary editor of The Observer, once remarked that ‘he (Orwell) could not blow his nose without moralising on the state of the handkerchief industry (journalism).’ Rightly so, Orwell embodied much of what is sine-qua-non for ethical journalism – decency, courage, righteousness, and honesty. These ethics form the bedrock of credible journalism and are essential for a truly free media.

So can we claim the existence of such ethics in India?

Apart from sporadic spectacles of integrity and righteousness, the Indian media has hardly ever forsaken the road not taken. The worst example of this was during the infamous ’emergency’ imposed in 1975 by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, when the press, as commented by veteran politician L.K Advani, ‘chose to crawl when asked to bend’. Apart from The Indian Express under the leadership of legendary editor Ramnath Goenka, and The Statesman under Sudhi Rajan Das, all other major newspapers acquiesced without even bothering to put up a fight. Much of the press functioned as means of ‘thought control’, flooded with appreciations of Indira Gandhi, sterilisation programs and how trains were functioning on schedule due to the emergency.

Emergency and unparalleled restriction on press freedom

On the day of the emergency was imposed, electricity was cut to the printing presses and only Hindustan Times and The Statesman, by virtue of being near New Delhi’s centrally-located Connaught Place, were able to bring forth the news. This was perhaps the news of the arrival of the days to come.

The Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matters Act was passed in 1976 with retroactive effect, making sure the iron fist remains on the matter published in present and the past. It empowered the Central Government or competent authority to shut down or confiscate printing presses for failure to furnish the required deposits, to confiscate objectionable literature and to impose jail terms and fines for violations. The dependence of the media on state-sponsored advertisements also meant that any kind of the resistance was temporary and came at the cost of a possible shutdown.

The committee head by Mr K.K. Das, a former secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, concluded that 253 journalists were arrested during the state of Emergency. Fifty-one journalists and cameramen were deprived of accreditation, seven foreign correspondents were expelled from the country and twenty-nine foreign correspondents were banned from entering India.

Thankfully, colonised by her own propaganda, India Gandhi chose to call for elections after 19 months and was decisively defeated, paving the way for the revival of freedom of the press. The Janta Party overturned most of the restrictions but didn’t go far enough to ensure that a repeat telecast of emergency era restrictions does not take place.

So was the situation always so?

Not entirely, but the seeds of it were sown right after the independence.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first Prime Minister – though a liberal, was never able to fully reconcile press freedom with his credentials. The Press Objectionable Matters Act was passed in 1951, based and extracted from similar colonial laws, though it was allowed to lapse in 1956. In 1963 however, Nehru government brought the 16th amendment to the Constitution of India that sealed the fate of the article 19 as it stands today. With the addition of the words, ‘for preservation and maintenance of the integrity and sovereignty of the Union,’ the reasonable restrictions were wide enough to ensure that media houses and individuals alike cannot function quite so freely.

How free is the Indian media today?

Not very free, is the short answer. India is on a steady journey of decline in its ranking of Press Freedom Index. It ranks lower than its neighbour Nepal and Bhutan at 136, which is likely to slip even further with the recent NDTV incident. Coupled with this, are the threats and lack of security to independent and investigative journalists. Of the 110 journalists killed worldwide in 2015, India’s share was nine, last year the share was five of the total 122 journalist deaths.

There has also been a perceptible decline in freedom of the press, as the media houses are either being bought by big corporations (Viacom18 network) or have a visible conflict of interest (Republic, ZeeNews). Others like Scroll, The Wire, and Swarajya are too ideologically entrenched, which makes them tied in spirit if not in letter.

While clear expression of ideological affiliations by media groups do not act as a challenge to freedom of the press but a disproportionate distribution in their quantum could. In this case, presently, the Television media is tilted in the favour of the right-wing while the print media (including online portals) are overwhelming in favour of the left. Thus, instead of having an overall balance we are stuck with two unhealthy imbalances.

How much does the NDTV incident affect freedom of the press in India?

On 5 June 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – India’s prime domestic security and investigation body – carried out searches at the New Delhi and Dehradun houses of Prannoy Roy, founder and editor-in-chief of popular television network, NDTV. The move was heavily criticised by those who saw it as a direct reaction to a live TV squabble between an NDTV anchor and the spokesperson for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a few days before the raids.

This incident may not be the inflection point for freedom of the press but is still a significant one. On the very offset, there is ample prima facie evidence of financial impropriety by Roys in their handling of NDTV, which has been extensively documented by other media outlets like The Caravan, The New Indian Express and Newslaundry.

Further, in order to treat it as an attempt to censure the outlet, it will have to be based on the assumption that an investigation against its owner is also an investigation against the channel despite the fact that no NDTV offices were raided by CBI.

But, this isn’t a big stretch, since the investigation could very well be politically motivated. It came right after the eviction of Sambit Patra (BJP spokesperson) from an earlier debate. Furthermore, NDTV is known to have maintained a generally hostile stance towards the government. Thus, the shield of freedom of the press should be legitimately wielded to protect oneself from such investigations.

However, if there has been actual impropriety, then this shield could stand in the way of implementing the rule of law. This would mean that the owners of media houses have a greater immunity from the law than an ordinary citizen and can hide behind the charade of freedom of the press, which when impropriety is involved, implies the very absence of freedom in the first place. Therefore, the important task at hand is to strike a balance when it comes to maintaining rule of law and upholding freedom of the press.

A balance at this point of time, in this case, would be, to give the benefit of the doubt to the government since the raids have already been conducted and to go by their word when it comes to claims of non-intervention. However, in order to ensure that there isn’t any kind of further harassment or intimidation, the inquiry from hereon should be divested from governmental involvement by having a judicial supervision. At the same time, the court should satisfy itself that the reasons given by the investigating officer for the raids were bona fide and essential at the time being.

Freedom from Press as Freedom of Press

Freedom of press also means freedom from the press; ethics in journalism demands that the media retains the basic decency of ensuring that facts are not exaggerated and unnecessarily coloured to adversely harm an individual’s interest. However, due to overwhelming reliance on advertisements and the dependence on investor money, both of which ultimately flow in based on the viewership, meant that journalistic decency was the first casualty.

The recent civil defamation lawsuit filed by Mr Tharoor casts the most glaring light on the problem but is not limited to it. Most media channels have tried to emulate themselves into a functioning court with the anchor masquerading as a crusading judge, whose own opinion only matters in the end. This transformation of interventionist anchors into determined inquisitive anchors have ensured that whatever remains of journalistic decency is finally sunk.

Freedom of the press is India has a twisted past, a perverted present, and an uncertain future. As long as the fortunes of the media houses are dependent upon the government of the day and sensationalism, they can’t be insulated from interference. Any independent sustenance that involves financial impropriety coupled with hostility to the government of the day translates into a death-wish as we have seen in the case of NDTV and India TV.

Presently, a media house will have to give up at least one of the oh-so-cherished ethics in order to survive: decency, honesty, courage, or righteousness. Otherwise, survival remains grim, no matter who runs the government.

Anuj Aggarwal is a student of law at Delhi University’s Faculty of Law and former spokesperson for the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU).

Views expressed here are the author’s own.