Protection of Journalistic Sources in India

In India, there is no specific legislation that protects journalists from being asked to disclose their sources. However, various courts have ruled differently on this issue, and the Supreme Court has acknowledged the importance of protection of journalistic sources for press freedom in a democratic society. Despite this, journalists in India are often asked to disclose their sources in Court, and the absence of a specific law leaves it to the discretion of the Court.

Laws and Regulations

  • Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression to all citizens. However, investigative agencies can issue notice to anyone, including journalists, to provide information. Like any citizen, a journalist can be compelled to give evidence in Court. If she does not comply, the journalist can face charges of Contempt of Court.
  • The Press Council of India (PCI) Act, of 1978, grants the Press Council powers of a civil court to deal with complaints when a newspaper has “offended against the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or working journalist has committed any professional misconduct.” However, the Council cannot force a newspaper, news agency, journalist, or editor to reveal their sources during the proceedings.

Supreme Court Rulings

  • While the Supreme Court broadly recognises the freedom of the press, including the right of journalists to ensure protection of their sources, various courts have ruled differently on this issue. In October 2021, while constituting a committee to investigate the Pegasus spyware, the Supreme Court said that one of the fundamental conditions for the media to exercise its right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 is the protection of ‘journalistic sources.’
  • In 2019, the Supreme Court in a review petition in the Rafale case overruled the Centre’s objections on the petitioner’s claims since they relied on purportedly “stolen” confidential documents. The Centre had asked the chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group, who wrote the reports, to disclose his sources. N Ram told the Court that the publication was “perfectly justified (and) in public interest”.

Recommendations for Change

  • The Law Commission of India in its 93rd Report in 1983 recommended recognising journalistic privilege by amending the Indian Evidence Act. The short 38-page report suggested insertion of a new provision which would read:
  • “No court shall require a person to disclose the sources of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, where such information has been obtained by him on the express agreement or implied understanding that the source will be kept confidential”. In its 185th report on the amendments to the Evidence Act, the Law Commission again suggested this amendment.

Position in Other Countries

  • In other countries like the United Kingdom, the Contempt of Courts Act 1981 creates a presumption in favour of journalists who want to protect the identity of their sources. However, that right is subject to certain conditions in the “interest of justice”.
  • The European Court of Human Rights in a landmark 1996 ruling held that an attempt to force a journalist to reveal his source for a news story violated his freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Synopsis

The protection of journalistic sources in India is a complex issue that is influenced by various factors such as the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression, court rulings, and the absence of specific legislation. Despite the broad recognition of the importance of protecting journalistic sources by the Supreme Court, the discretion is often left to the courts to decide on a case-by-case basis. The Press Council of India has the power to deal with complaints related to journalistic ethics, but it does not have the authority to force the disclosure of sources during proceedings. The Law Commission of India has recommended amending the Indian Evidence Act to recognize journalistic privilege, but this has yet to be implemented. In comparison, other countries such as the United Kingdom and European Union have established laws and regulations that provide a greater level of protection for journalists and their sources. Ultimately, the protection of journalistic sources is crucial for press freedom and democratic societies, and it is important for India to consider implementing legislation to safeguard this right.

Written by IAS POINT

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