The outcome of the Press Council of India's decision to challenge the Allahabad High Court gag order on reporting the movement of troops will be an acid test of how far the judiciary can go in curbing media freedoms. The court's order — which directed senior officials in the Home and I&B departments of the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure that no news on the subject is put out by the print and electronic media — was issued following the recent and sensational Indian Express report on the alleged panic in the civilian administration caused by the movement of two Army units towards New Delhi. It is true that the security of the State is one of the eight heads under which reasonable restrictions may be imposed on freedom of expression under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. But it is inexplicable how the further reporting of these troop movements is related to “official defence secrecy and security of the country” or why there should be a gag on this merely because the already published reports have caught “attention at the highest level in the defence as well as the Government.”
After all, the first reports of these ostensibly sensitive troop movements were based on briefings by Army sources themselves and published much earlier on a website as a routine story on “manoeuvres designed to test [the Army's] readiness for quick armed intervention in India's immediate neighbourhood.” Moreover, there is a vast difference, as PCI chairman Markandey Katju has suggested, between reporting troop movements in wartime, which could benefit the adversary and seriously jeopardise national security, and a ban that places such restrictions on standard operational manoeuvres in peace time. True, the Indian Express report, despite its many hedges and caveats, caused unnecessary consternation because of the exaggerated manner in which it was displayed. But the right of the newspaper or any other media organisation to report on this or any other sensitive matter cannot be questioned unless it clearly transgresses the Lakshman rekha of reasonable restrictions laid down in the Constitution. The higher judiciary, which has a long and commendable record of upholding the right to free expression, has generally recognised that this comes at a price. Such things as sensationalism, exaggeration, mistaken judgments and even false statements made honestly are likely to occur, or at least cannot be totally eliminated, in an environment in which free speech is guaranteed. The answer to this is to defend the right to free expression even as you criticise the specific instances in which it is abused. It is not to shoot the messenger.