Journalists in India have no special rights. Unlike the United States, freedom of the press in the country does not flow from any special provision or amendment to the Constitution, but from the right to free speech and expression. Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution confers this right subject only to reasonable restrictions specified in Article 19(2). Therefore, to propose licences, qualifications and common entrance examinations for journalists, as Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari did a few days ago, is to try to circumscribe and limit the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Dissemination of information might be the business of some news organisations, but it is also an essential part of the everyday activities of countless Indians who talk, post, upload or tweet what they see, hear, sense or think. What distinguishes journalists employed by a news organisation and private individuals taking advantage of social media and personal communication channels to disseminate information is not the nature of their work, but the public standing and credibility that they command. Any attempt to prescribe licences and qualifications for journalists will necessarily end up limiting what ordinary citizens can do. As in other democracies, newspapers in India do not require a licence to operate. In authoritarian or managed democracies, where press licensing is the norm, the threat of a cancelled licence is often enough to ensure the media toes the official line. If journalists are to be given licences, can newspaper licensing be far behind?
All of this is not to say that news organisations need make no effort to improve the standards of their journalism. In the race to be the first to break the news, television channels, and sometimes newspapers too, often get their facts wrong and the context mixed-up. But, as the best journalism schools have already realised, practice, not theory, makes a good journalist. Mr. Tewari’s proposal seems more like a trial balloon: he gave no details of what exactly he had in mind, and did not appear to have given serious thought to all the implications. Indeed, his train of thought mirrors that of the Press Council of India Chairman Markandey Katju, who, some time ago, set up a committee to decide on minimum qualifications for a journalist. The Minister wants the minimum qualification to apply equally to subject experts contributing to a news organisation, reckoning that they would not resent the requirement. What is mooted as an exercise to raise the quality of journalism could just as well pose a threat to the free flow of information, and to the freedom of speech and expression.