The freedom of the press in India had been high on the National Agenda since the early 19th century. During British rule in India, the early phase of the nationalist movement focused more on education, propagation of nationalist ideology, consolidation of public opinion, and active mobilization of masses through open meetings. For this purpose, the press in India proved to be a crucial tool in the hands of nationalists.
Many newspapers, emerged under fearless journalists and were seen as rendering the national and public services. These newspapers had a wide reach, and their impact was not only limited to the cities and towns but also affect the remote villages. These newspapers served the purpose of political education as well as political participation. The newspapers also put government policies under critical scrutiny. The Indian press during British rule acts as an institution of opposition to the government.
The Press Machine in India, for first time, was set up by the Portuguese during the late 16th Century. But, it was the Britishers who established the printing press in India in 1684. In 1780, the first newspaper in India: The Bengal Gazette (or Calcutta General Advertiser), was started by James Augustus Hickey. But, this newspaper was seized in 1872, as it outspokenly criticizes the British government.
Later on, more newspapers and journals such as Calcutta Chronicle, The Bengal Journal, Madras Courier, and The Bombay Herald came up between the 1780s and 1790s, which laid the foundation of the Indian press.
The British government imposed several regulations and restrictions on the freedom of the press, which are discussed below:
Censorship of Press Act 1799
In 1799, Governor-General Lord Wellsely enacted the Censorship of Press Act of 1799, anticipating the French invasion of India and curbing the French from publishing anything which could harm the company’s interest. This Act imposed press restrictions, including pre-censorship. But, in 1818, Governor-General Lord Hastings relaxed these restrictions, and pre-censorship was dispensed with.
Licensing Regulations 1823
Governor-General John Adams enacted the Licensing Regulations in 1823. As per these regulations, starting a press without having the Licence was a penal offence. These restrictions were directed mainly against the newspapers in the Indian language or those edited by the Indians. Later on, the restrictions also extended to cover pamphlets, journals, and books. The journal Mirat-ul-Akbar by Raja Rammohan Roy had to stop publication because of these restrictions.
Press Act of 1835 (Metcalfe Act)
In 1835, Governor-General Charles Metcalfe, known as Liberator of Indian Press, ceased the restrictions imposed by the Licensing Regulations Act 1823. Under the new Press Act of 1835, a printer/publisher had to give a precise account of the premises of the publication. Lord Metcalfe introduced liberty and equality in the vernacular press in India and declared English & vernacular newspapers were equal in status. The liberal press policy resulted in the rapid growth of newspapers.
Licensing Act of 1857
Due to an emergency caused by the Revolt of 1857, the British government decided to impose restrictions on the Indian press. Therefore, the government enacted the Licensing Act of 1857 (or the Book & Press Regulation Act of 1857). This Act imposed the licensing restriction on the Indian Press in addition to the existing registration procedure laid down by the Metcalfe Act of 1835. The 1857 Act also provided the government with the right to stop the publication & circulation of newspapers, books, or other printed matters.
Registration Act 1867
The Registration Act of 1867 was regulatory (not restrictive) in nature and replaced the Metcalfe Act of 1835. According to the 1867 Registration Act:
- Every newspaper or book has to be required to print the name of the publisher/printer and the place of publication.
- A copy was required to be submitted to the local government within one month of the publication of any book.
Vernacular Press Act 1878
During the 1870s, there was a growth of Indian vernacular newspapers, critical of the British government. Various vernacular newspapers severely criticize the imperialistic policies of Governor-General Lord Lytton because of the inhumane treatment of victims of the terrible famine of 1876-77. To better control the vernacular press and punish the seditious writings of the newspapers, the government enacted the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, also known as the Gagging Act, whose main provisions were:
- The District Magistrate was provided with the power to call upon the printer/publishers of any vernacular newspaper. The Publisher had to sign and enter into a bond with the government, under which the publisher was not allowed to publish any material which causes disaffection against the government and antipathy between persons of different castes, religions, and races.
- The action and decision of the magistrate were final. No appeal be made in a court of law.
- By submitting the proof to the government censor, vernacular newspapers get an exemption from the operation of the Act.
The worst feature of this Gagging Act were as follow:
- No right of appeal.
- Discrimination between the English and Vernacular press.
Due to strong opposition against the Gagging Act, Governor-General Lord Ripon finally repealed this Act in 1882.
In 1883, Surendranath Banerjea became the first Indian journalist to be imprisoned. He had criticised a Judge of the Calcutta High Court for being insensitive to the religious sentiments of Bengalis.
Newspaper (Incitement to Offences) Act 1908
In 1908, Governor-General Lord Curzon passed the Newspaper (Incitement to Offences) Act to repress the activities of extremist nationalists. Under this Act, the District Magistrate had the power to confiscate the press property if it published objectionable material likely to cause incitement to acts of violence or murder. To appeal against the press property confiscation, it had to be done in the High Court within 15 days.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak is most frequently associated with the nationalist fight for the freedom of the press. Tilak had been building up anti-imperialist sentiments through his newspapers “Kesari” and “Mahratta“. In 1909, Tilak as the leader of militant nationalists was charged with sedition and transported to Mandalay (Burma) for six years. This led to countrywide protests.
Indian Press Act 1910
Indian Press Act of 1910 again revived the gagging feature of the Vernacular Press Act of 1878. This Act gave the local government the power to demand security from the printer/publisher at the time of registration of the newspaper. The local government forfeit or deregister if it was an offending newspaper. The printer of a newspaper had to submit two copies of each issue to the local government free of charge.
In 1921, on the recommendation of the Press Committee under the Tej Bhadur Sapru, the Press Acts of 1908 and 1910 were repealed.
Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act 1931
The Press Act of 1931 gave the power to the provincial governments to suppress the Civil Disobedience Movement. In 1932, it was further amplified to include activities to undermine the authority of the government.
During the Second World War, pre-censorship was imposed under the Defence of India Rules. The amendments were done in the Press Emergency Act and Official Secrets Act.
Press Enquiry Committee (1947)
After the Independence of India, the Press Enquiry committee was set up to examine the press laws in India. The committee recommended the repeal of the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931.