Mahatma Gandhi and Liberty of the Press: Lesson for Fiji
By VICTOR LAL
The Indian Official Secrets Act was first promulgated in 1889 with a view to restricting information of military importance being published in newspapers. The amendment also placed civil matters, of public interest, at par with military matters. Thus the Government of India, under British Rule, was empowered to prosecute any newspaper it chose.
Among others, the great Indian nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale, whom Gandhi had earlier accepted as his mentor and leader, criticized the amendment by saying: “It is dreadful to think of the abuse of authority which is almost certain to result from the placing of Indian editors, especially the smaller ones among them, completely at the mercy of those whom they constantly irritate or displease by their criticism.” And again: “From the standpoint of the rulers, no less than that of the ruled, it will be most unfortunate if Indian papers were thus debarred from writing about matters which agitate the Indian community most.”
Gokhale in his campaign against the Act pointed out the irony of the fact that while India was governed, of all the colonies, in the most strong handed manner and where, compared to other countries, press is weak, the Government tried to further restrict a weak press in their functioning. To him the press, like the Government, was a custodian of public interest. Any attempt to put obstacles in its free work will detrimentally affect the interest of the people. He was also drawing a parallel with the liberty of the press enjoyed in England. There he stated, even if the disclosures were of the most embarrassing nature to the Government such attempts would be looked upon as “journalistic enterprise”.
The British also passed the Act of 1910 “to provide for the better control of the press” saying that “the continued recurrence of murders and outrages has shown that the measures which have hitherto been to deal with anarchy and sedition require strengthening and that the root source of the evil has not been touched. Prosecutions have invariably proved successful, but have produced no permanent improvement in the tone of the press”. The most objectionable clause in the Act was that the executive could take recourse to punitive action at its own will.
Again the champion of the press was Gokhale who declared that the Indian press had been “a potent instrument of progress: it had quickened national conscience; it had spread in the country idea of justice and equality not only between man and man but also between class and class: it has stimulated public spirit, it has set higher standards of public duty.”
To uphold “the Liberty of the Press and protest against the Press Act of 1910” a largely attended meeting of the citizens of Bombay, under the chairmanship of B. G. Horniman, editor of the Bombay Chronicle, was convened on 24 June 1916.
Gandhi was invited to speak. He had come down from South Africa. He spoke in his native Gujarati against the Press Act and read the text of the resolution which ran as follows: “That this meeting of loyal and law-abiding Indian subjects of His Majesty the King-Emperor, believing the existence of a free public Press to be one of the first essentials of a healthy and progressive State and necessary to the proper development, political and moral, of civilised peoples; and further that the extension and maintenance of freedom in all departments of public life is the surest guarantee of popular progress and contentment and of mutual trust between the Government and the people, asks that the Press in the country should enjoy the utmost liberty of expression, subject to the legal restraints of the ordinary law and of penalties inflicted only after proper trial and conviction.”
He spoke of the “attack made by the Government against Mrs Annie Besant,” editor of New India, and said: “It is simply a waste of time to hold these meetings and carry these resolutions. But what else can we do? There is no alternative for us – the subject people – to do but place on record our view on the given subject. And, therefore, I have come here in response to an invitation. I feel that something should be done in this matter – something done so that our complaint may reach the ears of the Government”. He agreed that some restraint is necessarily to be exercised on newspapers. But he was against “unwarranted restraint”.
Gandhi had, till then, faith in British justice and appealed to the Government “to do everything that is just and righteous; if that is done, there would be no necessity for these meetings”. As one who had edited a newspaper in South Africa, he mad a special request to the Government “on behalf of the newspaper writers”. “Do not harass the respectable editors and proprietors…Treat us as generously as you would the English people.”
To the Indian newspapers his advice was “Say openly whatever you have to say. That is our duty,” and concluded by saying that the best the Government could take the bodies of the Editor. But souls will remain free.
Editor's note: To be continued