Saturday, April 24, 2010
Gandhi and lessons for Fiji: press freedom sacrosanct
The final in a three-part series on Mahatma Gandhi and Liberty of the Press: Lesson for Fiji
"The people, both collectively and individually, must cultivate the habit of speaking only what is in their minds. Newspapers are a good means of such education, for those who would evade these laws had better not bring out a paper at all: the other course is to ignore the laws in question and state one’s real views fearlessly but respectfully and bear the consequences. Mr Justice Stephen has said somewhere that a man who has no reason in his heart can speak no reason. If it is there in the heart, one should speak it out. If one does not have the courage for this, one should stop publishing a newspaper. This is in the best interest of all.”
During the war, 1914-1918, Indian press, suffered heavily at Government hands. After the war discontent was rampant in India. Gandhi who came to India in 1915 was one of the discontented and disillusioned; he had relied on British justice and had helped the war efforts. The extremists in the Congress wanted some sort of action against the Government. While editing the Indian Opinion Gandhi had not any occasion to discuss, participate or uphold freedom of expression or liberty of the press in South Africa.
But in India the situation was different. Here the freedom of expression and the liberty of the press were being suppressed by Government action. Gandhi has not yet associated himself directly with the Navajivan and the Young India. As editor, he and others had not yet faced, as others did, the direct assault of censorship and other associated evils. Nationalist leaders who had their own papers to express views were, on the other hand, debarred from freely commenting on political matters. They felt aggrieved but were helpless before the might of the British Government. Gokhale, the champion of the liberty of press, died in 1915. Who was to stand up against various Government gagging orders?
Thus from political exigency Gandhi emerged as the champion for the freedom of expression and for the liberty of the press. The moment the Rowlatt Committee’s recommendations came to be known, Gandhi drafted a pledge which was signed by many important people. It said: “Being conscientiously of opinion that the Bills known as the Indian Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill No. 1 of 1919, and Criminal Law (emergency Power) Bill No 11 of 1919 are unjust, subversive of the principles of liberty and justice and destruction of elementary rights of individuals on which they safety of the community as a whole and the State itself is based, we solemnly affirm that in the event of these Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we solemnly affirm that in the event of these Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we shall refuse civilly to obey these laws and such other laws as a committee, to be hereafter appointed, many think fit, and we further affirm that in this struggle, we will faithfully follow truth and refrain from violence to life, person or property.”
The ‘Satyagraha’ pledge was signed and it was agreed that private literature should be sold openly and that the registration of newspapers could be civility disobeyed. In the list of the prohibited literature were Gandhi’s ‘Hind Swaraj’ and ‘Sarvodya’. These were sold openly and in defiance of the law: “Gandhi and Mrs Naidu went out in cars to sell the books. All the copies were soon sold out. People willingly paid more than the published price of the book which was four annas. As high as Rs 50 were paid to Gandhi for one copy. The interesting purchasers were told that they were liable to be arrested and imprisoned for possessing literature. Bu they had shed all fear of jail going. The proceeds of the sale were utilised for furthering the civil disobedience campaign.”
Mention has been made about the unregistered weekly – the Satyagraha – edited by Gandhi. This was again in defiance of the law which required registration of newspapers. In the first issue, dated 7 April 1919, Gandhi wrote editorially: “A ‘Satyagrahi’ for whom punishments provided by law have lost all terror can give only in an unregistered newspaper his thoughts and opinion unhampered by any other consideration than that of his own conscience. His newspaper, therefore, if otherwise well edited, can become a most powerful vehicle for transmitting pure ideas in a concise manner.” The Government might confiscate all such newspapers. Gandhi advised workers to copy out extracts for readers. To him, press freedom was sacrosanct.
The freedom of the press gives us the freedom to think for ourselves and form our own opinions.