Earlier today, the Indian Express reported that a political leader allegedly put up posters with photographs of former and current leaders of the Bhartiya Janta Party i.e. Mr. Chinmayanand, Mr. Kuldeep Singh Sengar etc. at various places across Lucknow. These individuals are/have been accused and/or convicted in some cases, for offences of sexual assault and rape. The posters read, “When will the posters of those who are getting patronage from the government be put up?”
The posters were put up in response to the Chief Minister’s directives issued earlier this week, calling for naming and shaming individuals accused of offences against women. Shortly thereafter, the political leader was booked by the Uttar Pradesh police under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code, along with the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 (“Act”). According to the officials, the provisions of the Act were invoked because the posters and banners did not have names of the printer(s).
This interesting development in Uttar Pradesh has brought into focus the relevance of an archaic British era law i.e. the Press and Registration of Books Act. The Act although not discussed much in the news, holds significant relevance and is ordinarily invoked while prosecuting publishers of newspapers, books and other publishing material. In the present post, I shall provide an overview of the Act and discuss its provisions. Thereafter, I shall juxtapose the Act with Article 19 of the Constitution i.e. the Right to Freedom.
Content and Context:
The Act was passed in the year 1867 when India was under the colonial rule. Therefore, it definitely had a dubious agenda. It was aimed at curbing free speech by introducing several procedural requirements if an individual wanted to start publication of any book, newspaper etc. In fact, violation of these trivial procedures rendered the entire publication unlawful. Despite attaining independence, the law continues to operate (A Kamaraj v. Secretary Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, 2012 SCC Online Mad 1581).
According to its statement of object and reasons, the Act aims to (a) regulate printing press and newspapers in India, (b) preserve copies of books and newspapers printed in India, and (c) provide for registration of books and newspapers. ‘Book’ for the purposes of the Act, includes even a pamphlet and every sheet of music, map, chart etc. Interestingly, electronic media is outside the purview of this Act (Sanjay Pinto v. A. Kamaraj, 2011 SCC Online Mad 1798).
The Act inter alia provides that:
a. Every book shall carry a legibly printed name of printer and place of printing (Section 3). Similarly, every newspaper shall contain the names of the owner and editor, date of publication, which shall be printed clearly on every edition (Section 5).
b. Every individual running a printing press, for the purposes of printing books or newspapers, shall duly make a declaration to that effect, before the Magistrate within whose territorial jurisdiction the press falls.
Violation of the above, carries a penalty of maximum two thousand rupees and/or simple imprisonment for a maximum term of six months. Such a violation can be brought forth by any person who has its knowledge and there is no requirement of she/he being personally interested or affected by the publication (State of Mysore v. Yamanappa Sidappa, 1973 SCC Online Kar 442).
It should be noted that the Declaration mentioned above, is used as sufficient evidence against the signatory and it is assumed that she/he was the printer or publisher of the publication and hence, liable for any offence that the publication might have committed. For a newspaper, a similar presumption is applicable on the ‘Editor’ whose name is published in the newspaper.
For example, ‘A’ is a weekly newspaper published and sold in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The newspaper mentions the name of ‘X’ as the Editor. The newspaper publishes an article which is allegedly defamatory towards an individual and the aggrieved individual decides to file a complaint against it. In such a case, the complaint would be filed against ‘X’ as it shall be presumed that being the Editor, she/he knew of the alleged defamatory contents (unless proven otherwise).
It should be noted that the obligations and presumptions under the Act, are only applicable on the Editor of the newspaper and not its Chief Editor(s), Managing Editor(s), Resident Editor(s) etc., unless it can be shown that they had knowledge of the content published (KM Mathew v. KA Abraham, AIR 2002 SC 2989).
The Act vis-à-vis Article 19:
The Constitution of India guarantees to every citizen the Right to Free Speech [Article 19(1)(a)] and the Right to Freedom of Trade, Business and Profession [Article 19(1)(g)]. When an individual decides to start a printing press or publish a newspaper or book, both these rights come into play. By writing the publication, she/he exercises the right to speech and by selling the publication, the right to trade and business.
The above-mentioned rights are not absolute and can be reasonably restricted. The Act is one such restriction. However, one must laud the Courts as they generally adopted a narrow interpretation to the provisions of the Act. In other words, they have tried to preserve the fundamental rights of the publishers, whenever the Act has been invoked. For instance, in Gopal Das Sharma v. District Magistrate, (1973) 1 SCC 159, the Court emphasised on the fundamental rights of the publishers and held that the officials need to mandatorily adhere to the principles of natural justice while assessing applications and declarations under the Act. Similarly, in KA Mohammed v. Revenue Officer, 2010 SCC Online Mad 3443, the High Court held that the government officials cannot place additional conditions on the publishers for publishing newspapers, over and above the ones in the Act. The Court came down heavily on the officials for imposing the requirements of a police no objection certificate and looking into the antecedents of the publisher, before accepting his declaration.
The entire name and shame episode in Uttar Pradesh, has brought to focus an unnecessary law that should have been shelved once India attained independence. The Act was enacted with the sinistral aim of regulating Indian publications and rendering the one’s that didn’t please the government, unlawful. In fact, time and again the Courts have called for its repeal, given its unnecessary provisions and their impact particularly on the freedom of speech [Institute of CA of India v. Union of India, (2005) 35 AIC (Delhi HC)].
Last year, an effort in this direction was made by the central government when it proposed the draft Registration of Process and Periodical Bill, 2019. The said Bill proposed some significant changes which inter alia includes repealing the Act, bringing digital media under its purview and dispensing with the requirement of declarations before local administrations. There is no doubt that some aspects of the Bill are open to debate but even in its current form, it shall be a better alternative to the current law.
As for the name and shame episode in Uttar Pradesh, the government may be displeased to know that the Madras High Court in a related case had ruled that pamphlets are not the same as books and newspaper and hence the Act is inapplicable on them. Every time a government, tries to use the law to curb any form of publication (tasteful or distasteful), it attacks the notions of free speech which our Constitution very dearly guarantees to its citizens.