History of Media Laws in India

Informing individuals about their surroundings, the facts, and the circumstances they live in is crucial. The term "media law" does not refer to a single, cohesive body of law, such as the law of contracts or the law of crimes. The laws and ethics that are seen to be most crucial for a working journalist are a combination of several laws and ethics in the media sector. The focus is on the law itself when the phrase "media law" is used. It analyses the confines within which the media outlets' and journalists' activities are conducted. As a result, this emphasis shifts away from terminology like freedom of speech, libel, privacy, secrecy, censorship, contempt, and access to information.

What does Media Refer?

Media, which is the plural form of medium, defines the different channels of communication, such as print media (newspapers, magazines, etc.), electronic media (radio, television, recorders, etc.), and digital media. These media are used to collect, store, and disseminate the information, such as notices, events updates, or any such news to the public at large; in the form of mass communication.

What is the Law?

Law is the bundle of rules that regulate codes and conducts of human behaviors. Likewise, media law is the set of rules that regulate the conduct of media and media personals and also protects their freedom. It is an integral part of the democratic society.

Historical Background of Media Law

Since, India's media regulations have a lengthy history and are firmly entrenched in the colonial experience; therefore, for the easy understanding, I will discuss the historical background into two parts i.e.

So, let’s discuss both of them separately-

Prior to Independence

The first legal restrictions date back to 1799, when Lord Wellesley issued the Press Regulations, which effectively pre-censored the fledgling newspaper publishing sector. The Press Act, which repealed the majority of the restrictive elements of former laws on the subject, was enacted at the beginning of 1835.

The government then passed the "Gagging Act" on June 18, 1857, which among other things mandated likening requirements for those who own or operate printing presses, gave it the authority to halt the publication or distribution of any newspaper, book, or other printed matter, and outlawed the dissemination of any statements or news items that might undermine the government's legitimacy.

The "Proclamation of Queen Victoria (1858)" solidified colonial control in India and completely eradicated the concept of press freedom. Prior to this, the "Kautilya Arthashastra" and "Waqaya Navis" were mentioned as the rules for controlling the disclosure of information pertaining to state affairs. There was no idea of pre-censorship or press content licensing prior to the imposition of colonial rules. The "Bengal Gazette," the first typographic press in India, was established in 1780 by J. A. Hickey. It exposed the misconduct committed by the E.I.C. towards Indians. Due of media regulations that subjected Hickey to harsh fines and incarceration, it soon caught fire.

The first newspaper in Madras to analyse colonial authorities' military strategies was the "Madras Courier." A pre-censorship rule (1795) that mandated that all of their articles be transmitted for review prior to publishing also made it the first newspaper to be censored. As a result of infringing this new law, the press publishers were deported. The colonial authorities were subjected to aristocratic pressure, which led to the complete repeal of the pre-censorship laws in 1818. As a result, "Samachar Darpan," a newspaper that published news in both Bengali and English, was created. In 1823, a new regulation limiting contacts between any employees of the Crown and the press was announced. Additionally, it gave the Council of Governor total authority over the press.

A comprehensive law known as the "Metcalfe Act, 1830" was created to control newspaper printing and distribution in colonial India. This was supplanted by the Indian Penal Code, 1860 following the "Revolt of 1857." Almost all Indian journalists who published articles about the Indian Independence Movements were accused of defamation, which is now illegal.

This law, known as the "Press and Registration of Books Act," was passed in 1867 and is still in force. The "Sedition statute" imprisoned several Indian journalists from "Swarajya Pess" and independence activists through the use of IPC Section 124-A in 1870. Press freedom was again curtailed. came after. Governor General Lord Lytton signed the "Vernacular Press Act" of 1878 into law, giving the government the authority to forbid the publication of materials deemed seditious and to punish printers and publishers who defied the restrictions.

After Independence

In 1947, after the Indian National Congress took control, India was proclaimed an independent state. The existing media law was the subject of an investigation and suggestions from the "Press Law Enquiry Committee, 1947." Section 124-A of the IPC was amended, and the "Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act," and "Foreign Relations Act," were repealed. Both the Post Office Act of 1898 and the Telegraph Act of 1885 were amended. To somewhat regulate the press, the "Press (Objectionable Matters) Act, 1951" was passed; nevertheless, it was repealed in 1957. The establishment of the "Press Commission of India, 1952" resulted in the growth of the "Press Council of India."

The 26th of January 1950, the day the Constitution went into effect, was the most important day in the history of media regulations, nevertheless. The Indians' colonial experience helped them to understand the critical importance of "Freedom of Press." As a result, this freedom was included in the Constitution to enable the press to inform the public, and the Constituent Assembly agreed to protect this "Freedom of Press" as a fundamental right. Even though the Indian Constitution does not specifically mention press freedom, it is clear that under Article 19(1), press freedom is incorporated in the right to free speech and expression. However, it is important to note that this freedom is not unrestricted.

It is important to note that this right under Article 19(1)(a) does not just apply to newspapers and magazines, but also to pamphlets, leaflets, handbills, circulars, and any other type of publication that serves as a vehicle for information and opinion. So, even though the freedom of the press is protected as a fundamental right, understanding the enormous array of media regulations requires us to deal with the numerous laws controlling the various types of media.

The "Press Trust of India, 1949" was established by the Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society to establish independent news organizations. The Newspaper (Price and Page) Act of 1956 was created in an effort to control newspaper pricing and halt unfair competition. The journal was unable to release articles more regularly without raising its fee. The Supreme Court found that it was illegal in the famous decision Sakal Papers v. Union of India [AIR 1962 SC 305]. It was decided that the government could only impose restrictions on press freedom using the indirect justifications permitted by Article 19(2).


One cannot just limit oneself to the confines of traditional media in this era of media explosion. The media world has grown in scope as a result of include the growing horizons of online media, among other things, inside its sphere. As a result, there are many different laws that apply to them. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all media laws, it does educate readers on the key laws affecting the various forms of media communication, as well as their rights and how to exercise those rights within the confines of Indian law, ultimately advancing the causes of "Freedom of Speech and Expression" and "Dissemination of Knowledge."

The development of media law has been a struggle between press freedom and press censorship. It is acknowledged that press freedom is the ark of a covenant democracy like India. It is crucial for shaping public opinion and exposing administrative lies. At the moment, there exist laws that use auxiliary laws and contempt jurisdiction to moderately restrict the media. When it comes to ensuring the media behaves responsibly when it comes to an accused person's rights, it is still insufficient. Press coverage of trials by the media calls for rigorous regulation and oversight.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. Why is media law important?

Ans. Media is believed to be the fourth pillar of governance (along with the legislature, executive, and judiciary); therefore, such legislation in the form of media law secures an environment in which mass media can flourish independently and without interference.

Q2. What is meaning of media ethics?

Ans. Media ethics is one of the essential elements of media law, and it involves ethical questions such as how the media should behave, how it should use texts and pictures of others, especially public figures, and how it should present the story and inform people efficiently without compromising its own integrity.

Updated on: 13-Mar-2023

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