By Suhasini Srinivasan, Army Institute of Law, Mohali.
The Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 is the oldest of the existing Press Laws in India. One has to take his mind back to the second half of the 19th century to understand that the foreign government wanted to put a curb on the Press in India. It felt that freedom of the Press would result in weakening of the roots of foreign rule. Almost all national leaders used their newspapers to arouse a feeling of nationalism in the people and to prepare them for participation in the struggle for freedom. Many of them suffered imprisonment. The leaders had a comparatively easy time but lesser mortals were sent to the Andamans to serve their sentence.
The Press and Registration of Books Act is a relic of that era. What the Press needs is an Act in keeping with the times of the 21st century. It has been amended in the years of Independence, but the amendments have been made to meet some specific situations. No attempt was made to review the Act in totality and bring it in line with the needs and aspirations of the Press in a democratic country like India. There has been no demand from the Press for a thorough overhaul of the Act possibly because it is merely regulatory in nature, the procedure it lays down may be cumbersome. but the penalties are light. There are many anomalies in the original Act. These have increased because of amendments made from time to time, though with good intentions, but they have further complicated matters.
There has been no concrete action about a thorough overhaul of the PRB Act and the press continues to be regulated by an archaic piece of legislation which is totally out of tune with prevailing times and conditions and is full of anomalies.
The anomalies begin with the preamble of the Act itself. It says that the Act is ‘for the regulation of printing presses and newspapers, for the preservation of copies of books and newspapers printed in India and for the registration of such books and newspapers’. 133 years ago there may have been little justification for a common legislation for books and newspapers but in today’s conditions such clubbing together of newspapers and books is not possible because their needs are totally different. As for the preservation, in 1954 the National Libraries Act was passed. It was meant specifically for delivery of books and newspapers to all the national libraries. Copies of books to be preserved is still understandable, but how is it necessary or even possible to preserve each and every copy of the more than 40,000 newspapers in various languages in India? How will the funds and the space be provided for this exercise? If the task is impossible of performance it should not be continued to remain in the Act. There is thus an urgent need to remove books from the purview of the Act and also to remove the provision about preservation of copies of newspapers. The PRB Act lays down a time limit within which publication has to start after a declaration has been filed. But there is no time limit within which a declaration has to be filed after a clearance has been given by the Press Registrar. Also, very few people file the declaration after publication of a newspaper has ceased. Some publishers want to stick on to the title in the hope that someday they may again resume publication. The heirs hardly ever bother to file a ceasing declaration. If a newspaper is running at a loss, which publisher has the time or money to file a ceasing declaration?
The first Press Commission found it difficult to get figures on the Press in India. It, therefore, suggested that there should be a Registrar of Newspapers whose duty should be to submit to the Government a report every year on the press in India. There were to be Deputy Registrars under the Press Registrar in every State. These Deputies were never appointed. The Press Registrar was to submit his report on the basis of returns filed by newspapers. Only a small portion of the newspapers submit the annual report. Since these include all the big newspapers and most of the medium newspapers, the annual report of the Press Registrar may not be hundred percent correct.
Amendments to the Act made in 1960, instead of solving problems created new ones. The most important of these was that no officer could authenticate the declaration for printing a newspaper unless the Press Registrar gave the clearance that the title of the proposed newspaper was not the same or similar to that of a newspaper published in the State in any language or in the same language anywhere in India. District authorities all over India from Kashmir in the north to Kerala in the south had to consult the Press Registrar and find out whether the title proposed by the publisher was ‘available’.
In its report, the Second Press Commission had made detailed recommendations about changes in the Act. A Bill amending the Act in 1988 was introduced in Parliament. There was an outcry because the Bill gave sweeping powers to the district authorities to enter the premises of a newspaper establishment. There was a fear that the magistrates and police might misuse these powers. Before anything could be done to rectify these defects and to make the procedure for filing the declaration for a newspaper easier and also to remove other anomalies in the Act and the Bill, the Lok Sabha was dissolved.
All these factors combined to create a situation where within 20 years of the amendments made in 1960, the Press Registrar had cleared more than 250,000 titles but the number of newspapers actually being published did not go to more than 45,000. The other titles fell almost equally into three categories, 1. the title had been cleared, but no declaration had been filed. 2. A declaration had been filed, but the publication had not begun and 3. publication had begun, but the publication had then ceased. The Press Registrar has no machinery under him to find out how many newspapers were actually being published in the country. The district authorities before whom declarations were filed were in no better situation. They had more important things to do than keeping an eye on the publication of newspapers. Efforts made by the Press Registrar to activate them through the Chief Secretaries also did not bring any results.
It is to the credit of the Press Registrar that by giving a public notice, as many as 1,70,000 out of 2,50,000 blocked titles had been unblocked and made available. The unblocking is being carried out on a continuing basis now. It was a regular complaint by prospective publishers that they had to approach the Press Registrar several times before they could get clearance for a title. The prospective publisher was often told that the title he wanted was not available, but the Press Registrar was not able to say where, if at all, a newspaper was being published under the title. The unblocking of titles has removed this irritant.
While the Press Registrar was able to solve the problem of blocked titles by administrative action, another problem appeared which was far more fundamental in nature. It is only if the owner is the same can two newspapers with the same title be published. But the courts have held that the right to publish a newspaper under a title is a right of property. It can therefore be transferred freely. How can anyone then come in the way if a person published a newspaper permits another to bring out an edition from another centre? During the last 40 years such transfers have in fact taken place. The Press Registrar and the district authorities have been forced to accept this violation of the PRB Act. Then again, a person may be bringing out several editions of his newspaper and may say in his will that each of his sons will inherit one or more editions. They will bring out these editions under the same title. The owners would be different and this will in violation of the PRB Act. But can any Act interfere with the basic law of inheritance or transfer of property? It is therefore ridiculous to have such a provision which is in violation of basic law but is being infringed with impunity.
The task of authentication of declaration should be taken away from the district authorities and entrusted to the Press Registrar and his deputies. The clauses about preservation of copies of newspapers and the confusion about the publication of newspapers with the same or similar titles should be removed. And finally, in this age of laptop printing should we still have a law for registering printing process?