World Press Freedom Day: A look at an effort to bell the press in Kerala, more than a century ago

The legislation known as the Press Bill was passed by the erstwhile princely state of Travancore about 122 years ago, on 1 June, 1902.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published May 03, 2023 | 2:37 PMUpdatedMay 03, 2023 | 2:37 PM

World press freedom day concept

A strong, independent, and diverse media is essential for any rule of law-driven democracy to survive and thrive.

It is to drive home this message that, since 1993, World Press Freedom Day is observed on 3 May every year. Observed under the aegis of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), this year’s theme is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all Other Human Rights.”

However, wherever a free media has existed, there have also been attempts, both overt and covert, to control or choke it.

On this day, let us revisit the first-ever legislation in Kerala to regulate the press.

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Press Bill of Travancore

The legislation, known as the Press Bill, was passed by the erstwhile princely state of Travancore about 122 years ago.

“Wherever printing presses and printed publications exist, it seems to be the rule for the governments concerned to exercise a kind of supervision over them.”

Regulation II of 1039.

With such an opening statement, a government official named T Rajarama Rao sought permission from the fourth Travancore Legislative Council (TLC) for introducing the Press Bill on 1 June, 1901.

The bill — meant to regulate printing presses and newspapers operating in Travancore — was drafted on the lines of the British India Act of 1867.

Before the introduction of the Press Bill, there was Regulation II of 1039 in Travancore, which was based on the
British Indian Act XX of 1847. This decree passed on 13 August, 1864, mainly dealt with copyright-related issues.

However, in the words of Rao, “since the date of that enactment the number both of publications and presses has vastly increased…” hence the need for a new legislation.

The need for such a legislation was first pointed out in 1899 by the then-district magistrate of Thiruvananthapuram.

“Careful inquiries have shown that the necessity pointed out exists. And there also exists the necessity for controlling in some form the circulation of periodicals,” stated Rao in the TLC.

The officer also expressed confidence that the legislation will not only protect the public interest but also safeguard the rights of the people.

Brushing aside concerns that the legislation will gag the press, Rao remarked that the press in Travancore would enjoy the full measure of liberty which was accorded in all free countries.

The council which granted permission for introducing the Bill, agreed to take it up at a later date.

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Bill’s necessity

It was on 7 September, 1901, that the Bill got introduced in the TLC. The bill had four aims:

  • Regulating the establishment of printing presses.
  • Regulating the publication of books and newspapers.
  • Regulating the registration of books.
  • Regulating the preservation of copies thereof

Highlighting the need for such a Bill, Rao stated that printing presses and printing publications are public institutions.

“They can exercise a vast amount of influence for both good and evil and can make or mar a country’s progress. The governments of all countries have, therefore, exercised a supervision over them,” said Rao.

According to the officer, there were instances of, through ignorance or some other cause, presses being established and literary publications issued without conforming to the wholesome rules laid down by the government.

“A uniform procedure with legislative sanction for the regulation of printing presses and the publication of periodicals has, therefore, become necessary and unavoidable. Hence this bill,” stated Rao.

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‘Unbridled press is like unbridled horse’

Another officer, Nagam Aiya, was of the opinion that the Press Bill that “proposes to put a gentle restraint on the local press may lead to its steady improvement and elevation of tone in the future”.

Newspapers in Travancore.

Newspapers in Travancore.

“A free and independent press is one of the chief aids to a civilised government,” said Aiya in the TLC.

But he then reminded, “An unbridled press is like driving a carriage with two powerful but unbridled horses.”

Aiya, who didn’t mince his words against the press during the discussion, made the observation that “these writers in the press, unused to wield such a dangerous power, trifled with it as an ignorant child would, if permitted, trifle with a razor or a lancet”.

He also alleged that the local press, especially the vernacular press, often mistakenly used offensive language for effective criticism.

Mocking further, he said, “The bulk of the matter that appeared in the local press was written either by youths who had quarrelled with their parents and had fallen off from home discipline.”

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Provisions of the Bill

The provisions of the Bill were mainly drawn from the British India Act of 1867 and the British Postal Act. The Bill contained 28 sections.

Travancore Press Bill

Travancore Press Bill

The Bill required certain declarations which are demanded “under pain of penalty from printers and publishers”.

For example, Section 4 of the Bill required the insertion of printers’ and publishers’ names. The Bill also ensured that the “government has a right to know who wrote the book or the periodical, who published it, and out of what press, situated in what place, the printed matter issued forth”.

The government itself stated in the TLC that some sections of the Press Bill were simply adaptations of corresponding ones in the Indian Post Office Act 1898 and the British Postal Act.

However, according to Rao, though that was the case, he would “make them more definite and lenient”.

He then cited two examples:

“Sections 9 and 21 of the Press Bill are simply adaptions of Sections 20 and 61 of the Indian Post Office Act 1898. But so far as the penalties are concerned, I have tried to make them more definite and lenient.”

Rao then added, “No limit is put on the fine to be inflicted, nor is it stated whether the imprisonment to be awarded is to be simple or rigorous for an offence under Section 20 of the British Postal Act. I have, in this Bill, put a maximum limit to the fine and declared that the imprisonment shall not be rigorous.”

Criticism of the Press Bill

There was a three-month gap between introduction of the Press Bill in the TLC and a discussion on it.

In that period, the had proposed legislation invited criticism from within Travancore and outside. The main allegation was that the Bill was meant to gag the press in Travancore.

Responding to such criticism, the government informed the council that “all that is intended is to fix responsibility for literary and other publications and to lay down a procedure to be adopted in establishing printing presses and publishing newspapers”.

However, the observations of two members, who were government officials, are worthy of being noted. Though they supported the Bill, their observations were irresistible.

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‘Bitter truths sometimes have to be told’

It was Sivasubramonia Pillai who first raised criticism against the bill in the TLC. He registered his concern that “in trying to suppress a reptile press, we may unwittingly mar the interests of honourable journalism in the country”.

K Krishnaswamy Rao, who was the Dewan of Travancore. (Creative Commons)

K Krishnaswamy Rao, who was the Dewan of Travancore. (Creative Commons)

His bone of contention was mainly against Sections 9 and 21 of the Bill.

Under these sections, anyone who sent any “indecent”, “obscene”, “seditious”, “scurrilous” or “grossly offensive” matter would be held at fault, and in addition to such publications being stopped by the Dewan, editors and publishers stand the risk of being caught under the penal clauses of Section 21.

According to Pillai, “The words used in the section are very wide and comprehensive. They may mean anything and everything. Remonstrations against the acts of officers, bona fide criticisms of their conduct, even when found in a first-class journal may be easily converted into ‘threatening’ and ‘grossly offensive’.”

He then stated, “Bitter truths have sometimes to be told, and they must necessarily offend the feelings of the power.”

Pillai added, “It goes without saying that the tone of public journalism in a country is a fair index of its civilisation and should be our constant endeavour to nourish the growth of honourable journalism by all possible means.”

‘Might suppress free criticism’

Supporting the Bill, Dharmaraja Iyer’s criticism was that “as the press in this country (Travancore) is in its infancy and the passing of a regulation might suppress free criticism and cripple the press”.

However, he corrected himself, saying that, “if left without guidance and support”, “there is the danger of this useful institution (press) falling into error and doing harm instead of good”.