Seventy years ago, India came out of one of the worst lows of its democracy when the Emergency, imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was lifted after two harrowing years of misrule.
Between 1975 and 1977, the then Congress government in power imposed a slew of measures that violated the rights of many individuals and institutions. And one of its favourite punching bags happened to be the fourth estate. In an unprecedented move, the free press, till then a symbol of India's robust constitutional values, was turned overnight into an instrument of state control. Journalists were muzzled, harassed and attacked for carrying out their duties to the public.
In a dark reenactment of that history, the Speaker of the Karnataka assembly recently authorised a set of actions that has ignited fresh fears of censorship at a time pledges are being made to uphold press freedom.
A wise philosopher once famously said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. The recent churns in India's political life seem to have been following such a script down to the last detail.
Hours ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government recently chastised The New York Times for criticising the hounding of NDTV by the CBI, gave a call to his people to stand up against any violation of their democratic values.
A few weeks before making this statement, on World Press Freedom Day, the prime minister extended his "unwavering support" to the "free & vibrant press" that is "vital in a democracy".
World Press Freedom Day is a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free & vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 3, 2017
Along with several users on Twitter, a detailed report, published by media observer The Hoot demolished this feel-good public-relations narrative of model governance. As the survey revealed, in the last year and a bit, at least 54 media personnel have been attacked, 25 journalists were intimidated, and seven killed by a combination of state and non-state actors. In the World Press Freedom Index 2017, India occupies a lowly 136 position, three notches down from 2016, in a list of 180 countries. For a rising "regional superpower", with ambitions to sit at the global high table of developed nations, it couldn't have been a worse portent.
Congress MLA KB Koliwad's crackdown on two journalists in Karnataka fits seamlessly into the recent series of atrocities perpetrated on members of the media. But what has left journalists, as well as many members of the judiciary, truly aghast is his blatant misuse of the powers ascribed to the Committee on Privileges of the state's assembly to justify his misdeeds.
On 21 June, Koliwad authorised a penalty of ₹10,000 each on Ravi Belagere, editor and owner of a weekly tabloid called Hai Bangalore, and Anil Raj, editor of a local periodical called Yelahanka Voice, along with a one-year jail term for each. Their offence: printing potentially libellous articles about him and another BJP MLA from the state.
The chairman of the privileges committee, a Congress MLA called Kimmane Ratnakar, had approved of such punishment only for Raj, based on a complaint by the BJP MLA from Yelahanka constituency of Bengaluru, SR Vishwanath. But Koliwad felt he could have his way since he had already found Belagere guilty while he was the chairman of the committee in 2015-16, before he became the Speaker.
Both the Congress and BJP MLAs accuse the two editors of writing defamatory articles about them to justify their call for severe punitive actions. Whether there is any truth in their claim is a matter of investigation, to be conducted in a court of law, rather than being dispensed by the members of the legislature in such a ham-handed manner, which reeks of personal vendetta.
Speaking to The Hindu, several jurists clarified the sheer audaciousness of the move against the journalists. The immunity enjoyed by legislators, under the Committee of Privileges, is comparable to provision of the contempt of court and derives from the procedures of the House of Commons of the Parliament of the UK. However, the Supreme Court specifies that only those procedures, adopted under Articles 105 and 294 of the Indian Constitution, can be adopted as part of legislative privileges.
Simply put, the privileges enjoyed by the legislators apply only within the precincts of the legislature and their conduct therein, especially to actions that have the potential to curtail, undermine and impede their freedom within the ambit of the legislature. However, the articles that incited the ire of these politicians pertain to the latter's role in public life and have nothing to do with their activities within the legislature.
Asking the assembly to withdraw its resolution, The Editors' Guild of India said, "journalists must have the freedom to write critical articles against all such elected representatives of the country and hold them accountable without fear or favour". The suitable reaction to allegations of misrepresentation should be filing of a case of libel in a court of law instead of a "gross misuse of the powers and privileges of a state legislature".
The moment is here for India's politicians to stand up for democratic values, following the prime minister's call to do so.
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