Karnataka State Legislative Assembly’s unanimous decision of June 20, 2017, based on a privilege committee report, sentencing two editors of Kannada tabloids to one year jail and a fine of 10,000 and in the event fine is not paid additional jail term of six months, is nothing short of riding roughshod against media. It violates with impunity citizen’s Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech as guaranteed by the Constitution of India as also the professed job (objective) of the press as well as its inherent right to scrutinize the performance of elected representatives and the government of the transient majority as elected by them (people), who derive their power from the people, who are their sovereign masters as they are accountable to the people in our system of rule of law based democratic governance. It makes a mockery of India’s democracy as a mere sham and election-centric as once the government is formed it tends to be autocratic and anti-people.
Two journalists, sentenced, are Ravi Belgare, editor of Hi Bangalore and Anil Raju, editor of Yelahanka Voice. The two tabloids are charged with defamatory articles in 2013 against two legislators, BJP MLA S.R.Viswanath representing Yelahanka and Congress’ B.M. Nagraj, on whose complaints the privilege committee inquired into the matter and recommended a deterrent action against the two editors. It also ordered the Karnataka police to execute the Assembly resolution. Editors Guild of India has rightly criticized the Karnataka State Assembly resolution a high handedness and an attempt to muzzle the press.
In keeping with Article 194 of the Constitution relating to privileges of State legislature and Article 105 in respect of Parliament, anything that obstructs the functioning or is in contempt of the House, its members and committees, constitute breach of privilege, say Constitutional experts. However, the privileges under the two provisions in the Constitution of India are not codified yet, enabling the law makers to exercise their power of privileges sweepingly.
In the current scenario, Media are itself to blame as they are terrorized into submission as never before to praise Government. Three years before, media were editorial driven where as presently it is owner driven. Owners are arm twisted by the Government to toe its line. Journalists are suffocated, kept on tenterhook, to praise Government to save their jobs. Exaggeration, farrago, distortions, outright lies, misrepresentation by unprincipled showmen on TV channels, masquerading as journalists, fake news and paid news are order of the day, denying in the process people’s right to fair and objective information. Media are fully regimented, making itself a laughing stock. Media as watchdog of public interests have failed to scrutinize Government. A fascism like situation has engulfed the country.
While this unfortunate incident is first for Karnataka, neoghbouring Tamil Nadu State Legislative Assembly has a long history of using breach of privilege against journalists. Tamil Nadu Government has on several occasions tried to muzzle the press. For example, in 1987, Tamil Weekly editor S. Bala Subramanian was sentenced to three months rigorous imprisonment for a cartoon captioned, “the one who looks like a pick pocket is a member of the legislative assembly and the one like a dacoit is a minister” That earned wrath of MGR Government. Editor’s arrest sparked a battle between the fourth estate and Tamil Nadu Government. Prior to that in July 1985, T.N Assembly Speaker sentenced the editor of Tamil traders’ journal Viniga Otrumai, A.M.Paulraj to two weeks simple imprisonment.
Tamil Nadu State Assembly’s action against journalists continued post MGR. During CM Jayalalitha’s tenure, in April 1992, the Speaker Sedapathi R. Muthiah issued arrest warrant against journalist K.P.Sunil of the Illustrated Weekly of India for a piece headlined “Tamil Nadu Assembly fast gaining notoriety” The House found the article violative of its privilege. Sunil challenged his arrest warrant in the Supreme Court, which stayed it. Later, the arrest warrant was eventually dropped in 1997 when DMK returned to power. Two years earlier in May 1994, the Speaker issued arrest warrant against editor Muthu Pandian of Dinakaran reversing the earlier move to drop the issue. The Speaker then chose to ignore Madras High Court notices on the ground that “the Assembly could not subject itself to the jurisdiction of the court”. Still later in November, 2003, once again during Jayalalitha’s regime, the Tamil Nadu Assembly sentenced publisher S.Rangarajan, editor N.Ravi, executive editor Malini Parthasarthy, two journalists V.Jayanth and Radha Venkatesan of the Hindu, and editor of Murasoli to 15 days simple imprisonment for alleged breach of privilege and alleged contempt of the House.
It would have been germane in our democratic system of governance that the impugned two editors would have been let off with a warning to be careful in future. After all, media function as a watchdog of public interests and are privileged to scrutinize functioning of elected representatives and the government. The impugned action could have been avoided by state organs against the fourth estate (media) in order to maintain a semblance of functioning democracy. Of late, our elected representatives tend to be arrogant, insensitive and non-responsive to the people. Some soul searching and corrective measures need to be taken, lest Indian democracy should be overtaken by thugs of politico-bureaucratic-corporate combine to demolish the very idea of India based on Justice, Equality and Fraternity with the country’s time tested civilisational strength of unity of our people amidst their cultural diversity and tolerance of each other and co-existence. Media which tend to be partisan, parochial and inflammatory need course correction in order to regain its pristine glory of reporting and commenting on facts and events with attendant objectivity and fairness!