The privileges committee of the Karnataka State assembly passed an order sentencing two Kannada-tabloid journalists/editors – Ravi Belagere of “Hi Bangalore” and Anil Raju of “Yelahanka Voice” to one-year imprisonment and a fine of ₹ 10,000/- each for publishing “defamatory articles”. The decision was announced by speaker K.B. Koliwad.
The former Speaker of the state assembly Kagodu Thimmappa had referred the issue to the committee after Koliwad had lodged a complaint against Belagere. Interestingly, when it came to protecting “one of their own” Congress and BJP MLAs, B.M. Nagaraju and S.R. Viswanath respectively joined hands in raising this issue in the House and recommended action against the journalists. Nagaraju further alleged that Belagare, ignored summons to appear before the enquiry committee.
The Editors Guild of India was quick to condemn the assembly judgement issuing a statement to the effect “The Guild opines that the decision violates the fundamental right of freedom of speech guaranteed under the Indian Constitution and the freedom of the press,” Further, stating that it is a gross misuse of powers and privileges, the Guild urged the assembly to withdraw the order with immediate effect. The Guild also stated “The Editors Guild of India is of the firm view that 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…”
Victim, Prosecutor, and Judge:
This is a strange case where the victim, prosecutor, and judge are the same person – Speaker and Congress MLA from Rannebennur, K.B. Koliwad. This must be perhaps the first time where the victim filed a complaint, argued the case himself, and then passed judgement on the accused!
The very popular blog Churmuri launched a scathing attack on the Congress government in the state led by Siddaramaiah calling out the blatant media muzzling tactics practiced by the government stating that “…under the “socialist” Siddaramaiah’s watch (pun unintended), the relationship of the legislature and the executive with the media has nosedived, with that great pillar of democracy, the judiciary, playing a helpful hand.”
Even the New York based CPJ (Committee to protect Journalists) (https://cpj.org/) issued a statement condemning this assault on freedom of expression with its Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler terming the judgement an abuse of press freedom and calling it ridiculous: “It’s ridiculous that a journalist should go to jail for mocking a politician.“
As far as this case is concerned the following questions need to be asked by anyone and everyone who values freedom of expression and a free press:
- Why is the State Assembly taking up issues related to a journalist criticizing or as in this case mocking a politician? Is that the job of the government or the assembly? Shouldn’t the individual MLA or politician approach the courts and file a defamatory case against the journalist if he/she believes that the said journalist has intentionally and without sufficient proof written something with the intention to malign and/or cause hurt?
- Are we to believe that the legislators were unaware that in the case of Ravi Belagere the reason he could not appear before the privileges committee was because he has been unwell for some time?
- What jurisdiction or legal right does a privileges committee have against a supposed act of “defamation” committed by a person who is not part of, or an elected member of the assembly?
- Does the privileges committee have any jurisdiction over an alleged offense committed outside the House?
- The media is not above scrutiny and should be subjected to the strictest laws of the land but should the method be through established legal principles and practices or through self-appointed committees where the victim, lawyer, and judge are the same person?
- One may not like Ravi Belagere the man and it is common knowledge that he has enough enemies due to his garrulous style, his many personal shenanigans, and infuriating language but in this case should we not distinguish between the “man” and the “editor”?
- Should the speaker of a House “instruct” police officers to “arrest” the journalists if they “failed to surrender”? What or who gave him this right to instruct the police department?
- Finally, what justifies a jail-term of one year for failing to appear before a committee?
It is time people stood up for what is right and refuse to be cowed down by a few politicians who have become a law unto themselves. The State government and CM Siddaramaiah must withdraw this hasty and poorly thought out decision with immediate effect.