The Union government's move to draft a law to protect journalists could come as a respite for Maharashtra, where political parties are divided on the need for such legislation. Already there were differences in the State Cabinet on whether such a law was necessary, with both Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress Ministers expressing reservations.
There is a feeling that a specific law seeking to make an offence against journalists a non-bailable offence would open the floodgates for groups such as filmmakers or teachers to demand the same. In addition, the government feels the need for a redress mechanism to enquire into complaints against journalists.
A Cabinet subcommittee will look into an enabling provision and amend the existing draft State law accordingly, which will then be presented in the next session of the Legislature.
The draft ordinance, “Maharashtra Journalists (Prevention of Violence and Damage to Property) Ordinance 2010, was prepared during the tenure of Ashok Chavan. It notes the increasing attacks on journalists, causing damage to newspaper and electronic media establishments and recognises the need to prohibit such violent activities and attacks by making the offences cognisable and non-bailable.
The draft prohibits any act of violence against newspaper employees, journalists or damage to property in the newspaper and electronic media establishments. Offenders shall be punished with imprisonment for a period which may extend to three years and with fines, which may extend to Rs. 50,000. In addition, the offenders shall be liable to pay a penalty of twice the amount of the purchase price of the damaged equipment and loss caused to the property, as determined by courts.
If the offender has not paid the fine then it shall be recovered under the provisions of the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code, as if it were arrears of land revenue dues. However, the main obstacle is that the draft ordinance does not have any provision for complaints to be filed against erring journalists. Some of the journalists involved with the drafting had suggested introducing a code of conduct for journalists as well as a redress mechanism.
Senior journalist Jatin Desai said the proposed law was meant to be a deterrent. The question is whether a new law will make a difference without political will. From 1991, there were 1,750 cases of attacks on journalists in Maharashtra and not a single conviction. More than 85 per cent of the cases were withdrawn under pressure, he claimed.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan also spoke of a State body on the lines of the Press Council of India where complaints, if any, could be filed against the media.
The former Supreme Court judge and former chairman of the Press Council of India, P.B. Sawant, told The Hindu on the phone that the proposal for a Maharashtra-level body was buried many years ago. The former Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, had proposed a Maharashtra Press Council, but Justice Sawant said that since there was already a national body, the plan was shelved.
Justice Sawant also questioned the need for a separate law for journalists. He said the provisions of the draft were aimed at making the offences cognisable and non-bailable and increasing the fine. He said a law specifically for journalists would be discriminatory and could be challenged. “All that needs to be done is to amend the Indian Penal Code and make these provisions applicable to everybody.” He said he did not see any justification for a separate law and in any case it was not going to prevent attacks on journalists. He agreed that journalists should be protected but that protection should extend to everybody.
In Maharashtra, for instance, Right to Information activists were being killed. “I feel there is no justification to treat journalists as a special community,” he said. “This year, there have been 14 instances of attacks of journalists all over the country and two deaths, including that of J. Dey. The need for journalists to be protected against attacks is undeniable.”
How far a special law will go in protecting the media or preventing attacks needs to be debated thoroughly. Even the journalist community has been pushing for this law without much debate and thinking. While most feel it will be a deterrent against attacks, the fact is that unless cases are fast-tracked and there is some closure, it will be just another legal provision without any meaning.
Fast track courts
The Union government is considering fast track courts in its proposed legislation for speedy justice. It is not only journalists who are victims of judicial delay or inaction. The real issue then is not the absence of laws or legal provisions but enforcement. The question is whether a new law will really make a difference or merely add to the pantheon of existing legislation.