One of the writers to the Readers’ Editor, Alan Herbert from Auroville, recently commented that my columns have “a tendency to generalise, to favour the general over the particular and to inhabit a realm of principles rather than the actual messy world of practice”.

I believe that this column is a site for a porous debate where theoretical exploration meets its practical counterparts, and to see how a fairly well-laid-out conceptual framework guides the work of hundreds of journalists, and how from their day-to-day experience, the framework gets readjusted to accommodate some of the issues that were not envisaged when the first set of codes were written. The Hindu’s first set of codes were written on September 20, 1878.

I try to do two things simultaneously: place every specific aspect within the broader context of the big picture and disaggregate the larger canvas, the principles, into actionable modules.

The centrality of media flows from its intrinsic association with democracy, and hence a need to always keep an eye on the governing principles of public discourse. Political thinker Sudipta Kaviraj in his erudite book “The Enchantment of Democracy and India” (Permanent Black 2011) writes: “The history of modern India tells us a complex, surprising, captivating, and yet unconcluded story of freedom. It is appropriate to express a Tocquevillesque astonishment at this historical phenomenon. If we look from age to age, from the earliest antiquity to the present day, we can agree with Tocqueville that nothing like this has ever happened before. We have not yet seen the end of this unprecedented historical process… For, the eventual shape of the destination of this process might be unclear, but the movement towards a greater expansion of freedom is irreversible.”

Three verdicts

Media plays a significant role towards expansion of this freedom, and in the process, it also fights and secures its own freedom. In India, we have an interesting checks and balances system flowing from our rather detailed and legalistic Constitution which strenuously abjured oversimplification. If one arm fails, then some other arm of the society comes to the rescue. The process is not a simple, linear and easy one. It is a taxing, annoying and tiresome path that goes around in loops, and yet finally delivers.

I am going to look at the role of judiciary, specifically three high court judgments, in upholding the freedom of expression. The first one gave journalists the right to engage a lawyer to represent them in cases before houses of elected representatives, the second gave theatre persons the right to stage plays without obtaining prior clearance from the police commissioner, and the third gave artists the right to express themselves in a manner that fulfils their artistic dreams.

Justice K. Chandru of the Madras High Court delivered the first two judgments last week. The Court on January 21, 2013 directed the Privileges Committee of the Tamil Nadu Assembly to permit R. Gopal, Editor, Nakkheeran Publications, to be represented by an advocate, who will appear along with him in proceedings before the panel. Justice K. Chandru said, “it was immaterial that the committee’s report was not final and it was subject to the decision of the full House. That the proceedings might culminate in the deprivation of a citizen’s liberty, and Mr. Gopal’s apprehension that he would be unable to deal with the situation on his own and would require an advocate’s assistance was sufficient to say the committee could not deny counsel’s assistance.” The presence of an advocate may actually help to define what constitutes legislative privilege.

Second, on January 23, 2013, Justice Chandru declared that Sections 2(1), 3, 4, 6 and 7 of the Tamil Nadu Dramatic Performance Act 1954 and Rule 4 of the Tamil Nadu Dramatic Performance Rules, 1955 are ultra vires and violative of Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution. Journalist and theatre personality, Gnani, had challenged the Act, which mandated submitting two copies of the drama script to the police/district administration three weeks in advance and obtaining permission for the enactment. The Act had a punitive element too — imprisonment for three months or fine or both in some cases for any violation. This judgment is a major relief to theatre persons.

Way back in May 2008, the judgment by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the Delhi High Court, in the Maqbool Fida Husain case, became one of the finest expositions on freedom of expression in its multiple forms. His judgment concludes with an epilogue: “A liberal tolerance of a different point of view causes no damage. It means only a greater self restraint. Diversity in expression of views whether in writings, paintings or visual media encourages debate. A debate should never shut out. ‘I am right’ does not necessarily imply ‘You are wrong’. Our culture breeds tolerance — both in thought and in actions.”

These are points where the practice and the principle meet in an emancipatory manner, and I hope this column contributes to this constant struggle to keep the boundaries of freedom expanding.


Liberating the radio?October 21, 2013