Being outspoken has no connection with my being associated with the Press Council of India

“Bol ki lab azaad hain terey

Bol zubaan ab tak teri hai”

(Speak out for your lips are free

Speak out for your tongue is still yours”)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

I have been criticised by some politicians, lawyers and others for being outspoken on some issues unrelated to the press while being the Chairman of The Press Council of India (PCI). As a result, it is time now for my response.

The main attack on me is that since the PCI discharges quasi-judicial functions, its Chairman should not speak on non-media issues.

First of all, let me say that if a matter comes up before the PCI when it is exercising quasi-judicial functions involving an issue or a person about which or whom I have expressed my view, I will immediately recuse myself from the deliberations and decision on it. In quasi-judicial matters I do not make decisions on my own. Rather, it is the PCI which, by majority vote, makes decisions. There are 28 members of the PCI apart from the Chairman. If I recuse myself then the other members will deal with the matter as they deem fit. What then is all the hullabaloo about?

It is then said that a judge should not comment on public issues except when a case comes before him. I reply by saying that I am not a judge but a retired judge. It may be pointed out that the post and functions of the Chairman of the PCI are very different from that of a judge.

First, while a judge has only judicial functions (except the power given to High Courts under Article 235 of the Constitution of administrative control over the subordinate judiciary), the Press Council not only performs quasi-judicial functions under Section 14 of the PCI Act of adjudicating complaints by or against the press, but also preserves the freedom of the press and maintains high standards of journalism, vide Section 13. Second, the High Court and Supreme Court have powers which the PCI does not have. Example, the power to issue writs; punish for contempt of court; quash orders of administrative authorities; issue directions in a PIL, etc. There are several other differences between judges and the Chairman of the PCI. How then can the two posts be treated as equal?

I have repeatedly said that I am not only Chairman of the PCI but also a citizen of India. The PCI Act contains no provision prohibiting me from speaking on non-media issues (though, as I have already said, if a matter comes in quasi judicial proceedings of the PCI on which I have expressed my view I will recuse myself from the deliberations and decision). Hence, I will continue speaking on such issues, particularly when it is, in my opinion, a matter of grave importance for the nation, no matter what some people might say. I have a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution (which gives the freedom of speech to all citizens) to speak on such matters even while remaining the Chairman of the PCI.

A charge is made against me that I am a government servant and a government appointee and am therefore doing the bidding of the government. To this my reply is as follows: first, the Chairman of the PCI is not appointed by the government but selected under s.5(2) of the PCI Act by a selection committee comprising: 1. the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha (the Vice-President of India) 2. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and 3. a representative of the PCI (who is not appointed by the government but chosen democratically by the members of the PCI). It was this body which unanimously selected me. Second, I am not a government servant but an independent statutory authority. It is true that s.7(1) describes me as an “officer,” but the word “officer” does not necessarily mean a government servant. One word can have several meanings, and it depends on the context in which the word has been used. The word “officer” in s.7(1) means a person holding an office. That the Chairman of the PCI is not a government employee is borne out by several features: 1. An employee is usually under the supervision and control of a superior, but the Chairman of the PCI has no superior 2. Employees have ACRs (annual confidential reports) but there is no ACR of the Chairman 3. An employee can be suspended and (if he is on a transferable job) transferred, but the Chairman can neither be suspended nor transferred 4. The Government Servants’ Conduct Rules do not apply to the Chairman of the PCI.

No doubt the salary of the Chairman is paid by the government (the appointment letter states that the Chairman will get the same salary, benefits and amenities as a sitting Supreme Court Judge), but then salaries of High Court and Supreme Court judges are also paid by the government. Does that make such judges government employees?

To those who said that I have only criticised non-Congress governments I have already given my answer in various TV discussions that I have frequently criticised Congress governments too, examples being of Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. I accuse such persons of twisting facts.

I would not have even bothered to give this explanation but for the misleading comments made by some persons which could have misguided the public.

(Justice Markandey Katju is Chairman, Press Council of India.)

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