Assembly order to arrest journalists triggers sharp criticism

June 24, 2017 02:14 pm | Updated June 25, 2017 10:41 pm IST - Bengaluru

 Karnataka : Bengaluru  : 16/06/2017 :    Leader of Opposition JDs H D Kumaraswamy addressing on various   at Legislative Assembly in Bengaluru on June 16, 2017.
Photo : V Sreenivasa Murthy

Karnataka : Bengaluru : 16/06/2017 : Leader of Opposition JDs H D Kumaraswamy addressing on various at Legislative Assembly in Bengaluru on June 16, 2017. Photo : V Sreenivasa Murthy

The Karnataka Legislative assembly order to imprison editors of two Kannada tabloids for a year with a fine of ₹10,000 for breach of privilege has sparked off sharp reactions from journalists, activists and even some former Speakers.

While the two editors are contemplating legal recourse and such an unprecedented order in Karnataka, former chairman Legislative Council V.R. Sudarshan said that the function of legislature was “making legislation and not punishing.”

There were incidents of admonition for breach of privilege, but “pronouncing imprisonment was something unheard of in the history of legislature in Karnataka”, he said and added that the journalists have the option of filing an appeal before the speaker.

On Wednesday, the Legislative assembly adopted the recommendations of the committee on privileges to imprison and fine Ravi Belagere of Hai Bengaluru and Anil Raj of Yelahanka Voice. This was after the committee looked into allegedly defamatory articles against three MLAs. Speaker of the legislative assembly, K.B. Koliwad approved the recommendations.

Hai Bengaluru published articles against Mr. Koliwad himself besides Congress MLA B.M. Nagaraj and BJP MLAs S.R. Vishwanath had complained against Yelahanka Voice. Former Speaker Kagodu Thimmappa, who is now a Minister, had referred the issue to the Privilege Committee in 2014.

The committee’s report states that Mr. Belagere had not appeared before it despite repeated summons and Mr. Raj had apologised but continued to write allegedly defamatory articles.

S. Murthy, Legislature Secretary, has sent the direction of the speaker to initiate action against the two journalists to Additional Chief Secretary DPAR Subhash Chandra. Sources in the Secretariat said that, Mr. Subhash Chandra will send the order to Director General of Police, who will in turn take forward the procedure by issuing summons.

Interestingly, the news reports that was taken up by the committee on privileges were not pertaining to proceedings inside the house. In fact, the committee’s report states that the concept of “breach of privilege” has not been defined Constitution or in the legislature norms, but goes by precedence.

Since it is not codified “what is breach is a matter of interpretation” said a former legislator. D.H. Shankaramurthy, Chairman of Legislative Council, claimed the House was supreme in this regard and was well within its rights.

However, Former Speaker of the Assembly Mr. Ramesh Kumar, who is now a minister, said “At best we can admonish them to protect the interest of legislator and to uphold the dignity of House.”

Meanwhile, according to sources in Hai Bengaluru, Mr. Belagere is preparing to approach High Court seeking anticipatory bail and appealing for dismissal of the order. In a Facebook post, Mr. Belagere said, “Write against a politician, you will be in jail. That’s the message we got now.” He further said that “I am personally not disturbed by these judgements as I have been battling (sic). I am 100 % sure of the successful fight. (sic)”

Amnesty International of India Programme Director Asmita Basu said, “Journalists must have the freedom to write critical articles, and politicians must be able to tolerate criticism... If individuals feel that their reputations have been affected, they can take recourse to civil defamation remedies in court.”

JD (S) state president H.D. Kumaraswamy described it as an “unhealthy development” and that he would appeal to the Speaker to reconsider the issue.

The privileges committee has overreached its mandate in taking up contents of a report that was not about proceedings or events inside the house. Krishna Prasad, former Editor-in-Chief, Outlook

The very idea of privilege is archaic in a democracy and an MLA should be able to take up a defamation issue in court like any other citizen. Gauri Lankesh, Editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike

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