Truth Fund to provide legal aid in fight for free speech

With hundreds of people wanting to support advocate Prashant Bhushan by symbolically contributing Re.1 — or more — towards his fine in the contempt of court case in the Supreme Court, a fund has been set up to use the money to help others fighting for free speech.

“The Satyamev Jayate or Truth Fund will be used to provide legal support and amplify the voices of those facing criminal charges for standing by their conscience and speaking truth,” said activist Anjali Bhardwaj at a webinar organised by Swaraj Abhiyan and the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) on freedom of speech and the judiciary.

Participating in the discussion, retired Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur said, “The State is using an iron hand to curb free speech. Suddenly you have a lot of cases charging people with sedition. Common citizens who say something are charged with sedition. Already 70 cases of sedition this year,” Justice Lokur said.

He said the arbitrary use of preventive detention, the increase in sedition charges, the labelling of opinion as “fake news” and the misreading of statements such as Mr. Bhushan’s tweets have all resulted in the curbing of free speech in unconstitutional ways. Justice Lokur noted that there were 3.4 crore cases pending in district courts and a crisis of vacancies in the judiciary. “The courts need to introspect or our justice system is in danger of complete collapse,” he asserted.

N. Ram, Director, The Hindu Group of Publications, said the Prashant Bhushan case had instilled a stimulating effect on free speech and expression. The contempt judgment against Mr. Bhushan was a “fierce” one and contained “strong language, “the punishment (Rs. 1) was certainly incongruous... something very odd. There was no real substantiation for this kind of punishment”.

‘Sky-high powers’

Contempt powers affected the fundamental rights of free speech under Article 19 and that of equality under Article 14. Certain judges believed they had “sky-high powers”. They slipped into absolutism, particularly when dealing with suo motu contempt powers, he stated.

Mr. Ram said he was encouraged by the public response to the case against Mr. Bhushan. “We often say that contempt cases have a chilling effect on free speech. Paradoxically, Prashant Bhushan’s case has had a stimulating effect. It has put the Supreme Court under a spotlight, and will put its judgments under intense scrutiny... On the whole, I am optimistic that this has led to an awakening, perhaps even within the judiciary that this has gone too far and that we must come out on the side of freedom of speech.”

There was an unequal application of the law, he noted, referring to Kafeel Khan of Uttar Pradesh being held in preventive custody for months for giving a speech on unity and integrity of the country, even while others who openly called for violence went free.

Mr. Ram also referred to reports of a Madras High Court judge wanting to initiate action against Tamil actor Suriya for his comments on NEET. It was time that the “hue and cry factor” was raised louder in this issue, he observed.

Citizens empowered

Activist Aruna Roy said ordinary citizens had been empowered by Mr. Bhushan’s fight for his constitutionally protected right to free speech. Condemning the recent charges slapped on Sitaram Yechury, Yogendra Yadav, Umar Khalid and others in the Delhi riots case, she observed, “The real intent is to shut these voices down. This intent to spread fear will not work. We will not be silenced. The more people are sent to jail, with that much more courage, we will stand.”