OPINION

Whose privilege?

Legislatures must not invoke powerto punish for breach of privilege

The Karnataka Assembly’s resolution imposing a one-year prison sentence and Rs. 10,000 fine on the editors of two tabloids is indefensible and deserving of unsparing criticism. The Constitution confers certain privileges on legislative institutions with the idea of protecting freedom of speech and expression in the House and ensuring that undue influence, pressure or coercion is not brought on the legislature in the course of its functioning. Unfortunately, breach of privilege is invoked for the ostensible reason of protecting the image of the House on the whole or its individual members; too often, it is a thinly disguised mechanism to insulate elected representatives from criticism. Without a law codifying the legislative privileges, there is little merit in subjecting anyone, leave alone a journalist, to penal action for allegedly breaching a legislator’s privilege, unless there is a move or attempt to obstruct the functioning of either the House or its members. The articles concerned were published in Hi Bangalore and Yelahanka Voice and were referred to the Privileges Committee in 2014. Whether what Ravi Belagere and Anil Raj, the editors of the two tabloids, published was fair comment or unfair criticism is not germane in this case. What matters is that by no stretch of the imagination could the articles have impeded the independent functioning of the three legislators who had complained against them. If the members felt defamed, they could have opted to pursue an appropriate judicial remedy in their individual capacity.

The legislature must use the power to punish for contempt or breach of privilege sparingly, invoking it mainly to protect the independence of the House and not to take away the liberty of critics. Legislators are in a position to clarify facts and refute misconceived criticism. There is no reason for them to seek imprisonment for contempt. There are many unsettled questions about the very nature of legislative privileges. The absence of codification gives the House the freedom to decide when and how breach of privilege occurs. Even if it is conceded that the House has such a right, a moot question is whether the legislature, through its Committee of Privileges, should be a judge in its own cause. Whether the legislature’s power to punish for breach of privilege extends to handing down a prison term is still an open question. The time has come for the legislature to codify privileges and for the higher judiciary to lay down the limits of penal action for breach of privilege. The Karnataka government must consider the public odium it would attract if it acted on the resolution. If the Chief Minister and the Speaker take the lead in getting the Assembly to rescind the resolution, that would better safeguard the dignity of the august House.

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