The government of Andhra Pradesh on October 30 issued a GO No. 2430 based on an earlier GO 938, dated February 20, 2007, according permission to the Special Commissioner, Information and Public Relations, and Departmental Secretaries to issue rejoinders, file complaints and lodge appropriate cases through public prosecutors against editors and publishers of newspapers and news channels, against defamatory news items.
The issuance of such an executive order is uncalled for, when there are penal sections to handle the misdoings of the press or journalists. This appears to be attempt to mellow down free speech and fearless journalism, says T.V.S.K. Kanakaraju, a senior advocate.
Unlike in the Constitution of the U.S., freedom of press is not specifically mentioned in Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. But the then Chairman of Drafting Committee, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, had said that no special mention of the freedom of press was necessary at all, as the press and an individual or a citizen were the same as far as their right of expression was concerned.
According to founding Vice-Chancellor of Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Prof. Y. Satyanarayana, in clause 2 of Article 19, there are some restrictions on freedom of speech, which is termed as Reasonable Restrictions.
There are about eight aspects on which reasonable restrictions are imposed which include sovereignty and integrity of the State, Security of the State, Friendly relations with foreign countries, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence. If a journalist is found violating any of these, he or she can be prosecuted under the relevant penal sections and that should be enough, if the government wants to rein in the press. A separate order instils an element of fear in the freedom of press, he says.
Defending the order, Rajya Sabha member of YSR Congress Party Vijaya Sai Reddy said, There is nothing to fear, the order is only to see that defamatory reports against the government are not aired or published. We welcome news reports and even views, but they have to be substantiated with truth and facts, he says.
Though the GO is technically and legally flawless, the word defamatory is debatable. What may be defamatory for the government could be information to the people, and the medias job is to pass on the information.
For example, a well-researched news item on shortage of infrastructure in the health sector in the rural areas, is information both to the government and people. Can this be treated, as defamatory? Moreover, how competent are the authorities concerned to decide which is defamatory, says former Head of the Department of Journalism, Andhra University, D.V.R. Murthy.
The media houses at the same time should have a mechanism for self-restraint, he adds.
Quoting an excerpt from Gandhijis article in Indian Opinion, the head of the department says, I realised that the sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy.