Govt's dubious moves

Last Updated 08 September 2011, 16:27 IST

Pakistan may not have a democracy in the sense the world knows. Nor will it pass the muster in the economic field. But it has to its credit independent judiciary and free media which the lawyers and journalists have won after long battles in their respective fields.
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka cannot emulate Pakistan because both countries have authoritarian rules. The judiciary and the media exercise independence to the extent the two allow, although Bangladesh is a shade better than Sri Lanka.

India is a different cup of tea. The country’s constitution and the democratic system guarantee free functioning of both the judiciary and the media. Yet the baffling point is that the Manmohan Singh government, battered by scams running to a loss of billions of dollars to the exchequer and the Anna Hazare movement to have an anti-corruption Lokpal, did not interfere in the functioning of either the judiciary or the media.

However, while licking the wounds the government has begun a new way of thinking: should the media and the judiciary have the freedom they enjoy? It is like finding fault with the sea after the ship has been wrecked because the captain failed to act. Home minister P Chidambaram, human resources development minister Kapil Sibal and the experienced finance mminister Pranab Mukherjee are reported to have urged the prime minister to ‘do something’ to correct the two.

For action against the media, the suppressed report by the Press Council of India has come in handy. ‘Paid news’ is not to the liking of journalists or the people. And it would help cleanse the field if the guilty could be spotted and punished. But the government’s  proposed remedy is to give teeth to the council. Such a measure has been discussed many a time and rejected because the Press Council is not another law court, but a forum where peers judge peers. The sanction is moral and ethical, not legal. The government’s proposal may defeat the very purpose of the council. Talking to bodies like the editors’ guild and union of journalists may be more beneficial.

I dare the government to bring a bill to curtail the press freedom. Rajiv Gandhi, hurt by the criticism on the Bofors gun scandal, tried to have an anti-defamation Act. There was such a widespread pretest that he had to beat a hasty retreat. In a democracy, the media hands have a duty to perform. They cannot be silenced by a group of ministers or even the entire cabinet. Left to the government, nothing would appear in the press except official handouts.

Official media

The government’s mind is clear from the manner in which its television network, Doordarshan, treated the Hazare movement. It just did not cover it, the biggest story since Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in 1974. India’s tax payers finance Doordarshan. It does not have to depend on advertisement. Readers or viewers would always revert to private avenues to get the news. This is exactly what happened when the Congress government imposed censorship in 1975.

The fact is that no government wants strong media or judiciary. It has a way to indirectly influence the judiciary because the budgetary allocations are made by the government. Media can be ‘disciplined’ through corporate sectors which have a large advertisement budgets.

Rattled by the Hazare movement, the government is playing its old game by digging out cases against Hazare team members Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Khejerwal and Kiran Bedi. And I do not know why Manish Tewari who rescued himself from the standing committee should return to it?

As for the judiciary, the members of different parties are peeved over the obiter dicta of judges’ while hearing a case. Such remarks never make part of their judgment. For example, a Supreme Court judge said a few days ago that people would teach a lesson to the government. This was a realistic assessment against the background of the countrywide anti-corruption movement. It is apparent the government and the opposition have not liked the remark. But should parliament go overboard to counter it?

Giving vent to their annoyance, members of a house panel of parliament have recommended to the government to set up a mechanism to scrutinise the declaration of assets by the Supreme Court and high court judges (what about the cabinet ministers who too have declared their assets?). But the bizarre proposal is that the media should be prohibited from publishing names of judges under probe.

Whether names are published or not they soon become talk of the town. All this should not in any way affect the independence of the judiciary. Hazare did well to keep it separate from the ambit of Lokpal. After all, the Lokpal pronouncements are subject to a judicial review. How could, therefore, the judiciary come under the Lokpal?

Yet, the judges should shed their sensitivity over what forms the contempt. There is a lesson in how Lord Chancellor in the UK treated a remark after a judgment. The remark was that he was an old fool. His reply was that he was indeed old. As for fool, it was a matter of opinion. He let the matter rest at that.

High court and Supreme Court judges in the subcontinent should take a lesson from Lord Chancellor’s attitude. They use the rule of contempt of court at the drop of a hat. The authority should rarely use it but never against the media. The two are on the same side.

(Published 08 September 2011, 16:27 IST)

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