Nitish govt squirms at Justice Katju's 'press censorship' charge

Even as the Press Council of India (PCI) chairman Justice Markandey Katju has constituted a three-member fact-finding team to look into the complaints of unwritten censorship on media in Bihar, the ruling party members, including top ministers in the state, are seething with rage over the PCI chief’s remarks.

Justice Katju, while delivering his speech at a Patna University function last week, created a storm when he said, “I have been told that most of the journalists in Bihar can’t write anything against the State Government. And those who dare to write against the present regime, he is either transferred or harassed…or even run the risk of losing his job.” The PCI chairman said though he had no proof to substantiate his charge, “this is the general perception,” and, therefore, “the government’s acts of omission and commissions have gone unreported.”

“During Lalu’s era, the law and order situation was bad but there was freedom of the Press. During Nitish’s regime, I admit, the law and order scenario has improved, but there are reports that it is coercing the media into submission,” Justice Katju, known for his free and frank opinion, observed.

The PCI chief’s remarks were not wide off the mark. A couple of years back, when a senior journalist exposed a scam in a Hindi daily, he was shunted out, although the management claimed that the transfer had nothing to do with the ‘negative report.’

Such is the ‘fear psychosis’ among the owners/management of newspapers here that at least two vernacular dailies did not carry the report about Katju’s remarks against Nitish regime, although it published the event attended by the PCI chief.  

Katju said he had been informed that government advertisements were also cancelled if adverse news against the government, ministers or officials were published. “This kind of gag on media is a violation of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. But the state government should realise that it has to function within the purview of the Constitution. “Nahin to main iss sarkar ko chalne nahin doonga,” (Or else, I won’t allow this government to function),” the retired judge of the Supreme Court thundered.

To buttress his point, he cited an example of how he had recently written to the Maharashtra chief minister, where journalists were at the receiving end (at the hands of mafia elements). “Now that I have been made aware of the media’s plight in Bihar, I will try to set things right here too,” he added.

Discordant note

While his comments drew huge applause from the capacity audience, the principal of the Patna College, struck a discordant note and protested Katju’s remarks over the gag on media. This kind of behaviour was expected from the principal, who, incidentally, happens to be the husband of Usha Sinha, a ruling JD (U) MLA. Katju remained unnerved and said he won’t be cowed down by such threats. “The way you have protested proves that whatever I have said is absolutely correct,” opined Katju.

The remarks made against Nitish, that too by a retired judge of the apex court, gave the Opposition enough ammunition to launch an offensive against the Bihar government.

Series of protests were carried out within the Assembly and the Legislative Council. Effigies of Nitish were burnt on the main thoroughfares of Patna. But the chief minister refused to join the issue. It was left to his deputy, Sushil Kumar Modi, to carry out the damage-control exercise. “It must be investigated as to who are the persons who have ‘misguided’ Justice Katju,” Modi said, while completely differing with the PCI chief’s remarks.

Bihar’s parliamentary affairs minister Bijendra Yadav too described Katju’s observations as factually incorrect. “There is no press censorship in Bihar,” he said, and asked the media to wait till the 3-member fact-finding team constituted by the PCI chief submits its report. The team headed by Rajeev Ranjan Nag has been asked to go into all aspects of the complaints of the violation of freedom of press through investigation and report to the PCI chairman at the earliest.

“I know many of such victims (journalists) who had to face the music for having written against the state government,” said Leader of the Opposition in the Council, Ghulam Gaus and added there was “an Emergency-like situation in Bihar” where the fourth pillar of democracy was in danger.

The JD(U), which did not like Katju’s remarks one bit, was more scathing. It termed his statement as a publicity stunt. “This retired judge of the Supreme Court knows the art of remaining in the news. Public figures like me, who have struggled since late Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for Sampoorna Kranti (total revolution) during Emergency, should take a leaf out of Katju’s book and learn how to hog the limelight,” JD (U) national general secretary and Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwary said, taking a potshot at Justice Katju.

Ironically, Tiwary and Modi, the byproducts of the JP movement, were at the forefront protesting the gag on media in mid-70s when late prime minister Indira Gandhi was at the helm.

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