Stop harassing scribes, Mr Speaker

Stop harassing scribes, Mr Speaker

The imposition of a one-year jail term and a fine by the Karnataka Assembly on the editors of two tabloids for breach of privilege is not only gross abuse of a special power but a violation of the basic norms of natural justice. With such a harsh and unprecedented action against the two journalists, Speaker of the Assembly K B Koliwad, has shown himself as an intolerant and vindictive person out to harass and punish critics, and not as a protector of the rights and privileges of the House. The article about Koliwad written by Ravi Belagere in the weekly tabloid Hai Bangalore appeared before Koliwad became the Speaker. Some articles of Anil Raj, editor of Yelahanka Voice, about an MLA, referred to the privileges committee in 2014, were also considered to be violative of legislative privileges. But none of these articles hindered the functioning of the MLAs in the House and so no privilege was actually involved.

Legislatures are given some privileges to ensure that their members enjoy unhindered freedom of speech and expression and their functioning is not affected by external influences and pressures. Ironically, the same power is now used to suppress the freedom of expression of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. Criticism of legislatures and their decisions and of the words and actions of members cannot be deemed to violate their privileges. Members have avenues of redress like defamation proceedings if they think their reputation has been affected. That should be the first option before taking recourse to the special power against which citizens have no defence. Since the power of privilege is not codified, it can be used in whatever way it is interpreted. This is often arbitrary and applied most unjustifiably. Legislatures have always refused to codify their privileges because they want to maintain this absolute and unquestionable power.

The procedure to decide on privilege issues is equally unjust and faulty. The complainant, the prosecutor and the judge are the same in cases of breach of privilege. Koliwad took the decision to punish the journalist against whom he had complained, and even exceeded the privilege committee’s recommendation. The entire exercise was undemocratic. This is a case of absolute and unaccountable power corrupting people absolutely. The sight of the state chasing two editors who have only exercised their right to free speech is incongruous in a free society. It is unfortunately real in Karnataka now. The Assembly should reverse this most unfair decision. In fact, the idea of protection by privilege, which arose in England when there was a conflict between the King and parliament centu­ries ago, has no relevance now. It should be abolished.
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