The arrest of three journalists for allegedly defaming Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is a clear attempt to intimidate the media and stifle the freedom of the press. Prashanth Kanojia, a freelance journalist, Ishika Singh, the head of a private news channel, Nation Live, and its editor Anuj Shukla are the ones arrested for ‘tarnishing’ the image of the “honourable Chief Minister.” Another private individual who had posted “objectionable content” on his social media page has also been arrested. These arrests come close on the heels of a FIR filed in Karnataka against an editor of a Kannada daily for publishing a report about the alleged misbehaviour of Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil Kumaraswamy at a Mysuru hotel following his defeat in the Lok Sabha elections in Mandya. As the Editors Guild of India has rightly noted about the UP arrests, “The police action is motivated, vindictive, high-handed and amounts to authoritarian misuse of law.” Such coercive steps by the police at the behest of their political masters only strengthens the demand for scrapping the criminal defamation law.
While some curbs are required to prevent the abuse of free speech, the validity of criminal defamation needs to be re-examined as it is often misused by those in power to bury the truth and even prevent legitimate criticism. Politics is not for the fainthearted and being in public life, politicians should not be easily offended by censure, even if sometimes unfair. The Supreme Court of India, while rebuking the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa for frequently filing defamation suits against journalists, had observed, “You are a public figure and you have to face criticism. Defamation cases against the critics of the government have a chilling effect. It amounts to curbing free speech. There has to be tolerance for criticism. The defamation law cannot be used as a political counter weapon.”
Arrest should be resorted to only in the rarest of cases involving serious issues of criminality like creating communal disharmony, disturbing public order or outraging the modesty of women. For other transgressions, there are many recourses, including the Press Council of India, National Broadcasting Standards Authority or the law courts, though unfortunately in India, the wheels of justice grind slow. At the same time, journalists should also realise that the freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Constitution comes with certain “reasonable restrictions” and does not give them the unfettered right to damage the reputation of others with impunity. In the present case, though, it is the excessive action of the UP police and government that must be condemned. The journalists must be released forthwith.