Ravi Belagere-Anil Raju ‘defamation’ case: Is press freedom on shaky ground in Karnataka?
Ravi Belagere-Anil Raju had allegedly published ‘defamatory’ articles about the Congress MLA BM Nagaraj, SR Vishwanath, an MLA of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Koliwad of the Congress.
In the last few months, almost every journalist has become familiar with KB Koliwad, Speaker of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. The familiarity began in March this year, when Koliwad famously announced that he was forming a House committee to frame rules and regulations for electronic media — a “Lakshman Rekha”, he called it, to restrict the “arbitrary” telecasting of news. Koliwad said this came after MLAs across parties complained about the media’s “irresponsible” reporting, particularly by news channels. As senior MLA BR Patil of the Karnataka Janata Paksha had said, the media was performing the roles of “petitioner, advocate and judge” and was, without evidence, “projecting politicians in a poor light and disrespecting us.”
Now, four months later, Koliwad and the Karnataka Legislative Assembly have been in the news for redrawing this Lakshman Rekha more clearly. So clearly, in fact, that the House unanimously sentenced two local journalists, the well-known Ravi Belagere of Hi Bangalore, and Anil Raju of Yelahanka Voice to a full year in jail on 21st June. Along with the jail term, they were fined Rs 10,000 each — Koliwad announced that if the fine wasn’t paid, they would have to spend another six months in jail. As of 28th June, Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah instructed the home department to not arrest Belagere for now, as he is “suffering from ailments”.
And yes, it was the legislative assembly that did the sentencing.
The reason for this? Both Belagere and Raju had allegedly published ‘defamatory’ articles about the Congress MLA BM Nagaraj, SR Vishwanath, an MLA of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Koliwad of the Congress.
What is striking is that the Congress and the BJP have come together to attack press freedom in Karnataka. To most journalists, the MLAs’ move to complain to the Assembly’s Privileges Committee claiming that the two journalists had breached their ‘parliamentary privileges’ seems almost too convenient, and a guaranteed victory. Parliamentary privilege is legal immunity given to MLAs, so that they have protection against civil or criminal liability for actions or statements made in the House, or during the course of their work. And, as MLAs, the privileges gave them much more power than anybody else.
A part of the problem, as both journalists and politicians are quick to point out, is that there is no codification of what amounts to ‘privilege’, and what should be considered as ‘breach of privilege’. Many argue that the common sense answer to this question is that a ‘breach of privilege’ is something that stops MLAs from carrying out their duties as an MLA, something that neither Hi Bangalore, nor Yelahanka Voice has done. Most media houses that have reported on the Belagere and Raju case only referred to their articles as being ‘defamatory’, without expressly stating what was in them. According to The Telegraph, Belagere’s story, published back in 2014, had reportedly accused BM Nagaraj and his family of making disproportionate amounts of money, while Hi Bangalore, according to the Indian Ex-press, carried a piece about Koliwad attempting to get into the state cabinet. BJP’s Vishwanath had claimed that Raju published ‘defamatory’ pieces, reportedly blackmailing him and others from the Yelahanka constituency.
Perhaps, some of the hesitation of explaining what was ‘defamatory’ about the pieces came from the gossipy reputation that both Hi Bangalore and Yelahanka Voice seem to have. Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha, who begins by saying he is outraged and appalled at the Assembly’s decision, says he’s heard the journalists are “a little bit on the scurrilous side”, but nevertheless this (sentencing) is not the solution. The fact of the MLAs’ untrammelled powers was confirmed when it emerged that Koliwad himself was conveniently the complainant in Belagere’s case. This fact threw up further complications — the two journalists, who would otherwise have had the option of appealing to the Speaker of the house, now couldn’t do this, because the chief of the enquiry committee was the Speaker himself.
Finally, both Belagere and Raju chose another option and moved the High Court on 27th June, filing a joint petition in court, seeking a stay on the Assembly’s jail order.
Koliwad’s verdict on 21st June had stunned everybody and reopened the debate on press freedom that has only intensified since the raids on NDTV co-founder Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy’s house on 5th June.
Simultaneously, this also reopened an ethics debate that journalists, particularly those working in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are unfortunately too familiar with — that having the option of breach of privilege provides MLAs with extra freedom, allowing them to circumvent due legal process, using the Privileges Committee to attack any form of political dissent.
Since June 21st, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit organisation that promotes press freedom, has condemned the Assembly’s move, as has Amnesty International India and the Editors Guild of India, all demanding the immediate reversal of the sentences citing the importance of press freedom. “The press has the right to raise difficult issues and ask tough questions of the government. State governments must respect journalists’ constitutional right to freedom of expression and not try to browbeat them into toeing their line,” says Asmita Basu, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India to HT over email. Basu then goes on to argue that Parliamentary privilege can be used to give lawmakers immunity from prosecution for what they say in the legislature. “But the concept of breach of privilege shouldn’t be used to prosecute people for ‘lowering the dignity’ of legislatures,” she says. Others, like senior journalist Gauri Lankesh, argue that such a law shouldn’t exist in a democratic country that values free speech. “What makes them [MLAs] special? If they’re really so offended, they should fight it out in court,” she tells HT.
Journalists like Lankesh say that this is certainly not the first time that press freedom is being threatened in south India (and as Basu points out, press freedom has also been a glaring issue in Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir). As journalist Krishna Prasad recently wrote, Karnataka, under Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s watch, has seen TV stations being blacked out, while “the police, citing court orders, have imposed gag orders on the reporting or telecast of incidents of crime, the home minister has gagged the police, and the education minister has gagged teachers.” In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, both KCR and Chandrababu Naidu are in the middle of a crackdown on dissent — blocking TV channels with unofficial bans, and being intolerant towards independent journalists.
On a side note, no journalists accused of breach of privilege in TN (infamous for such cases) have received as high a punishment as Belagere and Raju. This includes the closely documented case of the Privileges Committee sentencing S Balasubramaniam, editor of Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan to three months in jail for publishing a cartoon under the MG Ramachandran government in 1987. The cartoon, which had two people in it, was reportedly captioned, “the one who looks like a pickpocket is a member of the legislative assembly and the one like a dacoit is a minister.” Before this, the same thing had happened to AM Paulraj in 1985, the editor of the Tamil traders’ journal Vaniga Otrumai. Later, things didn’t get much easier under Jayalalithaa, when such breach of privilege cases came up in 1992, 1994, and 2003.
But, when this comparison to TN’s crackdown on journalists is brought up, Brijesh Kalappa, an advocate in the Supreme Court, spokesperson for the Congress, and former legal advisor to the Karnataka government, who doesn’t agree that the Belagere and Raju case has anything to do with press freedom, is quick to tell HT, “This is too large a connection to make to Tamil Nadu. This is not showing any kind of trend.”
In Karnataka, Lankesh says that in the past, journalists have been pulled up for breach of privilege for extremely small stories. In 2009, for instance, Rajan Hunasawadi of Samyukta Karnataka was hauled up for running a piece quoting a Congress politician calling then Assembly Speaker KG Bopaiah as “unfit to hold office”, where the headline carried the word ‘nalayak’ [unworthy]. Then, in 2012, Kiran Thakur, the editor of Tarun Bharat, a Marathi daily published from Belgaum, was forced to apologise standing, amazingly enough, in a makeshift dock in the Assembly, for publishing defamatory and “baseless” reports against then BJP MLA Abhay Patil and Congress MLA Shyam B Ghatage. “I am sorry. My newspaper has never published any material to undermine the dignity and supremacy of this house,” he was made to say.
Lankesh herself was once called by the Privileges Committee, and asked to carry a front-page apology in 2009 for a story she had written. “I argued that I hadn’t written about what the MLA had said inside the House, but outside,” she says, and settled on running an apology inside the weekly (“however insincere,” she adds), because there were “bigger battles” to be fought, she says.
It is difficult not to be alarmed that only journalists are complaining about the glaring problem of press freedom. People associated with political parties in Karnataka have condemned the move, while refusing to say anything about press freedom.
The first thing that Dinesh Amin Mattu, the media advisor to the Chief Minister Siddaramaiah says (and repeats) is, “This [decision] has nothing to do with either the government or the Chief Minister.” Then, when asked if this curbs the freedom of the press, Mattu says, “No, there is some procedure. It’s the constitutional right of the legislature. If the system is there, then anybody can use it. If they pass another Act or rule to curb the freedom of the press, then anybody can question.” Similarly, Kalappa, spokesperson for the Congress, who wrote a Facebook post on 26th June about the Assembly decision says, “There must be a reconciliation between both sides and things must go on.” He then adds to HT, “According to me it is not an infringement on press freedom. It is a separate issue. There have been excesses from both these journalists. But it’s not a government decision. It’s the whole body.”
On the other hand, S Suresh Kumar of the BJP, says, “I feel there is a disconnect between the media and the elected representatives. This disconnect is causing all these things to happen,” although he says that Belagere and Raju’s cases were clear cases of ‘defamation’. Then, after a pause, he adds, “Today they have these two incidents. It becomes a precedent and this precedent could be an attack on freedom of press.”
Perhaps, all this explains the sense among journalists like Lankesh, who say that opposing parties who fight tooth and nail on all fronts do come together and find common ground for things like curbing the press.
Guha agrees. “There’s always cross-party collaboration for things like higher remuneration or foreign tours, and there’s also cross-party collaboration to suppress the press.”
And Lankesh is certain that the only way we can begin to move forward from here is if the law about ‘breach of privilege’ itself goes.
Belagere, was admitted in a hospital in Dharwad soon after news of his arrest was announced, and there are reports of him refusing to go with the police who came to arrest him. Both Raju (he’s still at large, reports say) and Belagere were ‘missing’, avoiding arrest. But as Prasad wrote, “You may dislike his [Belagere’s] publication, dislike its prurient pursuits, dislike its gossip and scandal mongering. You may have heard stories and rumours of his lifestyle, whatever. None of that matters before the larger principle of justice.”
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)