Rajasthan Bill to gag the media on corruption reporting goes to select committee after widespread protests

Rajasthan Bill to gag the media on corruption reporting goes to select committee after widespread protests

The Rajasthan Chief Minister, Mrs. Vasundhara Raje, may be slowing down, yet perhaps unrelenting, in her efforts to curb media reporting on corruption as the Bill to convert an ordinance has been sent to the Select Committee of the State Assembly, a day after it was introduced on Monday, October 23. Some reports had earlier suggested that she might be forced to back-track with her ordinance to curb and even gag the media reporting of corruption charges against officials at all levels unless her government permits investigation.

The select committee reference buys her some time even as some of her own BJP members of the House have strongly opposed it outside the legislature.

In spite of the Centre’s reported endorsement of the Chief Minister’s plans to go ahead with the curbs on the media, she convened a meeting of the Cabinet to consider her plans. As public interest litigation challenging the ordinance is now before the courts, she may await the courts’ opinion or verdict before going ahead with the Bill in the Assembly. But she does not seem to be in the mood to give up her intention to show the media its place in her scheme of things.

Is she only biding her time to win over her opponents within the ruling party and use her clear majority in the legislature at the appropriate time before elections in the State next year? There have been fierce debates in the electronic media and unsparing opposition in the public domain over the Rajasthan gag ordinance, which was approved in early September. But she is completely unimpressed. As a ruler, she possibly feels she is within her unfettered right to curb those crossing her path.

At the same time, the Maharashtra Government has planned restrictions, similar to those envisaged in Rajasthan. Only its orders do not identify the media for a gag order, but the powers it plans to acquire would not make any difference to the State’s intentions to curb media reports on corruption charges made against officials at all levels.

Meanwhile, the Editors’ Guild of India says the Rajasthan ordinance “is in reality a pernicious instrument to harass the media, hide wrongful acts by government servants and drastically curb the freedom of the Press guaranteed by the Constitution of India, even though it was ostensibly done to protect the judiciary and the bureaucracy against false First Information Reports”.

Is the Rajasthan Government upset with the media and social media when it identifies any official at any level, even at the panchayat level, in reports about alleged corruption unless the government has cleared the prosecution of an official? Even magistrates will not entertain or take cognizance of any complaint against any official. The punishment for such an offence could be up to two years of imprisonment.

Is the Rajasthan Government moving in the opposite direction when India is sometimes believed to be striving towards transparency?  It has noow stopped investigation of a corruption case unless prosecution is sanctioned by the State? Do some commentators wonder if the latest ordinance and use of legislative power is some kind of  an “overkill” to shield the bureaucracy?

Supporters of the government deny these observations. In defence they say that more than 22,000 complaints have been received by the State Government and 71 per cent of them have turned out to be false. They claim that there is no restriction on exposing scams if individuals are not named in reports. But another commentator cites different figures. He said that in fact there had been 270,000 complaints had been and 100,000 had some kind of reasonable credibility; this was indeed a very large figure.

One question being raised is why the babus at all levels are being given excessive immunity by rushing to issue an ordinance and gag the media by ushering in good days for the bureaucracy by shielding the corrupt.

The editors’ guild of India has described the Code of Criminal Procedure (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill as an “attempt to bludgeoning the messenger and curbing Press freedom”. There were already remedies in the system to prevent and punish those who indulge in frivolous and false litigation, it added.

Mr. Shanti Bhushan, a constitutional expert, alleged that politicians “wished to do corruption and do not wish to be investigated”. The Chairman of the Law Commission, Mr. A.P.Shah, said that even now for a complaint to be taken up against a magistrate, an investigating agency has to take the permission of the Chief Justice of a High Court. Whether the proposed restrictions on the media were reasonable would have to be examined in the context of Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. But he added that the Rajasthan move could lead to conflict with the Lokpal and  Lokayukta Act.

Lalit Sethi is a Journalist of long standing and a commentator on Political and Social Issues.

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