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Between the line

Government at its old games
September 07 , 2011


PAKISTAN may not have democracy in the sense the world knows. Nor will
it pass the muster in the economic field. But it has to its credit
independent judiciary and free media which the lawyers and journalists
have won after long battles in their respective fields. Bangladesh and
Sri Lanka cannot emulate Pakistan because both countries have
authoritarian rules, Sheikh Hasina at Dhaka and Mahinda Rajapakse at
Colombo. The judiciary and the media exercise independence to the
extent the two allow, although Bangladesh is a shade better than Sri
India is a different cup of tea. The country’s constitution and the
democratic system guarantee free functioning of both the judiciary and
the media. Yet the baffling point is that the Manmohan Singh
government, battered by scams running to a loss of billions of dollars
to the exchequer and the Anna Hazare movement to have an
anti-corruption Lokpal (ombudsman), did not interfere in the
functioning of either the judiciary or the media.
However, while licking the wounds the government has begun a new way
of thinking: should the media and the judiciary have the freedom they
enjoy? It is like finding fault with the sea after the ship has been
wrecked because the captain failed to act. Home Minister P.
Chidambaram, Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal and the
experienced Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee are reported to have
urged the Prime Minister to “do something” to correct the two.
For action against the media, the suppressed report by the Press
Council of India has come in handy. ‘Paid news’ is not to the liking
of journalists or the people. And it would help cleanse the field if
the guilty could be spotted and punished. But the government’s
proposed remedy is to give teeth to the council. Such a measure has
been discussed many a time and rejected because the Press Council is
not another law court, but a forum where peers judge peers. The
sanction is moral and ethical, not legal. The government’s proposal
may defeat the very purpose of the council. Talking to bodies like
editors’ guild and union of journalists may be more beneficial.
I dare the government to bring a bill to curtail the press freedom.
Rajiv Gandhi, hurt by the criticism on the Bofors gun scandal, tried
to have an anti-defamation act. There was such a widespread pretest
that he had to beat a hasty retreat. In democracy, the media hands
have a duty to perform. They cannot be silenced by the group of
ministers or even the entire cabinet. Left to the government, nothing
would appear in the press except official handouts.
The government’s mind is clear from the manner in which its television
network, Doordarshan, treated the Hazare movement. It just did not
cover it, the biggest story since Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan’s
movement in 1974. India’s tax payers finance Doordarshan. It does not
have to depend on advertisement. Readers or viewers would always
revert to private avenues to get the news. This is exactly what
happened when the Congress government imposed censorship in 1975.
The fact is that no government wants strong media or judiciary. It has
a way to indirectly influence the judiciary because the budgetary
allocations are made by the government. Media can be ‘disciplined’
through corporate sectors which have a large advertisement budgets.
Justice Sri Krishna suggested this in a report on Telengana. He did a
tremendous job in naming the leaders who killed Muslims in the 1993
riots. But I did not know that he too could be on the government side.
His suggestion to the Home Ministry is that media should be managed to
build opinion against separate statehood for Telengana. He has even
gone to the extent of recommending the use of government
advertisements as an inducement to turn the opinion in favour of a
United Andhra Pradesh. How naïve he is.
Rattled by the Hazare movement, the government is playing its old game
by digging out cases against Hazare team members Prashant Bhushan,
Arvind Khejerwal and Kiran Bedi. And I do not know why Manish Tewari
who rescued himself from the standing committee should return to it?
Is the government serious about working of the standing committee?
I did not like Kiran Bedi asking Agnivesh, earlier a Hazare team
member, to prove his credibility. His public service goes back to the
time when Kiran Bedi was a cadet in the police academy. And what
secrets he could have divulged when every move of Hazare was
transparent? It is in the government’s interest to create cleavage
among people working for Hazare. Kiran Bedi or, for that matter anyone
else should not play into its hands.
As for the judiciary, the members of different parties are peeved over
the obiter dicta of judges’ while hearing a case. Such remarks never
make part of their judgment. For example, a Supreme Court judge said a
few days ago that people would teach a lesson to the government. This
was a realistic assessment against the background of the countrywide
anti-corruption movement. It is apparent the government and the
opposition have not liked the remark. But should parliament go
overboard to counter it?
Giving vent to their annoyance, members of a house panel of parliament
have recommended to the government to set up a mechanism to scrutinise
the declaration of assets by the Supreme Court and High Court judges
(what about the cabinet ministers who too have declared their
assets?). But the bizarre proposal is that the media should be
prohibited from publishing names of judges under probe. This reminds
me of the days of the emergency (1975-77) when no judgment could be
published without clearance from the authorities.
Whether names are published or not they soon become talk of the town.
All this should not in any way affect the independence of the
judiciary. Hazare did well to keep it separate from the ambit of
Lokpal. After all, the Lokpal pronouncements are subject to a judicial
review. How could, therefore, the judiciary come under the Lokpal?
Yet, the judges should shed their sensitivity over what forms the
contempt. There is a lesson in how Lord Chancellor in the UK treated a
remark after a judgment. The remark was that he was an old fool. His
reply was that he was indeed old. As for fool, it was a matter of
opinion. He let the matter rest at that.
High Courts and Supreme Court judges in the subcontinent should take a
lesson from Lord Chancellor’s attitude. They use the rule of contempt
of court at the drop of a hat. The authority should rarely use it but
never against the media. The two are on the same side.

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