The issue of privilege

Print edition : May 23, 2003

The issue of legislative privilege versus freedom of the press comes to the fore once again, in Tamil Nadu.

ON April 6, 1987, when S. Balasubramanian, Editor of the popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, walked out of the Central Prison in Chennai, he highlighted the need to codify legislators' privileges - an issue that has troubled the media in Tamil Nadu time and again. Three days earlier, on April 4, 1987, the Tamil Nadu Assembly had sentenced Balasubramanian to undergo three months' rigorous imprisonment after it resolved that he had "violated the privileges of the House" by publishing a cartoon on the cover of Ananda Vikatan of March 29. The House found the cartoon derogatory to its members.

That was not the first time that the Tamil Nadu Assembly had punished an editor for breach of its privilege. On July 1, 1985, it sentenced A.M. Paulraj, Editor of a trade magazine Vaniga Ottruma (Unity of Traders), to undergo two weeks' simple imprisonment "for having committed a breach of the privilege of the House". The Privileges Committee had found an article in the magazine's February 1983 issue to be derogatory to the members. After losing a legal battle against the sentence of imprisonment awarded to him, Paulraj surrendered to the police in Chennai on January 13, 1986 and was taken to the Central Prison.

On both occasions, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), headed by M.G. Ramachandran, was the ruling party.

The imprisonment of Balasubramanian led to a storm of protests by journalists and others. P. Chidambaram, then Union Minister of State for Home, offered an apology on behalf of the Editor and appealed to the Assembly to reconsider its decision. It was claimed (on behalf of the AIADMK) that the decision to convict Balasubramanian was taken without consulting Chief Minister Ramachandran. On April 6, the Editor was released from prison. Speaker P.H. Pandian said he ordered the release in deference to the Chief Minister's wishes.

The necessity of codifying the legislators' privileges was underscored again when Speaker Sedapatti R. Muthiah in April 1992 issued a warrant for the arrest of K.P. Sunil, correspondent of the Illustrated Weekly of India, for an article headlined "Tamil Nadu Assembly Fast Gaining Notoriety," in the September 21-27, 1991 issue of the magazine, which has since folded up. The House found that the article violated its privilege. The AIADMK headed by Jayalalithaa was in power then. Sunil approached the Supreme Court, which stayed the arrest warrant. A three-member Bench of the Supreme Court referred the issue of privilege to the Constitution Bench. The Constitution Bench referred the issue in 1997 to Speaker P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan, who dropped the proceedings against Sunil. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) headed by M. Karunanidhi was in power at that time.

THE issue has again come into focus. On April 23, 2003, Speaker K. Kalimuthu suo motu referred three reports that appeared in The Hindu on April 12, 13 and 23 to the Privileges Committee of the House. The reports dealt with the proceedings in the Assembly. The Speaker alleged that these reports "not only tried to tarnish the fame and goodwill of the government but used derogatory words, with ulterior motives, which affected the privileges of the House." On April 30, Kalimuthu again referred an editorial titled "Rising Intolerance" that appeared in The Hindu on April 25 to the Privilges Committee. The editorial spoke about how the reports in question contained a series of descriptive phrases, mostly about Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's speeches in the Assembly, and their being referred to the Privileges Committee.

Kalimuthu said the report headlined "Walkout to protest CM offensive" in The Hindu of April 12 used words "with ulterior motive that tainted the Chief Minister's reputation". The offending portions, according to him, were: "... the Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's stinging abuse... "; "In one of her most unrestrained attacks on the Opposition" ; "... Ms. Jayalalithaa fumed" ; and "... an incensed Ms. Jayalalithaa alleged in a high-pitched tone... "

In the report titled "People's court only way out for Opposition" that appeared the next day, what the Speaker found objectionable were these passages: "... the chastisement that they received at the hands of the Chief Minister" ; "... 43 other legislators, who raised this issue, were not only evicted but also removed to the North Beach police station here a couple of days ago" ; "Most of the legislators are shocked at the epithets the Chief Minister threw at the opposition for its `behaviour'... " ; and "... the conduct of the Legislature."

The third article in The Hindu dated April 23 was headlined "Jayalalithaa taunts Marxists again". Kalimuthu found that the following portions contained distortions: "Stung by the Chief Minister's diatribe, the Marxist members... " and "... she said education alone would not make a man sane, as leaders like Dr. Ramadoss and Dr. Krishnaswamy were "notorious for casteist fanaticism".

These "baseless and unreasonable allegations", the Speaker said, "belittled the proceedings of the House and affected its sovereignty." He added that he was sending the three reports to the Privileges Committee to study them and submit a report.

Following this, The Hindu published an editorial called "Rising Intolerance" on April 25. Five days later, Kalimuthu stated in the Assembly that the editorial had commented on the Chief Minister's "new method of attacking political opponents"; that it had attributed motives to his decisions; and cast aspersions on the House as a whole, its members and the Privileges Committee. The Speaker explained that he referred the three reports to the Privileges Committee because they "cast aspersions" on the Chief Minister, who is "the leader of the majority of the members and a very important member". Besides, they were "contrary to truth", were written with "ulterior motives" and "affected the privileges of the Legislature." Yet, according to the Speaker, the editorial said that given the composition of the Privileges Committee, "the verdict will go according to the thinking of the ruling party." This, he said, amounted to attributing motives to the Privileges Committee, tarnishing its image and violating the privilege of the entire House.

Kalimuthu pointed out that Murasoli (the Opposition DMK's daily newspaper in Tamil) had published a translation of the editorial in its issue of April 26. Since he had a "great responsibility of protecting the dignity and privileges of the House" and The Hindu editorial and its translation in Murasoli "attributed motives to his decision", Kalimuthu said he was referring them to the Privileges Committee.

Murasoli had faced the music under the AIADMK dispensation earlier as well. On September 21, 1992, S. Selvam, Editor of Murasoli and nephew of DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, was brought to the Bar of the Assembly and reprimanded after the Privileges Committee found him guilty of violating the privileges of the House by publishing distorted versions of the proceedings. As a special bar was brought into the House, Speaker Sedapatti R. Muthiah insisted on "pin-drop silence". Muthiah told Selvam that he was being reprimanded as recommended by the Privileges Committee, and Selvam withdrew.

That was the first time in the history of the Tamil Nadu legislature that a bar was brought to the House, and an Editor made to stand in it and reprimanded. Karunanidhi commented in an article in Murasoli dated September 3, 1992 that he felt happier to see in newspapers pictures of Selvam sporting a smiling face and standing in the bar than when Selvam married his daughter Selvi.

After it came back to power in May 2001, the AIADMK government has filed more than a score of defamation cases against a range of publications. These include The Hindu, The New Indian Express, Dinakaran, Dinamalar, India Today, Outlook, The Statesman, The Telegraph and The Times of India. The City Public Prosecutor (CCP) filed all the cases on behalf of Jayalalithaa before the Principal Sessions Judge, Chennai.

In February 2003, the State government filed a defamation case against The Hindu for a news item published on December 3, 2002 on the transfer of the State Chief Secretary Sukavaneshwar. The CPP alleged that the news item was "intended to create an impression that the Chief Minister, with a biased mind, had the habit of transferring higher officials of her own will and pleasure."

In January 2003, another case was filed against The Hindu after it published a Pondicherry-datelined report headlined, "Tamil Nadu/Breakfast scheme suspended: 1200 Pondy school students suspended." The headline was "highly vituperative and per se defamatory and amounted to libel" when there was no reference to Tamil Nadu in the contents of the news item, the CPP argued. He alleged that the newspaper exhibited "a partisan attitude" which led to a "deliberate misrepresentation of facts and and figures, and misreporting of the statements" of Jayalalithaa.

In November 2002, the government filed defamation cases against The Hindu, The New Indian Express, and M.K. Stalin, MLA and son of Karunanidhi, after the newspapers quoted Stalin as having alleged that the police, on instructions from Jayalalithaa, had attacked DMK cadres who were distributing gruel to weavers at Sellur in Madurai on August 9, 2002. The CPP said the news item was published "without any verification" and that it had "an ulterior motive to defame" Jayalalithaa.

AIADMK treasurer C. Sreenivasan also went to court against The Hindu. He filed a civil suit against the newspaper after it carried a news item on February 16, 2003 headlined "AIADMK on a gift spree in Sattankulam" (where a byelection was held). He wanted a compensation of Rs.50 lakhs for "loss of reputation for the party, and disgrace, mental agony and pain suffered by the party" because of the publication of the report.

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