Submissions of The Hindu

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

The Hindu

NEITHER of the three news reports and the editorial, published in The Hindu in April this year, "rises to the level of contempt of the House and the privilege issues do not meet the test laid down by the Supreme Court", according to N. Ravi, Editor, The Hindu. According to him, the Supreme Court, while upholding the power of legislatures to prohibit the publications of debates expunged by the Speaker and penalise newspapers violating the prohibition, has observed that "we are persuaded that our Houses, like the House of Commons, will appreciate the benefit of publicity and will not exercise the powers, privileges and immunities except in gross cases." (M.S.M. Sharma vs Sri Krishna Sinha and others, AIR (1959) SC 395- 422).

The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed resolutions on November 7 sentencing the publisher and four journalists of The Hindu to 15 days' simple imprisonment for breach of privilege of the House after the Privileges Committee of the House pronounced them guilty.

In his 14-page "Submissions on Privilege issues against The Hindu", dated May 29, 2003 Ravi said the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker K. Kalimuthu's charge, in referring the privilege issues to the Privileges Committee, that the three news reports were written with a view to defaming Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and somehow lowering the reputation of the government, "is grossly unfair and without any basis whatsoever". The Editor added, "In any case, protecting the reputation of the government ought not to form the basis of a privilege issue."

Ravi made these submissions to V. Rajaraman, Secretary, Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Secretariat, when the publisher and four journalists of The Hindu received notices from the Assembly secretariat on the privilege moves. The five were Ravi himself; Executive Editor Malini Parthasarathy, Publisher and Managing Director S. Rangarajan, Associate Editor and Chief of Tamil Nadu Bureau V. Jayanth, and Special Correspondent Radha Venkatesan.

The three news reports and the editorial were published in April 2003. On April 23, Kalimuthu suo motu referred the news reports, which appeared on April 12, 13 and 23, to the Privileges Committee.

On April 30, he suo motu referred the editorial "Rising Intolerance', published on April 25, also to the Privileges Committee.

The Speaker's rulings, when he referred the three news reports and the editorial to the Privileges Committee, inter alia contained the following statements:

(1) "The Hindu had distorted the proceedings of the Assembly, commented contrary to the events in the Assembly... This action amounts to breach of privilege of the House... "

(2) "as The Hindu published news which was wrong, faulty and contrary to truth in violation of

the conventions of the House, I consider it a breach of privilege... "

(3) "The Hindu's editorial remarks... amount to imputing motives and slandering the Privileges Committee and its action and amount to breach of privilege of the entire House... "

IN his submissions, Ravi pointed out that it was "obvious that the above statements are clearly in the nature of judgments and verdicts of guilt." So the Editor contended that the Speaker's "finding and pronouncement of guilt" even before the Privileges Committee could examine the issue and make a recommendation to the Assembly "is grossly prejudicial to our case and has vitiated the proceedings" of the Committee. Ravi, therefore, said the Privileges Committee "cannot obviously come to a different conclusion from that pronounced by the Speaker without gross disrespect to his high office and without violating the norms of legislative propriety".

On Kalimuthu's allegation that the descriptive phrases in the three news reports were written with a "motive to defame the Chief Minister" and to "somehow lower the fame and reputation of the government" tantamounting to "breach of privilege of the House", the Editor contended that under the Constitution and the Rules of Procedure, privileges apply only to the House, its Committees and its members. There was no concept of any parliamentary privilege being applicable to a Chief Minister, a party leader either of the majority or minority party, or to a "government". Ravi said, "Privileges are not intended to protect the fame and reputation of the ruling party, government or of a party in opposition. It would be a sad day for parliamentary democracy if the dignity, prestige and privileges of the House are equated with those of the government of the day or of any party."

In any case, the Editor said, the news report published on April 12 was a fair and accurate report of the proceedings of the Assembly. The Special Correspondent used descriptive phrases to convey the atmosphere in the House and the report was in no way a distortion of the proceedings or offensive or contemptuous. The report published on April 13, written by V. Jayanth, was a news analysis rather than a report of the proceedings. "Expression of honest opinion, howsoever critical or strong, is covered by the right to freedom of thought and expression that includes the freedom of the press. It cannot form the basis of a privilege issue, particularly when there is nothing grossly contemptuous or destructive," Ravi added.

On the allegation that the editorial imputed motives to the Speaker and the Privileges Committee, Ravi said the editorial was in the nature of a reply to the widely publicised charges made by the Speaker while referring the issues to the Privileges Committee. The Editor explained, "It is protected expression of opinion on the functioning of a democratic institution responsible to the people and does not in any way cast aspersions on, or attribute improper motives to" the Speaker or the Privileges Committee.

Ravi's letter ended on a significant note. He said that if the Privileges Committee, by some chance, remained not fully convinced on various points and needed further explanation or clarification, "we would like to be heard in person and represented before the Privileges Committee".

Neither the five representatives of The Hindu nor S. Selvam, Editor of Murasoli, who was also sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment for publishing a Tamil translation of the editorial, was given the opportunity to appear before the Privileges Committee. This, lawyers said, violated the principles of natural justice.

In a statement on November 9, Speaker Kalimuthu said the Privileges Committee met six times between May 5 and November 6. It was an elected committee with representatives of the Opposition too. Both The Hindu and Murasoli filed written submissions. The Privileges Committee went into these submissions point by point, Kalimuthu said.

After going into all aspects of the issue, it concluded that "the reporting in a distorted manner by The Hindu" in its issues on April 12, 13 and 23 on the interventions made by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa during a debate in the House, clearly constituted a gross breach of privilege and contempt of the House, the Speaker added. The Committee, therefore, recommended seven days' simple imprisonment for the publisher and four journalists of The Hindu.

When the relevant resolution came up for a decision before the House on November 7, the Chief Minister "magnanimously suggested that the House pardon them as these offences related to her functioning in the Assembly", Kalimuthu said. So the House dropped the punishment.

According to the Speaker, Jayalalithaa did not make any request to him or the House to refer the three news reports and the editorial to the Privileges Committee. It was he, as the Speaker, did so suo motu.

About the editorial, Kalimuthu contended, that it prejudged the Privileges Committee's proceedings even when the issue was pending before it. The editorial "also cast a slur on my action as the Speaker" in referring the matter to the Privileges Committee, he said. The editorial "amounted to a threat to the Committee and the House to force it to decide in favour of the newspaper", he alleged. He added that after careful consideration, the Committee concluded that the editorial affected the entire privilege of the House and this "constitutes gross breach of privilege and contempt of the House". The Assembly, after due consideration, accepted the Committee's report on this and awarded 15 days' simple imprisonment to the five representatives of The Hindu, he said.

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