An assault on press freedom

Print edition : December 05, 2003

The Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker's order to arrest the Publisher and four senior journalists of The Hindu and the Editor of Murasoli, now stayed by the Supreme Court, attracts nationwide protests and brings to the fore the question of codification of legislative privileges.

in Chennai The Hindu Murasoli

Editor-in-Chief N. Ram addressing employees at The Hindu office on November 7.-K. PICHUMANI

The Hindu

"I STAND in awe before the power of the press and the news media of this country. Our confidence in the Supreme Court and the higher judiciary has been vindicated on the question of the freedom of the press. We stand humble before the Supreme Court of this country." As N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, spoke these words to employees gathered in front of the newspaper's office in Chennai on November 10, they erupted in applause. Sweets were thrust into celebrating hands and firecrackers were lit.

About an hour earlier, the Supreme Court had stayed the warrants issued by Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker K. Kalimuthu for the arrest of the publisher and four senior journalists of The Hindu, and S. Selvam, Editor of the Tamil daily Murasoli. Besides Managing Director and Publisher S. Rangarajan, the journalists belonging to The Hindu were: Editor N. Ravi, Executive Editor Malini Parthasarathy, Associate Editor and Tamil Nadu Bureau Chief V. Jayanth, and Special Correspondent Radha Venkatesan.

In their order, Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice S.B. Sinha restrained the respondents, their officers, agents and counterparts "in any State of India" from executing the warrants. They had been issued on November 7 soon after the Assembly passed resolutions sentencing each of the six persons to 15 days' simple imprisonment for breach of privilege.

Said Ram: "We did not have an iota of doubt that we will get justice in the Supreme Court... Legislative Assembly Speakers may say they are sovereign. But in India, the Constitution is supreme, not the Legislative Assembly, not the Lok Sabha... " If anyone violated the Supreme Court's order staying the arrest warrants, he or she, including the Speaker, would be doing so at his own peril, he warned.

What was at stake, said Ram, was freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution, and protection of life and personal liberty as guaranteed under Article 21. The Assembly's decision, the Editor-in-Chief said, was "a clear display of the doctrine of `sky-high powers' that P.H. Pandian proposed when he was the Speaker [of the Tamil Nadu Assembly]". The Supreme Court's interim order was important "not just for The Hindu, but for freedom of the press and the fundamental right to life and personal liberty", he said. No Legislative Assembly could claim that its decisions affecting fundamental rights were not subject to interpretation and adjudication by the Supreme Court and High Courts, he said.

Significantly, the stay order brought to the fore the long-standing demand of journalists' organisations to codify the legislature's privileges. `Cho' S. Ramaswamy, Editor of Thuglak magazine and member of the Rajya Sabha, demanded the codification of privileges of Parliament and the State legislatures to prevent their misuse. Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar, member of the drafting committee of the Constitution, while replying to a debate in the Constituent Assembly, gave an assurance that necessary laws would be enacted to specify the privileges, but it had not been done till now, `Cho' said.

NO other issue in recent times, inflamed public opinion across the country as the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker's decision to issue arrest warrants against the journalists did. The move was universally condemned as "a black day for democracy" and as one that took intolerance of criticism to a new low. Journalists took to the street in Chennai, New Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Jaipur, Mumbai and other cities and towns across the country. Hundreds of angry letters from readers poured into The Hindu.

The implementation of the Speaker's order began at the office of The Hindu around 6-30 p.m. on November 7, when about two dozen policemen arrived equipped with anti-riot gear. They parked their vehicles outside and took positions inside and outside the compound. Some policemen entered N. Ravi's room. On hearing the news, Ram, who was in his room, walked up to the police officers and sought to know how they could enter the premises without his permission. "Where are the warrants?" he asked them. Thereupon, the policemen left.

Around the same time, police teams had reached the residences of Rangarajan, Ravi, Malini Parthasarathy and Jayanth. A team led by Inspector K.P.S. Devaraj knocked on the doors of Jayanth's house in Poes Garden, close to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's residence. They asked Shobhana Jayanth where her husband was. When she told them that he was not at home, they tried to barge in. They brushed aside her demand for a search warrant and searched the rooms, including the bathrooms and even the terrace. Later, an Assistant Commissioner of Police arrived with a warrant and loitered around the house.

The team at Malini Parthasarathy's house stormed inside and intimidated the servants using abusive language. They ransacked cabinets and searched the bedrooms and the bathrooms. The police would not allow relatives, who arrived there, to enter the house. They noted down the numbers of their vehicles. Police teams also marched into the residences of Rangarajan and Ravi and conducted search operations.

In Amritsar, journalists demonstrate against the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker's action against The Hindu.-MUNISH SHARMA/REUTERS

The Hindu

The police were back in the The Hindu office around 8-30 p.m. with a bigger force including policewomen, led by Deputy Commissioner R. Chinnaraj and Assistant Commissioner R. Shanmugham of the Triplicane division. By then, employees had gathered in front of the office and two senior officers of The Hindu took Chinnaraj and Shanmugham to meet the Editor-in-Chief on the first floor. When Ram demanded that he be shown the search or arrest warrants, Chinnaraj would only say, "I have the papers, I have the papers."

Ram then took the two police officers to the News Editor's cabin, where they asked Ram to cooperate. When they wanted to know where the five persons were, Ram told them, "I am not a police informer. You should do your own investigation." All that the two officers could show Ram were a piece of paper on which five names were written and an arrest warrant for Malini Parthasarathy. On being told that the five were not on the premises, they insisted on a search. Ram agreed, under protest.

With mediapersons trailing him, Ram first took the two police officers to Rangarajan's room. "We will next go to Ravi's room, as per protocol," Ram announced on coming out. The next stop was Malini Parthasarathy's room and finally Jayanth's in the reporters' section. It was a futile search, but the police officers were polite and dignified.

When the police team turned to go, they faced a piquant situation. About 200 employees had gathered near the entrance, shouting slogans and blocking their exit. They made way only after Ram asked them to allow the police team to leave in peace.

At a press conference held soon after, Ram took exception to the police action. "I don't blame the police. We know the hand behind the police," he said. "They have taken on an institution which is 125 years old. They have picked a wrong target. This is criminal misadventure, a foolish adventure. It is going to backfire," he said and wanted to know what Police Commissioner K. Vijay Kumar was doing. "What is your accountability, Mr. Vijay Kumar?" he asked. Ram said that the Assembly was only a facade for this outrage. "The hand behind it is of great interest," he said.

The next day, police teams from Chennai fanned out to various parts of Tamil Nadu looking for the five. One team went to New Delhi, while another was sent to Bangalore on the basis of intelligence information that Rangarajan, Ravi, Malini Parthasarathy and Jayanth would attend The Hindu's 125th anniversary celebrations there that evening. A reception was to be held at the ITC Windsor Sheraton & Towers later in the evening. The car in which Ram, Joint Managing Director N. Murali and their wives were travelling to the hotel was intercepted by a car carrying policemen from Tamil Nadu. Five men in plainclothes rushed towards Ram's car, removed the ignition key and looked inside. They apparently mistook Murali for Ravi. Murali told them, "This is Karnataka, not Tamil Nadu." Ram said, "I thought they were Dawood Ibrahim's men."

THERE have been assaults earlier on the freedom of the press in Tamil Nadu. "This is not the first time," said Ram, "that the Tamil Nadu Assembly has shown this kind of intolerance which directly affected the freedom of speech and freedom of expression. But the higher courts had intervened to the advantage of the press."

Assembly Speaker K. Kalimuthu.-VINO JOHN

In the present instance, the articles that went to the Privileges Committee, dominated by the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), were three news reports and an editorial published in The Hindu in April 2003. On April 23, Kalimuthu suo motu referred the three news reports that appeared on April 12, 13 and 23 to the Privileges Committee. The reports dealt with the proceedings in the Assembly and they contained some active verbs and descriptive phrases to give a flavour of Jayalalithaa's speeches (Frontline, May 23, 2003).

Kalimuthu said the report headlined, "Walkout to protest CM offensive", which appeared on April 12, used the words "with ulterior motives that tainted the Chief Minister's reputation". The other 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", which appeared the next day, the allegedly offending passages were: "... the chastisement they received at the hands of the Chief Minister"; "... 43 other legislators, who raised the 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, dated April 23, was headlined, "Jayalalithaa taunts Marxists again". The offending portions in it were: "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. Krishnasamy were notorious for casteist fanaticism".

The editorial titled "Rising Intolerance" was published on April 25. It was a sharp but balanced response to the decision to refer the three reports to the Privileges Committee. What was found offensive in the editorial was that it said that given the composition of the Privileges Committee, the outcome hinged critically on the attitude of the AIADMK members.

The charge against Selvam was that he published a translation of this editorial in Murasoli, the DMK's organ, the next day.

Ravi, in his 14-page communication on May 29 to V. Rajaraman, Assembly Secretary, contended that Kalimuthu's allegations, when he referred the three reports to the Privileges Committee on April 23, that the reports were written with "a motive to defame the Chief Minister" and with "a motive to somehow lower the fame and reputation of the Government", were without any basis. Privileges applied only to the House, its committees and its members, Ravi said. There was no concept of any parliamentary privilege being applicable to the Chief Minister, a party leader either of the majority or minority party, or to a government.

The report published on April 12 was a fair and accurate report of the proceedings of the Assembly, Ravi said. "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," he said. The report by Jayanth on April 13 was a news analysis rather than a report of the proceedings. The phrases used were innocuous expressions of opinion and could not by any means be regarded as contemptuous of the House or a breach of its privilege, the Editor said.

The editorial was written in exercise of the basic right to reply to the Speaker's grave charges of ill-motivated reporting of the Assembly proceedings. Ravi asserted, "The reports and the editorial do not rise to the level of gross contempt and do not meet the test laid down by the Supreme Court for action on privilege." He ended his reply by saying that if the Privileges Committee, by some chance, was not fully convinced on various points and needed further clarification, "we would like to be heard in person and represented before the Privileges Committee."

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

None of the five was given that opportunity. A statement from Kalimuthu on November 9 was deafeningly silent on this vital point. "He has covered it up in his response," Ram said. In his statement, Kalimuthu said Article 194 of the Constitution clearly set out the powers, privileges and immunities of a Legislative House, and of the members and committees of that House. This was to ensure that members could voice their opinion on issues with absolute freedom. "This cannot be obstructed by distorted reporting by the media," he argued. According to him, the Assembly resolutions were "only to protect its independent functioning and there cannot be any obstruction to its functioning... The functioning of the legislature cannot be obstructed by the press which has no separate rights in the Constitution such as those enumerated in Article 194 of the Constitution."

Ram took exception to Kalimuthu's insinuation that journalists of The Hindu obstructed the Assembly's proceedings. He called it "a preposterous, defamatory statement".

THE last sitting of the Assembly's five-day monsoon session began at 4-30 p.m on November 7. Members were surprised when Kalimuthu said around 5.20 p.m. that he had an important announcement to make and that no member should go out and no one could come in at the time. He asked the marshals to close the doors. The Leader of the House and Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan read out the Privileges Committee's reports recommending sentences of imprisonment to the publisher and four journalists of The Hindu, Selvam and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam legislator Parithi Ilamvazhuthi. The charge against Ilamvazhuthi was that he had "intimidated" D. Kumaradoss, an AIADMK member, with "murderous intent and feelings".

The House then passed resolutions awarding 15 days' imprisonment to the journalists of The Hindu and Selvam, and 30 days' imprisonment to Parithi Ilamvazhuthi. The Hindu's reporters were also denied passes to cover Assembly proceedings for 15 working days. (Ilamvazhuthi was arrested and sent to prison. On November 13 the Madras High Court granted him bail after a habeas corpus petition was filed seeking that he be produced in court and set free.)

When the House took up the breach of privilege resolution recommending seven days' imprisonment to the publisher and four journalists of The Hindu for the three news reports, Jayalalithaa suggested that the House could pardon them as the reports related to her functioning in the House. Hence the resolution was dropped. But the breach of privilege of the House as a whole that arose from the editorial, which was purportedly based on the three news reports, was pursued and the arrests were ordered. Opposition MLAs were shell-shocked. DMK legislators tore up the Privileges Committee's reports.

Police officers in the newsroom of The Hindu on November 7 in search of the journalists sentenced by the Assembly.-BIJOY GHOSH

The Privileges Committee awarded jail terms to the journalists without giving them an opportunity to be heard. According to senior advocates, this violated the principles of natural justice. DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan said the Privileges Committee was empowered only to recommend punishment and could not impose it straightway. TNCC president S. Balakrishnan called the sentences "cruel". Tamil Nadu Congress Committee working president E.V.K.S. Ilangovan said the Tamil Nadu Police would have caught sandalwood smuggler Veerappan if only they had shown a fraction of their interest in arresting the journalists.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) central committee member N. Sankaraiah said the AIADMK stood isolated after this anti-democratic act. T.K. Rengarajan, another CPI(M) central committee member, described it as a direct assault on the foundations of democracy. CPI State Secretary R. Nallakannu said the punishment violated democratic norms. Another CPI leader, A.M. Gopu, felt the punishment revealed a cruel state of mind. Congress Democratic Forum leader P. Chidambaram and all-India BJP general secretary L. Ganesan called it a black day for democracy.

Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader and Union Minister M. Kannappan alleged that the Speaker functioned like a tool of the Chief Minister. According to Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy the resolutions revealed a "totalitarian psychology". `Cho' suggested that newspapers and magazines reproduce The Hindu's editorial. He did so in Thuglak, with a translation in Tamil.

ON November 12, members of several political parties and people from all walks of life came together to form human chains in district headquarters in Tamil Nadu to protest against the Jayalalithaa government's denial of democratic rights. In Chennai, volunteers of political parties, journalists and members of The Hindu Office and National Press Employees' Union took part in the chain that they formed in front of The Hindu office on Anna Salai. Volunteers, wearing black shirts, held aloft placards that decried attempts to throttle the press. Karunanidhi, Sankaraiah and Nallakannu took part in the protest.

Journalists' organisations across the country sprang into action. The Madras Reporters' Guild began a nation-wide signature campaign of MPs and MLAs, demanding codification of the legislature's privileges. `Cho' launched that campaign. The Madras Union of Journalists, the Chennai Press Club, the Journalists' Action Group and the Network of Women in Media organised a hugely successful fast at the Chennai Press Club on November 9 after the police denied them permission to gather near the cricket stadium at Chepauk.

MDMK general secretary Vaiko, who is in Central Prison, Vellore, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), observed a fast in his cell to express his solidarity with the journalists. Eight other MDMK leaders, who had also been arrested under POTA, went on a fast in their prison cells.

The fast ended with Indian Newspaper Society (INS) president M.P. Veerendra Kumar offering lime juice to senior journalist Chinnakuthoosi. Veerendra Kumar asserted that the Assembly's dignity could not be equated with the whims and fancies of a Chief Minister. Those in power should be tolerant of criticism and should accept dissent. "Does criticism of Vajpayee lower the prestige of the Prime Minister?" he asked. On behalf of the INS, Veerendra Kumar appealed to the Assembly to rescind its resolutions.

Anbazhagan led a team of 57 legislators of various parties to New Delhi, where they met the Prime Minister Vajpayee. The Prime Minister told them, "Whatever the authorities have done in Tamil Nadu cannot be justified." The Centre later sought a report from Tamil Nadu Governor P.S. Ramamohan Rao on the developments. The delegation also met Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani.

At the human chain organised by political parties, in Chennai.-N. SRIDHARAN

Ram had earlier written to Advani seeking Central forces for security at the office of The Hindu after the police persisted with intimidatory tactics around the office. Murali spoke to the Governor over the phone. In response to Ram's request, the Union Home Ministry decided to deploy the Central Industrial Security Force at The Hindu office and his residence.

Jayalalithaa reacted by sending a demi-official letter to Advani on November 11, which said: "The orders of the apex court are being fully complied with and implemented by the State Police." She alleged that the Union Home Ministry was pandering to the media hype created by The Hindu group and Ram, who sought to blow the matter out of proportion. She said there was absolutely no threat to Ram or The Hindu office as was being made out by the media. She told Advani, "This move by your Ministry is totally unwarranted and against the spirit of federalism... This decision of the Home Ministry would imply that the State government cannot be trusted on a subject which is exclusively a State subject." She claimed that any despatch of the Central security forces would irreparably damage Centre-State relations and wanted the direction to deploy it to be rescinded.

Ram responded that he had, in fact, underplayed the threat to The Hindu office, but wholeheartedly complimented and congratulated Jayalalithaa for stating that "the orders of the apex court are being fully complied with and implemented by the State police". He called her statement "constitutionally significant".

In a statement, the Editor-in-Chief said: "This acceptance of powers of judicial review over matters of legislative privilege is institutionally important. This is perhaps the first time that the Chief Minister of a State where the Legislative Assembly has punished anyone for breach of privilege has publicly acknowledged the supremacy of the Constitution and the Supreme Court as the final interpreter and adjudicator of legislative privileges when they come into conflict with constitutional provisions, especially fundamental rights." In the light of the positive development, The Hindu withdrew its request for Central security forces.

Ravi, in a statement published in The Hindu of November 15, expressed gratitude on behalf of the five representatives of the newspaper for the overwhelming support that came from all over the country. Ravi said: "I wish to convey our thanks to the media, all sections of society and political parties and groups both in Tamil Nadu and around the country who rallied spontaneously in support of the cause of free speech and personal liberty. ... we are most thankful to the Editor-in-Chief N. Ram, for the heroic defence that he put up in the court and outside, in the premises of The Hindu, ... in the columns of The Hindu and the national media."

Ravi thanked the employees of The Hindu for their support "during these troubled times" and concluded by stating: "We bear no ill-will against any person or group. Only it is our hope that such events are not ever repeated in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. Events like this only strengthen our resolve to stand firm in the defence of freedoms."

While it is back to business at The Hindu, attention will turn to the Supreme Court on December 8 when it takes up the journalists' writ petitions.

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