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Freedom at stake

Published : Oct 24, 2018 12:30 IST

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“Nakkheeran” editor R.R. Gopal after he was arrested on October 9.

“Nakkheeran” editor R.R. Gopal after he was arrested on October 9.

N. Ram, Chairman, THG Publishing Ltd. He told the court that the so-called offence did not qualify to be seen as an offence under Section 124 of the IPC.

N. Ram, Chairman, THG Publishing Ltd. He told the court that the so-called offence did not qualify to be seen as an offence under Section 124 of the IPC.

MDMK leader Vaiko sitting in protest on being prevented by the police from going near the police station where Gopal was taken, , in Chennai on October 9.

MDMK leader Vaiko sitting in protest on being prevented by the police from going near the police station where Gopal was taken, , in Chennai on October 9.

The Governor’s office invokes Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code against Nakkheeran magazine editor R.R. Gopal, but timely judicial intervention saves the day for press freedom.

IT is not every day that a magistrate, who is in the lowest rung of the judicial hierarchy, stands up to state power and protects media freedom. In early October, a local magistrate created shock waves in Tamil Nadu by refusing to remand a journalist arrested at the behest of the office of the Tamil Nadu Governor because his magazine carried news items which were not to the Governor’s liking.

No whim of Governor Banwarilal Purohit has ever been turned down by anyone in a position of power in the State—he has been holding review meetings in many districts (described by the benign term “familiarisation”), routinely conducting meetings with senior bureaucrats, and inspecting projects. Not once has any Minister in the government asked questions as to why the Governor is doing a job that they are supposed to be doing; in fact, Ministers, when questioned, have maintained that it was good that multiple inspections of projects were happening in the State.

On October 9, when R.R. Gopal, editor and publisher of Nakkheeran , a Tamil magazine, left his home at Jani Jahanikhan Road, Royapettah, Chennai, with a siddha doctor to go to Pune to meet an ailing friend, he did not realise that he would be a media sensation in the next one hour. “The police were there near my house but did not stop the vehicle in which I was travelling because it was not my usual car,” he said, recounting the drama that filled his day.

Nakkheeran Gopal, as he is popularly known, normally travels around in a white Ambassador, and the police team near his house missed arresting him there because they were waiting for the Ambassador to emerge from his house. Unaware of this, Gopal reached the airport and checked in for the 8:40 a.m. Indigo flight to Pune along with the doctor. He then chose to use the washroom near the Commercially Important Persons lounge “which is not used much”. As he was walking towards the washroom, Gopal said he noticed an Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) staffer hanging around. He exchanged pleasantries with the staffer. “Even at that time, I was wondering why an I.B. guy was hanging out there that early,” he said.

As soon as he came out of the washroom, an Assistant Commissioner of Police (A.C.), Vijayakumar, requested him to wait as a Deputy Commissioner (D.C.)-level officer wanted to “make an enquiry” with him. “I said that the flight was at 8:40 a.m., and that it was already past 8 a.m., and the A.C. said, no problem, we will take care of it. In the next few minutes, the Adyar D.C., G. Shashank Sai, along with about 20 policemen in civilian clothes closed in on me,” he said. The D.C. showed no warrant; he told Gopal that the enquiry would take a bit of time and told one of his juniors to take Gopal’s phone. In the next few minutes, Gopal was escorted to a waiting police vehicle outside, even while his doctor friend was inside the terminal. The doctor was later informed of this, but not the airline.

Gopal kept asking the police personnel for the details of the case, but in vain. Initially, it appeared as if Gopal was being taken to the central jail at Puzhal, but this was only a ploy by the police to put the media off their back. The police vehicle carrying Gopal took a circuitous route, and at 9:30 a.m. he was brought to the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Triplicane at Chintadripet, which also houses the Chintadripet police station.

The Chintadripet police station turned into a fortress in no time. All roads leading to it were barricaded and traffic was regulated. It seemed as if the police had caught a dreaded terrorist. A Joint Commissioner of Police, four D.Cs and a posse of police personnel were deployed and traffic was cut off on Arunachala Street, which leads to Egmore. No one, not even Gopal’s lawyers, were given access to him. “They were trying to figure out which police limit the case should be registered in,” said a lawyer who was part of Gopal’s defence team.

For some strange reason, though Gopal was arrested at the airport, the arrest was shown in Zam Bazaar police station, at another end of the city. The police apparently also debated the sections under which he should be held because one senior official felt that the section demanded by the Governor’s office (Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)—Assaulting President, Governor, etc., with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power) did not apply here.

Vaiko arrested

Meanwhile, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, who is also a lawyer, came to meet Gopal. He was denied entry by the police; he was not allowed anywhere near the police station. Vaiko tried to reason with the police personnel who were guarding the barricade outside the police station, but no one in uniform was in a mood to listen. After this attempt, Vaiko, along with his supporters, squatted on the road demanding the immediate release of Gopal. After a short while, Vaiko was taken into preventive custody.

But Vaiko’s presence and the manner in which he was treated alerted politicians in the State to the fact that there was a larger scheme in the arrest of Gopal. By noon, it became clear that Gopal was arrested by the city police on October 9 morning on a complaint given by the office of Tamil Nadu Governor. No details were available at that point.

Even as the drama surrounding the arrest of Gopal was going on in the airport, the Governor was hosting a breakfast for five promoters of the media. There was a lot of candid conversation. “The breakfast went on for more than an hour,” said N. Ram, Chairman, THG Publishing Private Limited, and former Editor of Frontline , who was at the breakfast. At no point did the Governor think it fit to inform the group of distinguished promoters that a fellow promoter-publisher had been arrested at his behest.

They realised what was happening only after they left the Raj Bhavan. Ram said he tried to get to both the police station and the hospital where Gopal had been taken for a preliminary check-up. But since both places had been heavily cordoned off, he and a few leaders of political parties headed to the 13th Metropolitan Magistrate Court, which was to hear the remand case.

Meanwhile, as the crowd of supporters of Vaiko and other opposition political parties grew outside the Chintadripet police station, the police decided to move Gopal. They surmised that if other leaders arrived at Chintadripet, they would not be able to move Gopal from there to another spot. So, at 1 p.m., the police allowed Gopal’s lawyer to meet him inside the police station and, later amidst tight security, took Gopal to the nearby Kasturibai Government Hospital in Triplicane for a mandatory medical check-up. Nearly 400 police vehicles followed the escort vehicle. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and Leader of the Opposition M.K. Stalin, accompanied by party treasurer Durai Murugan and former Union Minister A. Raja, met Gopal in the hospital.

Police vehicles muscled out all other vehicles from the roads leading to the hospital—Walajah Road, Anna Salai and EVR Salai—while Gopal was taken to the Metropolitan Magistrate Court campus in Lily Pond Complex. Nearly five and a half hours later, while he was being produced before the court, the police disclosed that Gopal had been arrested on a complaint from T. Sengottaiyan, Deputy Secretary to Governor and Comptroller of Household, Raj Bhavan, for publishing articles in his magazine in April linking the Governor and Nirmala Devi, a teacher of a private college who had been arrested in Virudhunagar on charges of luring college girls into a prostitution ring that involved some people in the field of higher education. The remand report stated that Gopal was booked under Section 124 of the IPC.

The Raj Bhavan, in its complaint to the Chennai Police Commissioner on October 6, wanted a case registered against the editor of Nakkheeran and every person listed in the magazine as working for him under Section 124 of the IPC. It is not clear whose idea it was to invoke the colonial era Section 124, but this was ostensibly done so that Gopal and others—some of whom had nothing to do with the article—could not claim “immunity” under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. It argued that the freedom of speech and expression was subject to “restrictions contained” under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The complaint named 32 journalists and employees of Nakkheeran and three distributors of the magazine.

Raj Bhavan’s ire was because of three articles published in the magazine in the past six months on the alleged role of the office of the Governor in the controversy surrounding the sex-for-favours scam. In April this year, Nirmala Devi, a senior faculty member of Madurai Kamaraj University, was arrested for allegedly luring female students to provide sexual favours. In an audio clip that was released, Nirmala Devi claimed that she knew the Governor, who was also the Chancellor of the university. However, Purohit denied any link with Nirmala Devi and ordered an inquiry into the scandal, even as the Tamil Nadu government had ordered an inquiry into the issue. Reports of both inquiries are not public. No one in government thought it fit to ask why the Governor ordered an inquiry when the State government had ordered one.

In the complaint, Sengottaiyan said that three articles published by the magazine in April and September this year were “clearly expressing their intention of inducing and compelling” Purohit from exercising “his lawful powers” as Governor. The articles were “defamatory” and “malicious”. Under Article 162 of the Constitution, the Governor could exercise executive powers of the state, it stated.

The Nakkheeran issue of April 20-22 had a “breaking news” item with the caption “Nakkheeran had belled the cat and Governor [was] caught in the trap and there was danger for Nirmala [Devi] in jail.” The article had Purohit’s photographs. This was cited as the reason to invoke Section 124 of the IPC. Another article in the April 23-25 issue read: “To protect Purohit, IPS Officer shifted”. The issue had another caption: “University Mysterious Bungalow.” It also said that “important personalities” were captured on CCTV and a statement was attributed to Nirmala Devi—“as though the Governor does not know me”. A third article, in the September 26-28 issue, had the captions—“four times I have met the Governor”, and “Danger awaits Nirmala Devi, who make[s] shocking revelation”. On page 6 of the issue, photographs of Nirmala Devi, Purohit and R. Rajagopal, Additional Chief Secretary to the Governor, were published.

The complaint identified Gopal as the author of the first article and C.N. Ramakrishnan as the author of the second. A photographer, Ramkumar, was also named, though he was in no way connected with the article. According to the complaint, Dhamodaran Prakash and Ramakrishnan were the authors of the third article.

The complaint stated that the 32 employees and three distributors of the magazine, despite the provisions under the Press and Registration of Books Act that nothing would be done against the state, had “conspired, connived and acted in concert, [and] got the Articles written, which are clearly expressing their intention of inducing and compelling His Excellency the Governor of State of Tamil Nadu to refrain from exercising his lawful powers”.

Gopal was produced before the XIII Metropolitan Magistrate S. Gopinathan at 2 p.m. P.T. Perumal, counsel for Gopal, opposed the arrest and said he should not be remanded. He added that there was no ingredient of offence as cited by the police for invoking Section 124. An assistant public prosecutor strongly argued for remanding Gopal.

Nakkheeran and propriety

Even as the arguments were on, the magistrate held up a recent issue of the magazine, which had the pictures of the Governor, Nirmala Devi and actor Karunaas, also a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and asked Perumal if this was journalism in the public interest. Stunned for a moment on a question of propriety in journalism, Perumal pointed to Ram, who was standing next to him, and told the magistrate that a senior journalist like Ram might be a good person to answer the question.

In an unprecedented act, the magistrate asked Ram if he had anything to say. Responding to the question that the magistrate had posed, Ram said he would not have carried such a picture, but the point here was that this did not qualify as an offence. Ram had three points to make: one, the so-called offence did not qualify to be seen as an offence under Section 124 of the IPC; two, if the magistrate went ahead with the remand it would set a bad precedent and others would be emboldened to take recourse to this archaic provision; and three, this would unnecessarily drag the office of the Governor and that of the President into needless controversy.

The government’s argument was that the articles affected the Governor psychologically. “My response to them is such a weak-minded President or Governor need not be in the hold of such a position. They can stay at home or do something else. If you are mentally affected by harsh criticisms then you are not fit for that post,” Ram said later.

“I was let inside the court. Everyone was clad in black gowns while I was wearing a light blue shirt. The magistrate asked my opinion on the case. I told him that it is not illegal and it does not violate any law. He asked me what I personally thought of the cover and I replied that I will not use such a picture as it does not meet our standards,” Ram said later. The Governor could have sent a clarification or rebuttal to Nakkheeran , Ram said.

After arguments that went on for two hours, Gopinathan passed a brief order stating that there was no ground for remanding Gopal under Section 124 of the IPC and stated that the detailed order would be passed later. Immediately after the order was delivered, the police personnel dispersed from the spot while Gopal walked away from the court premises a free man.

Cases against Gopal

Foisting cases on Gopal is nothing new for the government of Tamil Nadu whenever the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has been in power. Gopal, who has been acquitted in three murder cases, four cases of alleged kidnapping, and a case invoking the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, has now one more case to deal with. As of now, he has obtained stay orders in as many as 22 cases of defamation. Nakkheeran has also challenged Section 499 of the IPC (defamation).

“We carried a news item saying Nirmala Devi’s life is in danger. We have been following the Nirmala Devi case for a long time. In fact, we are the only ones following it that closely,” he told Frontline , adding that he believed that this was true to the best of his knowledge. “I am a responsible person. There is this case against me. I will have to face it. Only if I prove my stand will I finally be acquitted. I am not a person who will write something and escape to a hiding place.”

The journalist fraternity was quick to condemn the Raj Bhavan’s act. A statement signed by senior journalists, editors, publishers and senior representatives of the print, broadcast and digital media in Tamil Nadu strongly condemned “the draconian use of Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code against the Editor and Publisher of Nakkheeran magazine, Mr Nakkheeran Gopal, for publishing in the issue dated April 20-22, 2018, an allegedly offensive article about the Governor of Tamil Nadu. The invocation of Section 124 IPC to attempt to prosecute an Editor for publishing an allegedly objectionable article is unprecedented and unheard of. This section deals with assaulting the President, Governors, etc. with an intent to compel or restrain by criminal force the exercise of any lawful power by them. It is most unfortunate that the office of the Governor sought that a case be registered under Section 124 IPC against Mr Gopal and several others.”

The statement said:

“The intention of the Government of Tamil Nadu in invoking this section against the media is highly disturbing. It is a clear attempt to intimidate and gag the media. If allowed, it will be a deadly blow to the freedom of speech and expression, of which the freedom of the news media is an integral part. The manner in which the arrest of Mr Gopal was executed was in flagrant violation of the guidelines stipulated by the Supreme Court of India.

“The silver lining in the otherwise dark cloud that has gathered over the media in Tamil Nadu was the rejection of the remand application by the learned Thirteenth Metropolitan Magistrate, Mr S. Gopinathan, after hearing the arguments on both sides in detail. This is the finest tribute to the independence of the judiciary and to its commitment to upholding the freedom of the media, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of India. We demand the immediate withdrawal of this case against Mr Gopal and others referred to in the complaint.”

The statement was signed by Ram; B. Srinivasan, Editor and Publisher Ananda Vikatan , and Managing Director, Vikatan Group; K. Ramusubbu, Editor, Dinamalar ; L. Ramasubbu, Publisher, Dinamalar , Madurai and Coimbatore; L. Adimoolam, Publisher, Coimbatore, Dinamalar ; S. Karthigaichelvan, Managing Editor, Puthiya Thalaimurai TV ; R.M. Ramesh, Publisher, Dinakaran ; Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor, The Hindu ; M. Gunasekaran, Editor, News 18 Tamilnadu ; Bhagwan Singh, Editor, Deccan Chronicle ; and Arun Ram, Editor, The Times of India , Chennai.

A new day, a new battle

Nakk heeran’ s edition after the arrest drama, which was out on October 17, had a yellow cover page. The two main stories flashed on its cover had a direct connection with the Governor.

One was about officials transferred out for not stopping the publication of Nakkheeran , and another on the change of Nirmala Devi’s confessional statement. Inside, Gopal has this riposte for “Those who call [us] yellow magazine”: “ Nakkheeran will not quit the investigative journey to uncover the truth.”

The battle is truly on with a Governor obsessed with closing down Nakkheeran on one side and a bunch of journalists of one publication on the other. This is familiar terrain for Gopal, though.

Media

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 09, 2018.)

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