Law to protect journalists

Print edition : May 12, 2017

ON April 7, both Houses of the Maharashtra State Legislature passed a law to protect journalists, making it the first State in the country to pass such a law. It was the result of a relentless struggle for several years by mediapersons who faced attacks in the line of duty, the Mumbai Press Club and the Patrakar Halla Virodhi Kriti Samiti (Action Committee Against Attacks on Journalists).

In its statement of objectives, the Maharashtra Mediapersons and Media Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2017, explains that a special law was required to defend journalists “on account of the rampant instances of violence and attacks against mediapersons and damage or loss to the property of media institutions”.

The Bill was passed on the last day of the Budget session in which the opposition parties were absent.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said there had been increasing violence against journalists and media houses. Ironically, Fadnavis’ partner in government, the Shiv Sena, has been at the forefront in attacking the media.

Under the Act, all attacks on mediapersons and media houses in the State would be treated as “cognisable and non-bailable” offences and the cases would be tried by a First Class Judicial Magistrate. Any person committing, abetting, instigating or provoking any violent act against mediapersons or media houses shall be punished with up to three years in jail or a fine of Rs.50,000 or both.

Conversely, the law also says that if a false complaint is filed by a mediaperson, the complainant can also be tried and given the same punishment.

A police officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police shall investigate such offences.

Offenders will be liable to pay compensation for damage caused to property of mediapersons or media houses, as decided by the court, and to reimburse the medical expenses incurred by the mediapersons. If the compensation and medical expenses are not paid, they would be recovered as arrears of land revenue.

The Act defines a media institution as “any registered newspaper establishment, news channel establishment, news-based electronic media establishment or news stations”.

A mediaperson has been defined as a person whose principal vocation is that of a journalist, who is employed on regular or contract basis, as an editor, news editor, sub-editor, reporter, correspondent, cartoonist, news photographer, television cameraman, leader-writer, feature writer, copy tester or proof reader.

Violence is described as an act which causes or may cause any harm, injury or endangering the life of a mediaperson during the discharge of duty as a mediaperson or causing damage or loss of property belonging to any mediaperson or media institution.

Although new media such as news websites have not been expressly mentioned in the Act, it does consider online periodical work containing public news or comments on public news as newspapers. In the same way, news-based electronic media also find a place as any media that uses electronic devices for news-related matters.

IPC sections repeated

One criticism of the new law is that it repeats sections in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Both Section 326, which deals with voluntarily causing grievous hurt, and Section 307, which covers attempt to murder, offer the same provisions as the new law. In fact, the existing IPC sections extend the punishment up to life imprisonment while the new law stops at three years in prison.

The Act is also unclear with regard to stringers and freelancers. There needs to be a specific mention of these categories of newspersons, especially for those who work outside urban areas.

Freelance journalists who operate from rural areas have always been particularly defenceless since they are not backed by any organisation nor do they enjoy the professional networks of their urban counterparts.

Attacks on journalists have been on the rise both nationally and internationally. The 2016 “World Press Freedom Index” released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that there has been a persistent and disturbing decline regionally and globally as far as media freedom was concerned. On safety of journalists, the report ranked India 133 out of 180 countries.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide and defends “the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal”, more than 40 journalists in India have been killed in the line of duty since 1992. This number is besides those who have been beaten, threatened or intimidated in any other way.

Lyla Bavadam

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