Muzzling criticism

Print edition : January 08, 2016

The cover of the issue in contention. Photo: By Special Arrangement

S. Balasubramanian, former editor of Ananda Vikatan. Photo: K. Pichumani

Editor R. Kannan. Photo: By Special Arrangement

DMDK leader Vijayakanth. Photo: A SHAIKMOHIDEEN

Folk singer Kovan.

Ananda Vikatan, a popular Tamil weekly, is the latest target of the series of defamation cases filed by the Tamil Nadu government, which has come in for criticism by the Supreme Court.

WHEN Ananda Vikatan, a popular Tamil magazine founded in 1926, decided to run a 30-week series titled Manthiri, Tanthiri (Minister, Trickster), a critical performance appraisal of Ministers of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in Tamil Nadu headed by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, there were fears among the magazine’s senior journalists that the series would not go down well with the ruling dispensation in the State.

Their fears came true when the series ended in the November 25 issue with a detailed account of the Chief Minister’s performance. Soon, the magazine started receiving calls and messages of an intimidatory nature from anonymous groups and individuals.

Then came a defamation case filed by the Chief Minister herself against the magazine’s editor and publisher, R. Kannan.

This was one of the many defamation cases filed by the government against the media and political rivals in recent times.

On November 30, the Supreme Court advised the State to stop taking criticism of governance as a personal insult.

The bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C. Pant gave the advice while hearing a petition filed by Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) leader Vijayakanth against a criminal defamation case filed by the government. The bench also expressed curiosity about the number of criminal defamation cases from Tamil Nadu.

The same bench had just heard and reserved for judgment a batch of petitions from Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy and others that asked the court to declare criminal defamation “unconstitutional”.

“These kind of cases are mostly coming from this State... why? You have to understand that these comments are criticism of a concept of governance. There is nothing against an individual.... why this criminal defamation then?” Justice Misra asked the State government. The government sought more time to file a reply.

A senior journalist with Ananda Vikatan claimed that the police had reportedly threatened agents, vendors, distributors and even stall owners from selling the issue dated November 25. In a few places, they seized its copies. In other places, bulk purchases of the issue, both from ruling party cadres and their adversaries, were reported. The issue sold out within 24 hours of hitting the stands.

The magazine received two more defamation notices from Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet colleagues and a few letters of denial and clarifications from others whose performance had been written about.

These cases were registered under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for publishing what they called “defamatory” articles. Under Section 500 of the IPC, whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term that may extend to two years, or a fine, or with both.

A couple of days after the issue was published, the magazine’s official Facebook page was suspended. “The party cadres are the suspects [behind getting the page suspended],” the senior journalist said.

Kannan said the magazine’s commitment to society kept the series going without a break for 30 issues. “We are not new to intimidatory tactics. We have a strong journalistic tradition of social responsibility. We have never encouraged any attempt to trample upon our sovereign rights enshrined in the Constitution. We will face them legally,” he said. The magazine has been the torchbearer of press freedom in the past, warding off intimidation and courageously facing any attack on freedom of expression launched by the disgruntled and intolerant political class.

Issue of March 29, 1987

The arrest of former Managing Editor S. Balasubramanian for publishing a cartoon in its issue of March 29, 1987, lampooning politicians and lawmakers as pickpockets and dacoits is part of folklore in the State.

When Balasubramanian refused to apologise for publishing the cartoon, saying that only “those with a troubled conscience would get angry”, the then Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, Peter Hector Pandian, claimed to have “sky-high” powers and sentenced him to three months’ rigorous imprisonment on April 4, 1987. He was released two days later, on April 6, after the intervention of the then Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, but he challenged it before the Madras High Court.

In 1994, a full bench of the High Court held that the sentence was wrong and awarded him Rs.1,000 as compensation. The court held that the imposition of the sentence was unconstitutional and void in law.

Balasubramnian photocopied the cheque, which he cashed “to make the government poorer for its act of intolerance”, and displayed it, two Rs.500 notes, and a few newspaper clippings in his office as a proud trophy.

Tamil Nadu’s ruling class has never camouflaged its antipathy to dissent. Its attempts to gag the press and freethinking, both essential instruments for a vibrant democracy, have been blatant, be it the filing of criminal defamation cases or the invoking of the breach of legislature privileges or the archaic sedition laws.

The State has never hesitated to muzzle voices of dissent, be it political leaders like Vaiko of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, or Vijayakanth, or even a folk singer like Kovan, who is facing sedition and defamation charges for singing anti-liquor songs.

Recently, the Supreme Court dismissed the Tamil Nadu government’s plea challenging a Madras High Court order that quashed a lower court’s order of two-day police custody against Kovan for singing about the ills of liquor and criticising the State-run liquor shops for ruining the lives of the youth and the poor.

Kovan, 44, was arrested in Tiruchi on October 30 and charged with sedition for uploading defamatory video content against Jayalalithaa causing “hatred for and disaffection with the government”. The State government termed the singer a “habitual offender involved in committing offences against the government”. The police claimed that he had links with naxalites.

The Madras High Court pulled up the State government for charging the singer under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, already struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Subsequently, a Chennai Sessions Judge granted Kovan bail in November.

Privilege powers

The Tamil Nadu Assembly also never misses an opportunity to invoke its privilege powers whenever it feels its privileges are being breached. There have been occasions when its privileges panel even defied court rulings. In the 1980s, the apex court passed a stricture against the panel over an issue that led to the breach of privilege involving the then editor of Dinakaran, a Tamil daily.

Balasubramanian was not the first editor to be punished. The State Assembly, on July 1, 1985, sentenced A.M. Paulraj, editor of a trade magazine called Vaniga Ottrumai (Unity of Traders), to two weeks’ simple imprisonment “for having committed a breach of the privilege of the House”.

In another incident, in April 1992, during Jayalalithaa’s first term as Chief Minister, Speaker Sedapatti R. Muthiah issued arrest warrants against K.P. Sunil, former correspondent of The Illustrated Weekly of India, for his article headlined “Tamil Nadu Assembly Fast Gaining Notoriety”, in the issue dated September 27, 1991, and S.K.I. Sunther, editor of Kovai Malai Murasu, for breach of privilege.

The Supreme Court stayed the arrest warrant on Sunil and referred it to a three-member Constitution Bench, which in turn referred it back to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1997.

By then the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was in power and Speaker P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan dropped the proceedings against the journalist. But the government’s intolerance resurfaced in 2003, with Jayalalithaa back in power.

It was The Hindu which was the target this time. On April 23 and April 30, Speaker K. Kalimuthu referred three reports that appeared in the daily on April 12, 13 and 23 and an editorial on intolerance published on April 25 to the Privileges Committee for tarnishing “the name and goodwill of the government” and for the use of “derogatory words, with ulterior motives, which affected the privileges of the House”.

The Speaker sentenced five senior staff members of the newspaper, including Managing Director and Publisher S. Rangarajan, Editor N. Ravi and Executive Editor Malini Parthasarathy, to 15 days’ simple imprisonment for the alleged breach of privilege. The newspaper approached the Supreme Court, which stayed the arrest warrants.

The Hindu faced 16 criminal defamation cases besides a civil defamation suit in 2003. Jayalalithaa later withdrew the defamation cases and also announced the withdrawal of cases in connection with the privilege issue after moving in a resolution on the floor of the Assembly on July 30, 2004. According to a report, in 2003, 82 defamation cases were filed against mediapersons and politicians.

During the AIADMK regime of 1991-96, 140 defamation cases were registered against media organisations and journalists, including India Today, the Tamil magazines Kalki and Nakkeeran and the DMK party mouthpiece Murasoli for “casting aspersions” on the government.

The DMK, too, has had its share of run-ins with the media. It was during the DMK regime in the early 1970s that attempts were made to ban the screening of Cho Ramasamy’s Tamil film Muhammed bin Thuglaq, a political satire. Cho Ramasamy faced three defamation cases during the DMK regime and one when the AIADMK was in power, though he was acquitted in all of them.

Intolerant attitude

This intolerant attitude of successive governments has opened up a serious debate on the indiscriminate use of Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC, the Sedition Act, and the issue of legislative privileges. A document by the People's Union for Civil Liberties titled Freedom of the Press, in its bulletin in July 1982, claimed that the State government had been the main threat to a free press.

“A persistent attempt to curb press freedom, however, really began only after 1969. Indira Gandhi [then Prime Minister] felt that the press was too critical of her ways and she sought to change its approach,” it said.

It further said that the codification of legislative privileges should be such that the legislature should only be permitted to file a complaint, leaving decisions on contempt and punishment to be awarded to the courts.

“The idea of the legislature being both the accuser and the judge is fundamentally an unjust approach,” it said.

Speaking to Frontline, Kannan said the right to freedom of expression subject to certain conditions was the fulcrum of democracy.

“A free and vigilant press is vital for a vibrant democracy. Though the legislature is vested with wide powers on the issue of breach of privileges, they should not be used to intimidate and muzzle the press. Similarly, slapping defamation cases primarily to intimidate and gag the press and free voices is undemocratic,” he said.

Kannan also said the series in question was read widely.

“It is a complete scan of the performance of a government elected by the people. We have included the election promises, welfare announcements, budget allocations, etc., in each Ministry and also the present status. It is just a four-year compilation and validation of the performance of the State government. We never blamed anyone. It is to be taken positively and objectively for self-evaluation. But, unfortunately, it is taken in the wrong way,” he said.

He denied that there was anything that could be construed as defamatory or derogatory in these reports.

“It is not a complaint list. Besides, a government and its members should be easily approachable in a democracy. But that is not the case today. There is neither an effective communication nor any interaction among various agencies of public interest. When the State government used [the] police against us, we had to issue a clarification denouncing the act. We will continue to remain committed to the people in our 90th year,” Kannan said.