The Andhra Pradesh government’s controversial order which empowers secretaries to sue media came up for debate in the Assembly on Thursday. While the opposition demanded that the order must be cancelled in the interest of protecting democracy and freedom of the press, Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy dismissed the criticism. Jagan said that anyone who can comprehend the English language cannot find any faults with the order, and stated that the government has ‘a democratic right to protect its image.’
The fourth day of the winter session of the state Assembly began with a protest led by the Telugu Desam Party against curbs on press freedom. TDP leaders protested the ban on three Telugu television channels in the Legislature Complex, and demanded that the controversial government order (GO) 2430 must be revoked. Calling the order a gag on media, TDP leaders protested at the fire station near the secretariat, with black bands covering their eyes and mouths.
It was on October 30 that the controversial GO was issued, after the state Cabinet decided to authorise secretaries of various departments in the government to sue media houses for 'defamatory, baseless and false' reports. The move evoked protests from journalists' unions, civil society organisations and opposition parties. The ruling party then defended the move by saying that it has only decentralised the powers previously vested with the Commissioner of Information and Public Relations. The government had also argued that the filing of cases will be the last resort. It said that the process will start with issuing a rejoinder to the concerned media house to point out the ‘false’ information, and only if the ‘correction’ is not carried will a defamation case be filed. The clarifications had failed to allay the apprehensions among the journalist community that the powers will be misused to target media houses, especially those critical of the government or ruling party.
In response to the opposition’s demands to cancel the order, CM Jagan mocked TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu saying he must be unable to understand English. “I wonder if he (Naidu) has even read the order. Maybe he read it and still did not understand it, because of a failure in understanding the English language,” Jagan said. Jagan went on read out part of the order, stating that anyone who understands English cannot possibly find fault with it.
“What is so wrong in this order? If anyone, anywhere carries false, baseless and defamatory news in an unfair manner with malafide intent, the concerned department secretaries have the power to issue rejoinders, file complaints, and also lodge appropriate cases if need be through a public prosecutor after following due process of law. The secretaries can take action if their own image, and their department’s and the government’s image is tarnished,” Jagan said.
Jagan went on to suggest that the YSRCP government has been treated unfairly, and thus needs to take this measure to ‘protect its image’. “The other side can write and show false and made up news, and the concerned government officials and department secretaries must take the bad name and keep quiet?” he asked. Jagan also commented on certain Telugu newspapers considered to be favourable to Naidu and the TDP, saying, “Just because he is close to Eenadu and Andhrajyothi, and they write articles in his support, the government must keep quiet, lying down? Is there no justice? Justice means, if someone writes something false about me, I have the right to protect my image. It’s a democratic right and freedom. With that right, I can give rejoinders and file defamation cases,” the CM said.
Incidentally, Jagan also happens to own the Sakshi media group, which includes Sakshi TV and Sakshi Publications. The CM’s wife YS Bharati Reddy is the chairperson of the group.
Naidu condemned the ruling party’s refusal to engage with any protests or opposition on the matter, saying, “Allowing protests is the spirit of democracy, not filing false cases. We need to save democracy and press freedom.” He lamented the fact that no placards or banners were being allowed into the Assembly. “They even asked us to remove the ribbons we had worn to symbolise our protest,” Naidu said, reminding the YSRCP leaders of their own Assembly protests for special category status back in 2016, when they were in opposition. “In 2016, they (YSRCP leaders) protested, creating a war atmosphere. Now we are not allowed to register protest,” Naidu said.
Responding to Jagan’s jibe on English language comprehension, Naidu said, “I have an MA from Sri Venkateswara University. I’d like to know where he (Jagan) got his degree from so we can also learn better English like him.”
Naidu went on to point out that the order has been criticised by journalists across the country. Several senior journalists, and even the Press Council of India have condemned the Andhra Pradesh government for the move. “At a national level, journalists have slammed the order, do they also not know English?” he asked.
The Andhra Pradesh High Court recently issued a notice to the state government over the order. After hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the order and dubbing it 'illegal, arbitrary and unconstitutional', the court asked the state government to file a counter affidavit.
Apart from GO 2430, the TDP also protested the ban on certain channels from entering the Legislature complex. While the Speaker has instructed that the three channels, ABN, TV5 and ETV must not be allowed into the Legislative Assembly, the TDP questioned the extension of the ban to the Legislative Council as well. Earlier in November, Rajya Sabha MP and YSRCP General Secretary Vijayasai Reddy had demanded the cancellation of Parliament passes for Andhrajyothi and Eenadu. Vijayasai Reddy alleged that both media houses had spread misinformation on the proceedings of a recent all-party meeting, maligning him.