Karnataka Assembly sentences two editors to jail, but this is hardly the first time

Neighbouring Tamil Nadu has a long history of using breach of privilege against journalists.
Karnataka Assembly sentences two editors to jail, but this is hardly the first time
Karnataka Assembly sentences two editors to jail, but this is hardly the first time
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Karnataka Assembly Speaker KB Koliwad sentenced two editors of Kannada tabloids to one year imprisonment and slapped them with a fine of Rs 10,000 each for defamatory articles on Wednesday.

"The State Assembly has decided to punish the two journalists of Kannada tabloids for publishing defamatory articles against legislators," Koliwad announced on the floor of the House, reported PTI.

The two editors are Ravi Belagere of Hi Bangalore and Anil Raju of Yelahanka Voice. While Hi Bangalore had allegedly published defamatory articles against Congress MLA from Siraguppa BM Nagaraj, while Yelahanka Voice had featured defamatory articles against BJP MLA from Yelahanka SR Viswanath.

The two MLAs had filed a complaint with the Privileges Committee in the Assembly. Following an investigation over several sessions, the Privileges Committee had recommended the one year sentence of the two editors.  

“Even after coming before the committee and apologising, Anil Raju continued to publish defamatory articles with mocking pictures,” reads the Privileges Committee order.

In one follow-up article, the Yelahanka Voice went on to call SR Viswanath mentally ill.  

Following a unanimous resolution passed by the Karnataka Assembly on Wednesday, Speaker Koliwad said, “I approve the recommendation of the privilege committee which had recommended a year's imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000 on Hi Bangalore and Yelahanka Voice editors.”

The speaker also announced that if the two editors fail to pay the fine of Rs 10,000 each, they can be punished for an additional six months.

The two journalists do have grounds for appeal and can challenge the Assembly’s sentence against them.

Breach of privilege

Article 194 of the Indian Constitution provides privileges to the state legislature, its members and committees, while Article 105 covers the same for Parliament and its members. While the Constitution provides privileges such as freedom of speech in state legislature/Parliament, immunity to proceedings in court for anything said in the legislature/ Parliament, the House also has power to punish.

“Each House is the guardian of its own privileges. Courts of law have recognised that a House of Parliament (or of a state legislature) is the sole authority to judge as to whether or not there has been a breach of privilege or contempt of the House in a particular case. The House may punish a person found guilty of breach of privilege or contempt of the House either by reprimand or admonition or by imprisonment for a specified period,” states Indian Express.

Anything that obstructs the functioning or is in contempt of the House, its members and committees constitutes breach of privilege, reported IE quoting Constitutional Expert Subash Kashyap.

TN’s long history of using breach of privilege against journalists

Wednesday’s order against the two scribes, however, is not new to neighbouring Tamil Nadu, where the government has on several occasions attempted to muzzle the media.

In April 1987, Tamil weekly editor S Balasubramanian was sentenced to three months’ rigorous imprisonment for a cartoon that had been published. The caricatured that featured two “villainous-looking individuals” was published with the caption that stated “the one who looks like a pickpocket is a member of the legislative assembly and the one like a dacoit is a minister”, reported India Today.  

The cartoon earned the wrath of the MGR government, with then Finance Minister VR Nedunchezhian moving a resolution to sentence the editor to three months’ imprisonment when Balasubramanian refused to issue an apology.

While the Ananda Vikatan was picked up by the police within three hours of the Assembly resolution being passed, India Today reports that his arrest sparked a battle between the fourth estate and the MGR government.

Prior to Balasubramanian’s sentencing and order, the TN Assembly Speaker had in July 1985 sentenced the editor of Tamil traders’ journal Vaniga Otrumai, AM Paulraj, to two weeks' simple imprisonment for an allegedly derogatory piece carried two years earlier.

But the state Assembly’s action against journalists continued post MGR. During Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s tenure, in April 1992, Speaker Sedapatti R Muthiah issued an arrest warrant against journalist KP Sunil of the Illustrated Weekly of India for an article headlined "Tamil Nadu Assembly Fast Gaining Notoriety". “The House found that the article violated its privilege,” reported Frontline.

While Sunil challenged the order at the Supreme Court, which stayed his arrest warrant, the proceedings against him were eventually dropped in 1997 when the DMK had returned to power.

In September 1992, in what was a first for the Tamil Nadu Assembly, S Selvam, the editor of DMK mouthpiece Murasoli and party chief M Karunanidhi’s nephew, was brought to the Bar of the Assembly and reprimanded. This after the Privileges Committee found him guilty of violating the privileges of the House by publishing distorted versions of the proceedings, reported Frontline.

Two years later, in May 1994, the Assembly Speaker issued a warrant to arrest A Muthupandian, the Editor of Tamil newspaper Dinakaran, reversing its earlier move to drop the issue. The Speaker had then chosen to ignore the Madras High Court’s notices, on the grounds that the “Assembly could not subject itself to the Jurisdiction of the Court.”   

In November 2003, once again during Jayalalithaa’s regime, the Tamil Nadu Assembly sentenced the Publisher S Rangarajan, the Editor N Ravi, the Executive Editor Malini Parthasarathy and two journalists V Jayanth and Radha Venkatesan of The Hindu, and the Editor of Murasoli to 15 days simple imprisonment for alleged breach of privilege of the House and for alleged contempt of the House.

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