Filing cases against editors and journalists has been routine for many governments and allowed as per the law, but the Tamil Nadu government takes it a step further and files cases even against ‘newsreaders’

news Saturday, January 17, 2015 - 05:30
Dhanya Rajendran| the News Minute| July 28, 2014| 2.10 pm IST In June this year, a day after the building collapse in Chennai which killed 62 people, Tamil newspaper Dinamalar carried an article exposing how two government orders relaxing construction norms had allowed the builders to construct a 12-floor building on a narrow road. The article detailed the government orders and argued that without the connivance of government officials, the building would never have come up in the first place******* On August 25, 2012, the Chennai edition of The Times of India carried an article on increasing number of accidents in Tamil Nadu, titled 'Tamil Nadu gives its drivers a license to kill '. The article was on increasing accidents in Tamil Nadu and poor punitive action against erring drivers. ******** The two reports above should have ideally made the government order an enquiry on its officials and take corrective action. Instead, the Jayalalithaa government filed criminal defamation cases against the publications. Her previous stint as CM also saw her using criminal defamation as a tool against media, critics and political opponents. During her previous term (2002- 2006), the Jayalalithaa government filed almost 120 criminal defamation cases against the media. The DMK, often at the receiving end of these cases, then filed more than 40 defamation cases against the media during its tenure (2006-2011). At last count, the current Tamil Nadu government has filed 75 criminal defamation cases against the media in various session courts in Chennai. There are no numbers on how many have been filed in district courts. The first case filed by the current Jayalalithaa regime was against The Hindu and Tamil magazine Nakkeeran in January 2012. This was for an article that termed the chief minister a ‘beef-eater’. Nakkeeran had first carried the article, and The Hindu had published a translation. Since then, in the last two and half years, cases have been filed against TV channels, newspapers and magazines for stories questioning the administration and those not toeing the “official line.” The media has also been taken to task for publishing statements by political opponents. A case was filed against the Times of India for carrying a statement by DMK leader MK Stalin; another against The Hindu for publishing an interview with DMDK leader Vijayakanth in which he alleged that the Chief Minister was retreating to her bungalow in Kodanadu, Ooty to take rest. The government has also sued those who printed speculative political stories. In August 2012, the Tamil edition of India Today carried a story on the state’s cabinet reshuffle. It speculated how a minister was allegedly shunted out on Jayalalithaa aide Sasikala’s insistence. There have been cases against Tamil magazines for publishing interviews of people claiming to be related to the Chief Minister. Tamil bi-weekly Junior Vikatan has been sued multiple times for such interviews with people claiming to be Jayalalithaa’s daughter, sister, etc. While the number of cases filed in courts in Chennai have been accounted for and the number now stands at 75, there is no clear data on the increasing number of cases being filed in district courts. Some boil down to the inane – in 2013, a case was filed against Times Now by a noon meal scheme employee (under instructions from the Vellore collector) for a report on rotten eggs in the meals. “There are many cases being filed in district courts by ministers, government employees etc. No one knows whether these cases have been given a green signal by the government. Almost everyone seems to be opting for criminal defamation,” says an Editor of a leading Tamil daily. Filing cases against editors and journalists has been routine for many governments and allowed as per the law, but the Tamil Nadu government takes it a step further and files cases even against ‘newsreaders’. Most Tamil news channels do not have news anchors that perform live and improvise as news happens. They merely have newsreaders who read out scripts written by the editorial team. Cases have been filed recently against newsreaders of Captain TV (channel owned by Vijayakanth), who read out developments on the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa. Why criminal and not civil defamation Interestingly, every single case filed by the TN government is that of criminal defamation and not civil. Criminal defamation under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) makes it a criminal offense, and Section 500 of the IPC prescribes the punishment as two years imprisonment or fines, or both. Once a criminal defamation case is filed, summons is issued to the editor, journalist and others named to appear before the court. “The government doesn’t want to see any logical end to these cases, the purpose is simply to drag everyone to court multiple times”, another editor told The News Minute. In fact criminal defamation cases have become so routine that most media houses now appear in court after their first summons, then approach the High Court for putting a stay on the case. “The first question an HC judge asks is if we appeared in court once, and when the answer is in the affirmative, a stay is granted almost immediately,” a reporter who has two defamation cases against him told The News Minute. Criminal defamations are being filed on a weekly basis not just against the media, but against political opponents too. In April 2013, the Tamil Nadu chief minister said, "Generally, persons in public life, especially those involved in politics, and that too leaders of political parties, should measure their words. If they end up speaking all that they desire, they have to face the cases." Though that may be the government's tool to take on opponents who criticise policies/decisions for their own political mileage, it however needs to distinguish between political opportunism and reportage. In November 2013, Madras High Court judge, Justice K K Sasidharan, while staying a defamation case against the Times of India said, "The Press has got a solemn duty to expose misdeeds, corruption mismanagement of public funds and maladministration. The Press is expected to act as the watchdog of the government in power. The Press, by publishing a news item or expressing its views on a particular matter, would only be discharging its duty to the government and governed. Criticism made in a bona fide manner must be accepted. It would help to correct the mistakes.” The problem that most media houses face is that defamation cases are being filed not just under the instructions from the Chief Minister’s office, but across the cabinet by many ministers too. “If a story is filed critiquing the transport ministry, the transport minister files a case. Similarly, many other ministers too are doing the same,” an editor of a newspaper told The News Minute. “Some cases have been filed against articles that are purely speculative and borders on being ridiculous. The state or any person has every right to file cases. But in many cases, genuine reports that should have been a wakeup call for the government have been targeted. We even doubt the Chief Minister knows about many of these cases. Lawyers are vying to file cases and every time she enquires about any media report most of her ministers just tell her – “Case pottachu Amma”. (We have filed a case, Amma).”
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