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Mainstream, VOL L, No 15, March 31, 2012

Need for a National Legislation for Journalists’ Protection

Monday 2 April 2012, by Prabhakar Kulkarni

Press freedom in our country is not a special privilege of journalists. It is the general principle of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution for all citizens that is being enjoyed by journalists as citizens. In the absence of any special provision and privilege, no special protection for journalists is available today on the basis of any specific legislation.

Whether or not special freedom needs to be given to journalists may be a matter of different opinions. But special protection should be given as journalists are attacked, killed and their offices are ransacked by dissatisfied activists mostly belonging to socio-political organisations or criminal elements. Madhya Pradesh journalist Chandrika Rai and his family members were recently killed allegedly by the local mining mafia. Earlier the office of a Marathi daily in Mumbai was ransacked by activists and followers of a political personality in Maharashtra. There are a number of other incidents of similar attacks and the journalists’ fraternity is consistently demanding urgent legislation for protection.

But whether the legislation should be at the State level or national level has not yet been firmly decided by the Union Government. An effort to decide the issue at the State level seems to have been foiled in the case of Maharashtra. At a recent discussion held on the occasion of an attack on the office of the Maharashtra Times some glaring instances of prohibitive factors against the State legislation have come to light. The committee appointed for the purpose prepared the recommen-datory draft of the Bill which has not yet been pressed for further action. The State Chief Minister, Prithi-viraj Chavan, has reportedly disclosed that most of the political parties were not in favour of the legislation although individually they expressed their support to the proposed Bill. The demand for legislation is being pressed for the last several years and why the political parties are afraid of the legislation is difficult to understand. The legislation is urgently needed as the assaults on journalists and newspapers not only in metro cities like Mumbai but also at district and rural places are increasing by the day. All tactics of allurement or threats and attacks are being used to bring pressure on journalists in semi-urban and rural areas in the country.

INSTEAD of relying on the States for the legislation, the Union Government should take the initiative to pass a Central Act which will be binding on all States. It would be similar to the Right to Infor-mation Act which has been passed by Parliament and the rules under the Act are made applicable to all States in the country. This is more so because political rulers in the States do not belong to one party and there may be differences about the proposed legislation both in principle as also in regard to the provisions in the Act. It is there-fore better to let Parliament discuss the issue in detail and from all aspects so that a compre-hensive Act of Protection of Journalists is passed and journalists’ fraternity in the country would feel safe with the certainty that they are protected by statutory provisions under the Act.
The assignment to prepare a draft of the Central Act may well be entrusted to the chief of the Press Council of India, ex-SC Judge Markan-deya Katju, who has been quite vocal and critical about the role of the government when press people and their offices are attacked. He has gone to the extreme point of demanding dismissal of the Maharashtra Government for its failure to protect journalists and their offices with reference to Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. As the Chairman of the Press Council, he seems to be a pioneer in showing courage of conviction and critical interpretation of journalists’ rights and freedom of press. If he is entrusted with the task to prepare a draft for the Central legislation by forming a committee for the purpose the proposed Act, it will certainly be quite appropriate and in conformity with the required safety measures for the protection of journalists and punitive provisions for the Act’s violation.

The decision for the legislation should be taken forthwith and the appointment of the committee for the purpose needs urgent consideration so that the relevant Bill for the Act may well be brought in the ongoing Budget session of Parliament itself.

The author is a senior journalist based in Kolhapur in southern Maharashtra.

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