Amnesty International India on Friday asked for the withdrawal of a resolution passed by the Karnataka Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, where it had sentenced two journalists to a year’s imprisonment for alleged defamation.
Karnataka Assembly Speaker KB Koliwad on Wednesday had imposed a one-year jail term and a fine of Rs 10,000 each on Anil Raj and Ravi Belagere, the editors of two local tabloids that had allegedly published defamatory articles on two MLAs. Raj of Yalahanka Voice had published an article on BJP MLA Vishwanath, while Belagere of Kannada weekly Hi Bangalore had published an article on Shiraguppa Congress MLA Nagaraj.
“Journalists must have the freedom to write critical articles, and politicians must be able to tolerate criticism,” said Asmita Basu, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India. “If individuals feel that their reputations have been affected, they can take recourse to civil defamation remedies in court.”
Koliwad had announced the punishment after a privileges committee for inquiry, headed by Yelahanka MLA SR Vishwanath, recommended punitive action against the editors. Koliwad had said that the editors would have to serve an additional six months in jail if they failed to pay the fine. Indian law allows for the Parliament and state legislatures to impose punishments for “breach of privilege” for acts deemed to interfere with their work.
“All persons have a right to trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal. Breach of privilege laws allow politicians to become judges in their own cause, raising concerns of conflict of interest and violating basic fair trial guarantees. These laws must go,” added Basu.
The UN Human Rights Committee has noted that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to which India is a state party – protects criticism of all public figures, and has said, “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
It has expressed concern on laws on matters such as “disrespect for authority, disrespect for flags and symbols, defamation of the head of state and the protection of the honour of public officials”.
Similar incidents have happened in India in the past. In 1992, editor Tarun Bharat was summoned and reprimanded for his article against the House. However, no punitive action was taken against his publication.
In April 1987, Tamil weekly editor S Balasubramanian was sentenced to three months’ rigorous imprisonment for a cartoon, reported India Today. It had mocked a member of the legislative assembly and a minister. Prior to that, the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker had sentenced the editor of Tamil traders’ journal Vaniga Otrumai, AM Paulraj, to two weeks’ imprisonment for an allegedly derogatory piece in July 1985.