The Press Council of India has asked the Andhra Pradesh government for a response on concerns about an order that allows all department secretaries to file defamation cases against journalists. The order, issued on October 30, said it is to deter print, electronic and social media from tarnishing the image of government and government officials by spreading “false, baseless and defamatory news with malafide interest”.

The council took suo motu cognizance of the matter and asked the state’s chief secretary and special commissioner (information and public relations) to file a response, The Indian Express reported. Press Council of India Chairman Justice (retired) CK Prasad said the threat to prosecute media personnel in general “shall demoralise journalists, which shall have a severe bearing on the freedom of press”.

“Not only this, the problems which the order in question seeks to redress can very well be remedied by the council itself,” the Press Council of India said.

The government order was passed despite an uproar from civil society, journalists and Opposition parties after the Cabinet approved it on October 16.

Defending the order, Amar Devulapalli, national media adviser to the Jaganmohan Reddy government, said “there is no reason for media houses to panic” and that the government is not closing down media publications. He said the order is only meant to take action against false news consistently being spread against the government by media houses with clear political leanings. “So, if at all, it is media houses with clear party political leanings that need to be worried and not independent media,” he said.

He added that this was not a new order, but “the old one has been revised for the better by taking the powers out of a single person, such as the Commissioner for Information and Public Relations, to decentralise it to departmental secretaries who are best placed to confirm the veracity of the news reports published”.

Senior journalist Amarnath Kosuri claimed the order was “intended to silence the media from criticising government policies or deficiencies in governance with the Damocles’ sword of court cases hanging over their heads”. The order is not only high-handed and undemocratic, but goes against the fundamental rights of freedom of press and freedom of expression, Kosuri added, calling for the order to be withdrawn. Kosuri is a member of Indian Journalists Union and former member of Press Council of India.

Kosuri said the order gives a free hand to terrorise journalists from filing news against the government as any news could be declared false and motivated, and cases could invariably be piled up against journalists making it impossible for them to find financial resources and time to chase their cases in the courts.

Devulapalli agreed the order could be misused, but dismissed the apprehension that it could be used to harass media personnel as only appropriate legal procedures would be taken in case the news is ascertained to be false or fake. “Just as there is freedom of speech and expression, there should also be freedom against false news,” said Devulapalli.

Since August, MLAs of the ruling YSR Congress Party have been named by victims in at least four attacks against journalists, mostly working with news outlets that are critical of the government. The ruling party, which came into power in May, has been accused of sponsoring such attacks, one of which resulted in a reporter’s death. In three cases, the journalists had filed prior written complaints of threats, but the police did not act.

In 2007, the then government of YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s father YS Rajasekhar Reddy had passed a similar order but had to withdraw it within a day amid stiff opposition.