By Manoj Kumar/Agencies/Jaipur
The Rajasthan government yesterday deferred until next year a measure requiring government permission for the publication of details regarding judges and public servants who face accusations over action taken in the course of their duty.
The measure, which prescribes jail terms of up to two years for violations, aimed to minimise frivolous complaints against officials, said the Bharatiya Janata Party government.
In recent years many journalists reporting corruption and attacks on minorities in India have complained of being targeted by online smear campaigns, although there have been no reports of measures elsewhere similar to what Rajasthan proposed.
The Editors’ Guild of India and the opposition Congress Party called Rajasthan’s move an attempt to curb media freedom and shield corrupt individuals, criticisms that forced the state to delay discussion on the bill.
“The government has agreed to refer the bill to a panel of legislature members,” a state government spokesman said, adding that the bill could be introduced, following amendments, in the next assembly session early next year.
When introduced this week in the state assembly, it set a six-month deadline for courts to secure the government’s permission for any investigations into the actions of judges, magistrates or public servants.
In the absence of such permission, it also sought to block publication of the identity, or other personal, or family details of those being investigated.
“No one shall print or publish, or publicise in any manner, the name, address, photograph, family details, or any other particulars which may lead to disclosure of identity of a judge or magistrate or a public servant,” it added.
The bill’s passage by the state assembly would have helped turn into law an executive decree on the subject issued in September that would otherwise have lapsed within six months.
When asked about the status of the decree, the state government spokesman declined to comment.
Rajasthan was only trying to “shield honest officers so that they can perform their duty”, federal Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters on Monday, but declined further comment, saying it was a state matter.
“It is a big victory for the people and the Congress. It was pressure from the Congress both inside and outside the state assembly because of which the government had to refer the bill to a select committee,” Archana Sharma, a Congress leader, said.
Leading journalist organisations, including the Press Club of India and the Indian Women’s Press Corps, earlier slammed the “draconian” bill, saying it restrains the media from acting as a “watchdog and ombudsman of society”.
In a letter to Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia, they said the bill seeks to protect public servants from allegations arising out of possible vested interests and restrains the reporting by the media of any possible allegations made against such officers.
Not only does this clampdown on reporting militate against public interest as the public are impacted by government policies and decisions – good or bad – the bill subverts the basic freedom of the press which is enshrined in the spirit of Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, said the organisations that also included the Press Association and the Federation of Press Clubs in India.
In their letter, they noted that “it is ironic and unfortunate that at a time when there is a great demand and an even greater need for public accountability and transparency, your government appears to be moving in the opposite direction”.
They urged the chief minister to withdraw the bill as” neither is it in the public interest, nor does it serve the aims and objectives of our vibrant democracy.”
India has slipped three places to 136 in the 2017 world press freedom rankings of 180 countries, amid growing “self-censorship” and attacks by right-wing groups.
In a statement, Raj Chengappa, president of the Editors’ Guild of India, described the Rajasthan bill as “a pernicious instrument to harass the media, hide wrongful acts by government servants and drastically curb the freedom of the press”.
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