In a shocking move, the Karnataka Assembly has sent two journalists to jail and fined them, accusing them of publishing a series of defamatory articles against the Speaker and some MLAs, including a member of the House privileges committee, which recommended the punishment. The Speaker was the complainant as well as chairman of the committee ruling on the privilege motion and the authority ordering a House vote. The Editors’ Guild has quite rightly expressed strong disapproval of such “gross misuse” of power as this clearly violates the fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution. It is distressing to note both ends of the political spectrum were involved as a BJP MLA raised the issue along with a Congress member in the House last week, and the Speaker too had varied roles to play in this matter, wearing different hats.
Every time a journalist is targeted for doing his/her job, it is freedom of the press that is assailed. The fourth estate is a pillar of civil society with a watchdog role, and is often at odds with people in power due to the nature of disclosures and the object of criticism — involving the duties of government officials, legislators or just any offender. The tenor of criticism and exposes may vary or even hurt, as in tabloid journalism. The legislature is, however, bound by tradition to hand over the process of trial and judgment to a “third umpire” — the judiciary. The chief minister, who also holds charge of information, can’t wash his hands off this despicable decision, which signals to the world the persecution of journalists in Karnataka.