The Privileges Committee is suddenly hyperactive

Increasingly, MPs are summoning journalists to defend stories they consider false or defamatory. The list is getting quite long.
Are they over-stepping their brief, asks PRASHANT R THIKKAVARAPU
Meenakshi Lekhi, chairperson of the Privileges Committee

 

As mentioned earlier in the Hoot, the recently published apology by the Hindustan Times for its erroneous story on March 24, 2017 regarding the attendance rates of seven Members of Parliament, was possibly a result of an ongoing investigation by the Privileges Committee of the Lok Sabha, headed by MP Meenakshi Lekhi.

According to the Committee website, MP Jithender Reddy had complained to the Privileges Committee about the story published on March 24, 2017 for presenting the wrong attendance figures of several MPs. Since his complaint, the Privileges Committee has conducted three hearings on the subject. On August 30, the Committee summoned Soumya Bhattacharya, Managing Editor, Hindustan Times to depose before it.

Later, on September 15, it summoned Editor-in-Chief Aparisim Bobby Ghosh to depose before it. While Bobby Ghosh’s resignation was publicly announced on September 11,  supposedly for personal reasons, the apology for the story on March 24 was published on September 18, just three days after Ghosh’s deposition before the Committee.

 

Similar action against the ToI

Most interestingly, Hindustan Times isn’t the first newspaper to be hauled up before the Privileges Committee for misreporting the attendance figures of MPs. In December 2016, it had tabled a report before the Lok Sabha about a complaint filed by two MPs - Mausam Noor and M. I. Shanavas, against the Times of India (TOI) for publishing a report about the MPs allegedly taking unsanctioned leave from the House.

As a part of the proceedings, the Privileges Committee examined on oath Mohua Chatterjee, the Correspondent and Shri Arindam Sen Gupta, the then Managing Editor of the TOI. The story was itself based on a parliamentary report (“First Report of Committee on Absence of Members from the Sitting of the House”) that had not been tabled at the time the TOI reported it.

In its final report, the Privileges Committee came to the conclusion that “the incorrect and defamatory news item as published by the Times of India not only defamed Smt. Mausam Noor and Shri M.I. Shanavas, MPs but was also humiliating and tarnished their image besides resulting in the breach of their privileges”.

It also concluded that TOI had “committed a breach of privilege of the Committee on Absence of Members from the sittings of the House by premature publication of its report before it being laid on the table of the House”. Since the newspaper expressed regret, the Committee let the matter rest with the tabling of the report and did not take any further action.

 

Many more journalists being summoned 

Apart from the two cases mentioned above, the Committee has summoned several other journalists for hearings. Its website lists the following journalists who have deposed before it over the last year: (i) Rakesh Sinha, Editor, Indian Express (ii) K. N. Tilak Kumar, Editor, DHNS (Deccan Herald News Services) (iii) K. Subrahmanya, Former Associate Editor, DHNS and (iv) Kalyan Ray, Correspondent, DHNS (iv) Abantika Ghosh, Correspondent, Indian Express (v) Krishna Prasad, Former Editor-in-Chief, Outlook Magazine, (vi) Rajesh Ramachandran, Editor-in-Chief, Outlook and (vii) Pranay Sharma, Senior Editor, Outlook.

"Given the sheer number of journalists being hauled up by the Lok Sabha’s Committee on Privileges, it is tempting to question whether the Committee is over-stepping its brief? "

 

The details of each of these cases are not yet available but going by the schedule posted on the Committee website, it appears that individual MPs have filed complaints against these various publications for publishing allegedly false or defamatory news reports.

Given the sheer number of journalists being hauled up by the Lok Sabha’s Committee on Privileges, it is tempting to question whether the Committee is over-stepping its brief? That is a question easier asked than answered because parliamentary privileges are not codified in India.

Articles 105(3) and Article 194(3) of the Indian Constitution grant both Parliament and the State Legislative assemblies “privileges” but does not define the scope of such privileges. Neither Parliament nor the State Legislative Assemblies have as yet defined their privileges, preferring to decide cases as and when complaints are filed. As a result, it is not uncommon for MPs to file complaints against a wide range of people starting from bureaucrats to journalists for actual or perceived slights even when other remedies are available.

The common complaint against bureaucrats or policemen is that they “misbehaved” with a MP, while the complaint against journalists is for alleged misreporting or defamation.

The original logic for privileges dates back to the early days of the British Parliament. At the time, the British Parliament and the Crown were engaged in a power struggle. It was against this background that the British Parliament vested in itself sweeping powers to define its privileges and guarantee its freedom to function as per its wishes without the interference of the Crown or the courts.

Ideally, in the modern day, these powers should be used only to ensure the proper functioning and administration of the legislature. For example, if a bureaucrat or any other witness provides wrong information or misleads a committee, the Privileges Committee would be well within its right to investigate the matter.

 

MPs prefer not to resort to the law

However, as mentioned earlier, the problem in India is that these powers are often invoked over perceived slights that could be remedied by MPs under the law like other ordinary citizens. If  MPs feel that a newspaper has published a report that is potentially defamatory, they can sue for defamation under the law, but given the ease of approaching the Privileges Committee they tend to take the latter approach.

Apart from the current case, we were witness last year to an in-depth report by the UP Assembly that was investigating the reportage by India Today TV of certain comments allegedly made by Azam Khan, MLA during the course of the Muzzafarnagar riots. That report was an interesting example of fact-finding into the editorial practices followed at India Today TV.

"The problem in India is that these powers are often invoked over perceived slights that could be remedied by MPs under the law like other ordinary citizens"

 

The Karnataka State Legislature went a step further when it decided to jail two journalists for a breach of parliamentary privilege. This arrest order is currently under challenge before the Karnataka High Court. At the time, Gauri Lankesh, who was recently murdered, had written a hard-hitting piece on the Wire tracing the history of the Karnataka State Legislature using privileges to punish journalists.

Since the exercise of privileges is beyond the scope of judicial review, the courts technically cannot interfere with the exercise of these powers. However, Indian judges sometimes do interfere, the most recent example being the stay of the UP Assembly’s proceedings against India Today TV by the Supreme Court. 

Notwithstanding the discomfort occasioned by the increasing frequency with which the present Lok Sabha is issuing notices to journalists for breach of privilege, the fact is that  the Committee usually ends the matter if an apology has been issued or, at most, censures  editor of the paper.

Rarely does it order anybody to be imprisoned. Presuming this continues to remain the position, it could actually be interesting to see the Privileges Committee play the role of a de facto media watchdog.

 

The author is Assistant Professor, NALSAR

 

 

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