By Zoya Sham:
Transparency and good governance are all the rage at the time of elections. All political hopefuls endeavor to make it a priority in their manifestos. The Aam Aadmi Party went one step further and made it the very basis of their policy by promising to eliminate the rampant corruption in the country and guaranteeing political accountability. But this policy is already being compromised with the Delhi government’s order on defamation.
The last time we heard about defamation, leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Subramanian Swamy said that defamation was unconstitutional and placed unreasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech. Arvind Kejriwal himself campaigned to decriminalize it in the Supreme Court. Although the issue was swept under the rug by protesting bail bond procedures instead, Kejriwal’s stand on defamation was established. However, this stand may have been on feeble ground.
He seems to have changed his stand by issuing a circular dictating his officials to lodge complaints under sections 499 and 500 of IPC for criminal defamation against the media for imputations against the Chief Minister, his ministers or any government officials. While the Supreme Court has since stayed this circular, its mere issuance reveals not only the C.M.’s double standards but also his disregard for democratic ideals.
Along with a citizen’s right to express himself, he must have the right to defend himself if someone else uses expression as a form to harm his reputation or hurt his sentiments. This is the reason the law of defamation exists. To ensure that free speech is unhindered, the constitution has provided certain circumstances where an imputation is not defamation. Key exceptions in the IPC under sections 499 and 500 are, “Public conduct of public servants” and “Conduct of any person touching any public question.” By these exceptions, expressing opinions in good faith on any public servant while they are executing their public duties, or anyone who is acting in the public sphere does not constitute defamation. The Delhi government’s order clearly violates both these exceptions, confiscating the media’s primary tool for ensuring political accountability.
The C.M.’s antagonistic view of the media is no secret. He expressed his concern about a section of the media conspiring against his party on several occasions and even called for a ‘public trial’ of the media. Since he hasn’t been able to crack the public relations code with the media like some other politicians, with this order, he seems to be cracking the whip instead.
The media in any democracy acts as the resident watchdog. It plays the role of the opposition and is responsible for regulating the government’s functionality. Anybody who claims to be pro-democracy should by extension be pro freedom of the press. Placing restrictions on the media in any form is like putting a blindfold on public perspective. It breaks the bridge that links the people to its government.
As other countries are decriminalizing defamation, it’s unbecoming for any government of the world’s largest democracy to actually be condoning it, especially a government that was established on the pillars of transparency, accountability and good governance. The Supreme Court recognized this attempt to hinder free speech and questioned the duplicity of the Delhi government by rightly staying the circular.