The AP GO targeting Media Unwarranted and in breach of Due Process

Amaravati: On 30th October 2019, the Andhra Pradesh Government, General Administration (I & PR) Department has issued a GO RT no 2430 delegating the powers to all secretaries of respective Departments to lodge complaints and to file appropriate legal cases through Public Prosecutor against false, baseless and defamatory news items published/telecast/posted in print/electronic/social media. This has reference to earlier GO Rt No 938 issued in 20th February 2007.

Whole-sale delegation

The Government has issued this order giving authority in the form of whole-sale delegation to lodge Criminal Defamation Cases against the media.

The GO says: “2. Instances have come to the notice of the Government that certain print, electronic and social media deliberately try to tarnish the image of Government and Government officials by spreading false, baseless and defamatory news with mala fide interest. In order to see that true and correct information reaches the people, Government has empowered Special Commissioner, I &PR to
file cases under appropriate sections of the law”.

3. However, it is felt that Departmental Secretaries with thorough knowledge of the affairs of their respective Departments and also having powers and wherewithal to order enquiries to establish the veracity of news reports/posts in print, electronic, and social media are better placed to issue rejoinders, file complaints and lodge appropriate cases, if need be, through public prosecutor after
following due process of law.

4. After careful examination of the matter, Government hereby accord permission to delegate powers to the Secretaries of respective Departments to issue rejoinders, file complaints and lodge appropriate cases, if need be, through public prosecutors against defamatory news items published/telecast/Posted in Print/Electronic/Social Media pertaining to their respective departments
after following due process of law.

5. All Special Secretaries/Principal Secretaries/Secretaries in the Departments of Andhra Pradesh Secretariat shall take necessary action accordingly. This was issued by order and in the name of the Governor of Andhra Pradesh. The GO signed by T Vijay Kumar Reddy Ex-officio Special Secretary to Government (I & PR).

Government’s attitude towards the Media

Careful reading of the GO reveals the Government’s attitude towards the Media. The inferences that result from this GO are:

a) AP Government is not going to spare any media – print, electronic, or social. It is not just ‘those two newspapers’.

b) AP Government believes that certain media are spreading false, baseless and defamatory news with mala fide interest.

c) If in 2007 only Special Commissioner, I &PR was empowered to file criminal defamation cases, this GO empowers all Special Secretaries/Principal Secretaries/Secretaries in the Departments of Andhra Pradesh Secretariat to file criminal cases.

d) Though GO mentions that “AP Government Departmental Secretaries with thorough knowledge of the affairs of their respective Departments and also having powers and wherewithal to order enquiries to establish the veracity of news reports” it mainly empowers all officers to initiate criminal defamation cases. Otherwise it would have authorised the officers to issue rejoinders, details, explanations and complete information bulletins to clarify or condemn the false or baseless news. If the GO emphasised this aspect, the intentions could not have been suspected.

e) Above all the GO made it clear that Government has authorised the officers to initiateprosecution of journalists for defamatory reports.

Due process

If any public servant feels that he was defamed by any publication about his public activity with false allegations, he must apply to the Government seeking permission to initiate criminal defamation cases against the media. The concerned officers and experts including legal experts should study the facts of the case and if they find justification, the public servant could be permitted to initiate prosecution for his defamation. This is the due process expected to be followed. But this GO scuttles all that process and permits every officer to initiate prosecution of media persons in a whole-sale delegation of special power to them.

Criminal Prosecution of Journalist?

The question to be asked is why the government is contemplating to prosecute the editors/publishers for defamation? What is defamation and who must complain about defamation?

If a public servant (Chief Minister, Minister or Officer or MLA) is falsely accused as corrupt or made illegal money out of a Government contract or expenditure, then he can seek permission to use the public prosecutor to book a journalist for criminal defamation. A Government or its department as such cannot complain of defamation because the reputation is right of individuals but not of
departments or governments. If a Government was critically exposed of its faults and wrong decisions, it is no defamation.
Without examining whether a posting or article was really targeting an individual public servant, how can the Government authorise prosecution the media persons?

These are the basic illegalities of the GO, which were not noticed by the entire machinery of the Andhra Pradesh Government. It is not known whether the Government has consulted Advocate General, Advisers, Media Friends, Secretary Law, or any officer before issuing this GO. If consulted, did they advise properly?

Those who are working with public money cannot consider every criticism as defamatory. The media must criticise the actions of the Government, like an opposition in the Assembly. Even if the opposition sits silently for its own political interests, the media is expected to play the role of opposition in critically analysing the government’s action or inaction. Most of the media today is politically biased and there are a few media that claim to be objective. Almost all information or news dished out is tainted with business or political interest of the company that is running that news organization. Even if a newspaper is campaigning against the Government/ ruling party / its leaders with false and baseless news, editor can be prosecuted only when its posting is defamatory, but not simply because of adverse writings.

The power in the hands of the state to prosecute journalists for criminal defamation is undemocratic and against the fundamental freedom of press. Criminal defamation is abolished in many democratic countries while ruling parties in India are misusing it to kill opposition and scuttle criticism. This GO is indicative of abuse of that power by the state.

If a newspaper is not a neutral platform but aligned to one party or one caste, it still exercises the freedom of speech and expression as every citizen does. However it is unethical, improper and unprofessional to be biased. But he cannot be prosecuted for that. Only fitting answer to that campaigning newspaper is by a similarly biased newspaper totally campaigning against. This reality cannot be ignored. Such a newspaper has no moral authority to criticise the other standing on other side. Similarly, the party which lost the election has no moral authority to sermon as if they are angels.

Freedom of expression is people’s right. It is not the business, profit, campaign or politics aiming at
power. It is fundamental right to criticise. A democratic necessity.

M Sridhar Acharyulu

M Sridhar Acharyulu

M Sridhar Acharyulu former Central Information Commissioner and Dean, School of Law, Bennett University.

One comment on "The AP GO targeting Media Unwarranted and in breach of Due Process"

  • It is true that everybody has a right to criticize the government. Even I myself wrote articles on the policies of Chandrababu government prior to 2014 in daily newspapers. However, they are not derogatory in true spirit. But, the publisher should publish counters if any such matters. This is the basic issue. Media is controlled by few houses and they rarely publish the counters on the vulgar languages used by the people against the government/officials/rulers. Here the comes the need to take action by the government. Government needs to create a system on this. That is what the government did. Here I ask the people who are questioning the government action: have you seen the TVChannels discussions? Most of them are onesided and use vulger language. You support such channels? Let me give an example, a TV channel used to record the discussion and edit and telecast the edited version. I found they are completely changed my views and asked them not to invite me for such discussions.

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