Outlawing the reporting of a 'bandh'

IN Opinion | 27/11/2013
The Assam government's move to penalize the media for covering a bandh is ill-advised and must be dropped forthwith,
In a most inexplicable move, the Assam government has decided to meet the repeated calls for bandhs head on – with a law that shuts down the publication of books, journals and papers and that will result in ‘controlling’ the press! Such ‘bandhs’ are attempts to overthrow the State and even news of these is considered illegal!
Journalists’ and media organisations, including the Journalists Union of Assam and the small and medium newspapers organisations, have issued a statement that, while the government needs to control the menace ofbandhs, censoring the media or controlling free speech was not the way to go about it.
The wordings of the draft law against ‘unconstitutional’ bandhs,  Assam Prevention of Unconstitutional Bandh Act, 2013, objections for which have been invited now by the Assam government, are so sweeping that one can only wonder as to how these terms were drafted.
Consider these:
·      Sec 4 states that ‘any unauthorised calling for or giving of oral, print and/or Electronic media publicity to…… will be unconstitutional, illegal and void…’
·      And Sec 25 adds that it can control the publication of any activity that undermines the security of or tends to overthrow the State – thereby neatly conflating the call for an ‘unconstitutional’ bandh with an attempt to ‘overthrow’ the state!
Curiously, the ‘control’ is only for print media, leaving electronic media out of the purview of the Act. It seeks to prohibit – either absolutely or for a specified period – the sale or distribution of any newspaper, periodical, book, leaflet or any document, the printing or publication ‘of any matter relating to a particular subject or class of subject….the punishment for which is a year’s imprisonment and a fine.
·      And in Sec 25 A (b), which deals with prevention of an act prejudicial to the prevention of a bandh, no person can ‘make, print, publish, distribute or exhibit any document containing, or spread by any other means whatsoever, any report prejudicial to prevention of unconstitutional bandh’. The penalty for this is up to two years but the worrying question is that this can clamp down on any comment or review of State action arising from the prevention of a bandh.
The Assam government’s rationale
In the midst of conflicts over ethnic issues, nationality and migration over the last few years, Assam has been plagued by bandhs and protests. According to the government’s statement of objects and reasons for the draft law, a task force appointed to look into the matter, found 29 organisations that issued repeated bandh calls and in 2012, there were 52 state-wide bandhs, averaging to a bandh a week!
Now, following a Guwahati High Court directive in a case (Arun Pathak vs State of Assam), the government decided to enact a special law on ‘unconstitutional’ bandhs, though other laws, like theAssam Maintenance of Public Order Act 1947, the Assam Preventive Detention Act, 1980 and the National Security Act, 1980, already exist to deal with protests and maintenance of order.
Over the years, various state governments have cracked down on ‘illegal’ bandh calls, that are enforced on citizens by violent means and that disrupt normal life, educational schedules or adversely affect essential services. Various state governments have sought compensation from political parties for the loss of property. The judiciary has led the charge and in 1998, a three judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the late Justice J S Verma, upheld a Kerala High Court judgement on 1997 banning political bandhs.
As against this, the right of citizens to protest – even if by a state-wide or nation-wide call for a shutdown - and the debate on the form this protest must take, is hardly a settled matter.
Prohibiting the media from reporting or commenting on calls for bandhs, apart from giving the state government immense powers to decide on constitutionality and legitimacy of the protests, can also give more oxygen to rumours, propaganda and all other unsavoury and dangerous communication. While it is curious the electronic media is not in the purview of this proposed act, there are enough existing laws and codes from the Press Council of India or the News Broadcasters Association of India that can tackle misuse by the media, including television channels or  online sites than may indulge in irresponsible reporting or propaganda. 
Surely governments must come up with better ways of regulating law and order than a media shut down? 
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More