Draft protection law double edged

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Law and Policy | 17/06/2011
There was stiff opposition from within the Maharashtra cabinet that journalists should not be accorded any ‘special’ status and that malpractices of journalists must also be included in any proposed legislation.
GEETA SESHU reports on the state government’s draft legislation to protect journalists. Pix courtesy: NDTV
Rattled by the widespread protests following the killing of Mid-Day’s Special Investigations Editor J Dey last Saturday, the Maharashtra government came up in less than a week with draft legislation to protect journalists from violence, but with a rider: the proposed law will also comprise guidelines and a code of conduct for journalists!
Now, the Central Government also announced that it would draft a law to protect journalists from being manhandled or attacked. What is more, a fast-track trial would also be conducted in such cases, union law minister Veerappa Moily announced yesterday.
The announcements are a useful acknowledgement that attacks on journalists are on the rise, as our own tracking in the Free Speech Hub shows. But they also underscore another bitter truth:  that investigations against such attacks rarely nail their culprits, much less initiate action against them. A case in point is the depressing information from journalists in Assam, where 23 journalists were killed since 1987, but not a single case has been solved.
The world over, journalists have pressed for better and stronger implementation of existing laws to protect them from assailants. But obviously, despite emphatic UN resolutions, they continue to occupy the status of being the most unsafe profession. They get killed, attacked and maimed, their office-property is destroyed and often, their equipment – cameras, laptops or phones-- are seized or smashed. Perpetuators of violence against journalists are rarely caught and, despite complaints naming suspects, the accused can roam with impunity.
The demand for a stiff and separate law for protecting journalists from violence may seem like a good solution.  But how workable is it?
The Free Speech Hub (FSH) has a copy of the Maharashtra Journalists (Prevention of Violence and Damage to Property) Ordinance, 2010 – the hurriedly and poorly drafted document which forms the basis of the statement made by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan that a law was on the anvil. However, there was stiff opposition from within his cabinet that journalists should not be accorded any ‘special’ status and that malpractices of journalists must also be included in any proposed legislation.  Accordingly, the Chief Minister has now appointed a cabinet sub-committee which will frame guidelines for journalists and modify the draft law.
Predictably, journalists are angry at the attempt to divert attention from the main issue of ensuring the safety and security of the media. But have journalists’ organisations been unwise in focusing their protests on the legislation instead of demanding that the government step up on its investigations into attacks on the media and show some action in nabbing the culprits?  Should journalists’ organisations have acquiesced to the suggestion made by the government that a code of conduct be drawn up for the media?  Whatever happened to self-regulatory mechanisms? Also, are journalists justified in demanding a separate law to protect them? 
Y D Joshi, a senior journalist and member of the drafting committee appointed to draw up the legislation, told FSH that the idea  of a law to protect journalists came about during discussions of the Patrakar Hall Virodhi Samiti (Committee against attacks on journalists), a body appointed by the state government a couple of years ago, following the attack on the residence of then Loksatta editor Kumar Ketkar.
Taking a leaf from the law protecting doctors from mob attacks and violence in hospitals, the journalists organisations argued that the media were a community that fought for society and therefore required special protection. “We should not be treated as a common man,” Joshi said. Doctors were treated as ‘public servants’ in that they were directly responsible for saving human lives and mob attacks or the anger and protests of patients and their relatives often disrupted medical care to others in need.
 “Our committee was set up with government and representatives of journalists’ organisations to look into all attacks on journalists and we began drafting a law to protect journalists. A suggestion came from the government on a code of conduct for the journalistic fraternity and we (the representatives of journalists’ organisations) agreed to it. Nothing happened for a long time after that until now, when they came out with this draft. Even now, no copy has been given to us. ” Joshi said.
The ordinance the Maharashtra government wanted to bring in before members of its cabinet of ministers objected, had very simple provisions, punitive in nature, against perpetuators of the attacks on journalists. These included prohibiting attacks on journalists (Sec. 3), upto three years imprisonment and fine of upto Rs 50,000 (Sec . 4), making such attacks non-bailable and cognizable offences (Sec. 5) and the recovery of a penalty twice the value of damaged equipment or property (Sec 6).
Now, with members of the cabinet clamouring for an enabling provision to address complaints against the media, Chief Minister Chauhan also talked about the setting up of a state-level Press Council. However, linking the need for protection for journalists to that of the quality of media coverage and reportage completely obfuscates the real issue of safety and security.
Joshi says that journalists’ organisations agreed to the code of conduct ‘upto a certain extent only’, which was that if complaints arose against journalists, police would verify these before taking action. According to him, this was only to guard against possible misuse as usually happens with complaints under the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
While concerns about media ethics are valid and complaints against bad, inaccurate, biased or mischievous reportage must be taken up, the forum to do so must be self-regulatory. Broadcasters’ associations came up with their own code following widespread criticism of their coverage of the November 26 attacks in Mumbai. It is time the print media come up with its own code of ethics and a  stronger redressal mechanism to tackle transgressions. Allowing the government to do so would impinge  on the freedom of the press.
Journalists and media organisations must press for speedy and conclusive investigations into the attacks on journalists all over the country. For the guilty to face the punishments of the laws of the land and pay compensation for damage to property, they must first be caught.


For a counterview on whether journalists need special protection see:

Too special by far