Misuse of The Privileges Committee of Parliament suppresses press freedom
The BJP is currently using its brute majority in the Parliament to convert the venerable institution into an echo chamber for its ideology of bigotry. Over the various sessions in the last three years, we have seen Bills that have serious implications for the future of the country being bulldozed through the Lok Sabha with little space for constructive criticism and suggestions from their experienced colleagues as well as the shutting down (or in some cases banning) of debates on subjects that have been openly critical of their government’s policies. It appears that the latest platform to launch their authoritarian and intolerant modus operandi appears to be the Committee of Privileges which is chaired by current BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi.
According to a report by The Hoot, the Committee of Privileges under Ms. Lekhi has, in its previous term, been used frequently against several journalists whose work has been deemed to go against the interests of one MP or another. While some of these cases appear to be genuine, the sheer volume of journalists that have been summoned by the Committee to depose before it suggests that this may very well be a product of today’s intolerant and polarising climate.
To quote a few examples from the same report, these include Rakesh Sinha and Abantika Ghosh from the Indian Express, Krishna Prasad, Rajesh Ramachandran and Pranay Sharma from Outlook and K.N Tilak Kumar from the Deccan Herald News Services. More recently, on September 15, they had summoned Bobby Ghosh, then Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times for a hearing. Of course, Bobby Ghosh resigned from his agency a few days prior to this, a much-publicised illustration of the pressures faced by honest journalists under the present government. Nonetheless, 3 days later, the Hindustan Times offered a full apology for the article in question.
To quote the Hoot report directly, “Given the sheer number of journalists being hauled up by the Lok Sabha’s Committee on Privileges, it is tempting to ask the question whether the Committee is overstepping its brief?...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”. Given how easy it is to flag an issue with the Committee, MPs prefer this route rather than following the due judicial process.
The only silver lining in all of this is the fact that the Committee usually lets things go after an apology is issued. But the larger question remains: Why go after journalists and make their lives any harder than it is already?
In today’s climate, the press, the watchdog of any healthy democracy, is facing an acute and systemic repression which has, in turn, affected its wellbeing. According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, India ranks at a position of 136 out of 180 countries surveyed. This poor ranking is not surprising given that for instance, in 2015, 110 journalists lost their lives for reasons unknown and a further 67 were killed on the job. In that year, only Iraq and Syria saw more journalist deaths.
The misuse of the Committee of Privileges does not make the situation any better. Irrespective of which side of the political spectrum you may associate with, we must acknowledge the need to develop a thriving free press in the country. Not find ways to shoot it down through one method or the other.