Context

  • Editors of Hi Bangalore and Yelahanka Voice have been awarded one-year jail term and a fine of Rs 10,000 for libel.

The Issue

  • Karnataka assembly speaker K.B. Koliwad has sentenced Ravi Belagere of Hi Bangalore and Anil Raj of Yelahanka Voice for a year in jail for writing defamatory articles against legislators.
  • Hi Bangalore in the year 2014 and said to have ‘defamed’ Koliwad and another congress leader B.M. Nagaraju, and in 2016, Yelahanka Voice defamed BLP’s S.R. Vishwanath in one of their article.

Punishment rewarded in case of Breach of Privilege

  • The house can ensure attendance of the offending person. The person can be given a warning and let go or be sent to prison as the case may be.
  • In the case of throwing leaflets and chappal, the offending individuals were sentenced to simple imprisonment.

The Criticism

  • It is a thinly disguised mechanism to insulate elected representatives from criticism.
  • It is too often invoked for the ostensible reason of protecting the image of the House on the whole or its individual members.
  • Legislatures do not pursue an appropriate judicial remedy in their individual capacity.
  • Nature of legislative privileges is trying to take away the liberty of critics, thus restricting the freedom of speech and expression provided by the constitution of India under Article 19 (1) (a).
  • Legislatures mainly to protect the independence of the House stand behind the absence of codification. Doing so, the House gains the power to decide when and how breach of privilege occurs.
  • Legislators are in a position to clarify facts and refute misconceived criticism. There is no reason for them to seek imprisonment for contempt.
  • Even if it is conceded that the House has such a right, a moot question is whether the legislature, through its Committee of Privileges, should be a judge in its own cause.

Conclusion

  • Whether the legislature’s power to punish for breach of privilege extends to handing down a prison term is remains an open question. Has time come for the legislature to codify privileges and for the higher judiciary to lay down the limits of penal action for breach of privilege.
  • The Karnataka government must consider the public odium it would attract if it acted on the resolution. If the Chief Minister and the Speaker take the lead in getting the Assembly to rescind the resolution, that would better safeguard the dignity of the august House is what critics pointing.

Provisions on The Breach of Privilege

  • According to the Article 194 of the Indian Constitution, there are privileges provided to the state legislature, its members and committees and Article 105 does the same for Parliament and its members.
  • Privileges such as freedom of speech in state legislature/Parliament, immunity to proceedings in court for anything said in the legislature/ Parliament, the House also has power to punish.
  • When any of these rights, both of the members individually and of the Assembly in its collective capacity, are disregarded or attacked by any individual or authority, the offence is called a breach of privilege. This is punishable under the law of Parliament.
  • This may include publishing of news items, editorials or statements made in newspaper/magazine/TV interviews or in public speeches.
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The Breach of Privilege: Brief History

  • No law has so far been enacted by Parliament (and state legislatures) regarding breach of privilege, and in the absence of any such law, the powers, privileges and immunities of the
  • Houses of Parliament and state legislatures and of the members and the committees thereof continue in actual practice to be governed by the precedents of the British House of Commons, as they existed on the day our Constitution came into force.
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Case History

  • In the 2007 case of breach of privilege against Ambassador Ronen Sen, the Lok Sabha Committee on privileges held that the phrase “headless chicken” was not used by Shri Sen in respect of MPs or politicians. No action was taken against him.
  • In 2008, an editor of an Urdu weekly referred to the deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha as a “coward” attributing motives to a decision taken by him.
  • The privileges committee held the editor guilty of breach of privilege.
  • The committee instead of recommending punishment stated that, “it would be better if the House saves its own dignity by not giving undue importance to such irresponsible articles published with the sole intention of gaining cheap publicity.”
  • In 1983, one person was held in breach for shouting slogans and throwing chappals from the visitors’ gallery.
  • In 1967, two people were held to be in contempt of Rajya Sabha, for having thrown leaflets from the visitors’ gallery.
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Article 19 (1) (a)

  •     Article 19(1)(a) of Indian Constitution says that all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression.
  • Freedom of Speech and expression means the right to express one’s own convictions and opinions freely by words of mouth, writing, printing, pictures or any other mode.
  • It thus includes the expression of one’s idea through any communicable medium or visible representation, such as gesture, signs, and the like.
  • This expression connotes also publication and thus the freedom of press is included in this category. Free propagation of ideas is the necessary objective and this may be done on the platform or through the press.
  • This propagation of ideas is secured by freedom of circulation. Liberty of circulation is essential to that freedom as the liberty of publication. Indeed, without circulation the publication would be of little value.
  • The freedom of speech and expression includes liberty to propagate not one’s views only. It also includes the right to propagate or publish the views of other people; otherwise this freedom would not include the freedom of press.
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Freedom of Press

  • The fundamental right of the freedom of press implicit in the right the freedom of speech and expression, is essential for the political liberty and proper functioning of democracy.
  • The Indian Press Commission says that “Democracy can thrive not only under the vigilant eye of legislature, but also under the care and guidance of public opinion and the press is par excellence, the vehicle through which opinion can become articulate.”
  • Unlike the American Constitution, Art. 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution does not expressly mention the liberty of the press but it has been held that liberty of the press is included in the freedom of speech and expression.
  • The editor of a press for the manager is merely exercising the right of the expression, and therefore, no special mention is necessary of the freedom of the press.
  • Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. It is the primary duty of the courts to uphold the freedom of press and invalidate all laws or administrative actions, which interfere with it contrary to the constitutional mandate.
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Restriction on Freedom of Speech and Expression

Article 19 (2) contains the grounds on which restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression can be imposed –

  • Security of State:Under Article 19(2) reasonable restrictions can be imposed on freedom of speech and expression in the interest of security of State. The term “security of state” refers only to serious and aggravated forms of public order e.g. rebellion, waging war against the State, insurrection and not ordinary breaches of public order and public safety.
  • Friendly relations with foreign states: Added by the constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951 It prohibits unrestrained malicious propaganda against a foreign friendly state, which may jeopardize the maintenance of good relations between India, and that state. No similar provision is present in any other Constitution of the world.
  • Public Order: Added by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act. ‘Public order’ is an expression of wide connotation and signifies “that state of tranquility which prevails among the members of political society as a result of internal regulations enforced by the Government which they have established.”
  • Decency or morality: Sections 292 to 294 of the Indian Penal Code provide instances of restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression in the interest of decency or morality. These sections prohibit the sale or distribution or exhibition of obscene words, etc. in public places.
  • Contempt of Court: According to the Section 2 ‘Contempt of court’ may be either ‘civil contempt’ or ‘criminal contempt.’
  • Defamation:A statement, which injures a man’s reputation, amounts to defamation. Defamation consists in exposing a man to hatred, ridicule, or contempt. The civil law in relating to defamation is still uncodified in India and subject to certain exceptions.
  • Incitement to an offence: Added by the constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951. The word ‘offence’ is defined as any act or omission made punishable by law for the time being in force.
  • Sedition: As understood by English law, sedition embraces all those practices whether by words, or writing which are calculated to disturb the tranquility of the State and lead ignorant person to subvert the government. It should be noted that the sedition is not mentioned in clause (2) of Art. 19 as one of the grounds on which restrictions on freedom of speech and expression may be imposed.
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