Bad news for democracy: Andhra Pradesh moves to silence critical media

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Published: November 12, 2019 2:01:01 AM

The Andhra Pradesh government will brook no criticism—that is what its order empowering secretaries to initiate legal action, against traditional media as well as social media users, for “false, baseless and defamatory news” means.

The threat of prosecution will always be a Damocles’ sword for investigative journalism, critical voices, and will significantly erode the freedom of the press. (Representational Image)

The Andhra Pradesh government will brook no criticism—that is what its order empowering secretaries to initiate legal action, against traditional media as well as social media users, for “false, baseless and defamatory news” means. The information minister of the state, Perni Venkataramaiah, tried to justify the move saying that adverse news will affect the morale of the officials, and will ultimately pull down their performance and affect the progress of the state. It can be no one’s case that the government shouldn’t step in to correct the media where it is wrong, but corrections and defamation suits are two very different things. More so, when the definition of what is false, baseless, or defamatory is left entirely to the government’s discretion. Bringing down all the might of the state on media organisations—whose very raison d’etre is to facilitate holding the government accountable—will crush criticism and scrutiny, and make the media a propaganda vehicle.

The threat of prosecution will always be a Damocles’ sword for investigative journalism, critical voices, even lay citizens who have every right to directly hold their elected representatives accountable, and will significantly erode the freedom of the press. Indeed, such a provision would have ensured that the 2G scam, or more recently, the incident of children being given just salt and rotis under the government-sponsored mid-day meal scheme in Uttar Pradesh would have never been reported. This means public pressure for the government to correct its course would have been nearly impossible to build. To be sure, state governments have been vindictive even without a Andhra-like government order in place—for instance, the Uttar Pradesh administration has gone after the journalist who broke the salt-roti story—but, the order institutionalises clamping down on criticism, and sets a dangerous precedent.

It is argued that media organisations in many states, including Andhra Pradesh, have staunch political loyalties and, therefore, are not truly independent. But, as the Press Council of India chairperson Justice CK Prasad stated while taking suo motu notice of the Andhra order, “the problems which the order… seeks to redress can very well be remedied by the (Press) Council itself”. The order, given it allows multiple departments and authorities to slap as many cases against a journalist or a media organisation or a social media user, is not just about coercing critics into silence but also wreaking vengeance. And, there are few things that can harm democracy as fundamentally.

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