Since the time India was under the English Rule, the first and foremost step that the British rulers adopted to suppress India’s struggle for independence was to curb the freedom of press. The memories of the famous Vernacular Press Act, 1878 can never fade away from the scholars of the Indian Modern History.
The Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act of 1908, the Press Act of 1910, the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act of 1911 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908 also hit the Indian press hard. However, it only raised awareness and filled the Indians with more strength to oppose yet another suppressive step of the rulers.
We have come a long way since independence yet the history seems to repeat itself time and again. Thankfully, we have been enough prepared to counter such attempts.
In July 1988, 1.5 years before the next general elections Rajiv Gandhi government was recovering from the allegations of the Bofors scam when it passed an anti-defamation Bill in the Lok Sabha. A casual read of the bill was enough to infer that it was nothing but a gag order on the freedom of the press.
Fast forward to 2017 and Vasundhara Raje led Rajasthan Government which is also facing anti-incumbency has recently passed Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance to make State government’s prior permission mandatory before any investigation could be set up against serving/retired judges or public servants who were acting in the discharge of their duties. The ordinance also seeks to add a proviso to Section 156(3) of CrPC forbidding the publication of any material that discloses the identity of such judges or public servants until sanction for prosecution is issued by the government.
Section 197 of the CrPC and section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1988 already provide impunity to public servants from prosecution. But this ordinance would provide protection to public servants from the investigation as well.
The Raje government’s ordinance looks eerily similar to the Rajiv government’s defamation bill, especially with its objectives. Both the bills try to put restrictions on the media under the garb of protecting a person’s reputation. While Raje’s Bill prescribes that two years imprisonment and fine for the guilty, Rajiv Gandhi’s Bill also stipulated two-year prison term which could go up to five years if it was a repeat offense. The main difference between this ordinance and the anti-defamatory bill is that the former is much wider in scope. The ordinance protects all judicial officers and all public servants in the state as compared to the 1988 bill which covered officers on or above the rank of joint secretary. While Rajiv Gandhi caved to the pressure exerted by journalists, lawyers, and politicians and withdrew his anti-defamatory bill, what would Vasundhara Raje do is yet to be seen.
However, it would be unfair to say that there is no logic behind the Rajasthan government’s move. Officials today have to work in an environment where more than a dozen agencies are breathing down their necks, scrutinizing their each and every decision. It is pertinent that some operational freedom is given to the bureaucracy which is famous for its inaction. It is also felt that provisions of Section 156(3) of the CrPC are often misused as only 27 percent of the government servants tried under this section are convicted. But the need to give ‘prior permission’ or ‘sanction’ before an investigation of an offense seems like a far-fetched step.