THE SPEAKER of the Karnataka legislative assembly K B Koliwad authorised the one-year imprisonment of two journalists last week despite the present chairman of the privileges committee not recommending the punishment for one of them, according to the panel chief and transcripts of the legislature’s proceedings.
On June 21, Koliwad, a Congress MLA from the Rannebennur region in central Karnataka, authorised the imposition of a one-year jail term and a fine of Rs 10,000 each on Ravi Belagere, editor and owner of weekly tabloid Hi Bangalore, and Anil Raj, editor of an intermittently published local area paper called Yelahanka Voice.
Koliwad approved the prison terms for both despite a March 14, 2017 report of the privileges committee, chaired by Congress MLA Kimmane Ratnakar, recommending punishment only for Raj, on the basis of a complaint by BJP MLA from Yelahanka S R Vishwanath.
But Koliwad ordered the punishment for Belagere, too, on the basis of privilege committee hearings which he himself conducted as its chairman in the 2015-16 period, prior to him being appointed Speaker. In fact, the breach of privilege complaint against Belagere was brought by Koliwad himself to the committee when he was its chairman over an acerbic article published in ‘Hi Bangalore’ in September 2014 about his attempts to get into the State Cabinet.
“I am not aware of the proceedings of the privilege motion against Ravi Belagere. The matter was not before my committee. The Speaker himself was the previous chairman of the privileges committee and it seems that he was aware of the matter,’’ said Kimmane Ratnakar, current chairman of the privileges committee.
“In the case of the editor of Yelahanka Voice, the articles published were found to be 100 per cent defamatory and I fully support the recommendation,’’ said Ratnakar.
Asked about the basis of punishment for Belagere, Koliwad said, “Everything has been done officially as per rules. It is all there in the records. There is nothing more for me to say.”
Transcripts of the assembly proceedings on June 21 show that the privilege motion moved by Speaker Koliwad — as a Congress MLA before the privileges committee chaired by him — was raised by another Congress MLA B M Nagaraj from Siraguppa. This was after BJP MLA Vishwanath argued at length for initiating action recommended in the March 14, 2017 report of the privileges committee against Raj.
However, Nagaraj, who was part of the privileges committee for a while in 2015-16 under the leadership of Koliwad, also raised a question as to why no punitive action had been ordered with respect to a committee report presented under the leadership of Koliwad against Belagere in 2016.
He demanded the ordering of punitive action because Belagere failed to appear before the committee headed by Koliwad despite several opportunities.
“Vishwanath has moved it and if you move it as well we will take it up,’’ the Speaker responded to the interjection by the Congress MLA.
After the Speaker announced that he was putting the issue of ordering punitive action against Raj and Belagere to vote and after the House accepted the recommendations of the committee, its present chairman Ratnakar pointed out to Koliwad that he had not recommended action against Belagere in his March 14, 2017 report.
The Speaker, however, informed him that he had ordered action against Belagere on the basis of the 2016 report of the committee, the transcripts show.
Belagere, a veteran journalist surrounded by controversies over his finances and personal life, has built a popular following for the tabloid through a mix of sensational stories from the world of crime, politics, cinema and religion with the usage of a very colloquial and street version of the Kannada language.
In his plea for action against Raj, BJP MLA Vishwanath argued that the journalist had been consistently targeting him and others in the Yelahanka constituency with “blackmail” tactics.
The BJP MLA demanded punishment for Raj with the argument that he continued to publish defamatory articles despite appearing before the privileges committee and tendering an apology.
The Karnataka legislative assembly secretariat has now written to the Bengaluru police commissioner to initiate action against Belagere and Raj on the basis of authorisation provided by the state assembly on June 21.
On Saturday, Belagere, who has been ailing for a while, was admitted to a hospital in Dharwad. “I am strong enough to fight a legal battle against a system that attempts to curtail my rights to write about the mistakes and failures of the government,” he said in a statement.
On Sunday, the Editors Guild of India slammed the Karnataka assembly’s decision and urged it to “withdraw its pernicious resolution”.
“The Guild opines that the decision violates the fundamental right of freedom of speech guaranteed under the Indian Constitution and the freedom of the press,” it said in a statement.
“The Editors Guild of India is of the firm view that journalists must have the freedom to write critical articles against all such elected representatives of the country and hold them accountable without fear or favour,” it said.
“The Guild hopes that wisdom will prevail and the Karnataka Legislative Assembly will immediately take corrective measures and withdraw its pernicious resolution against the two journalists,” it said.