The Editors Guild of India on Friday issued a statement expressing concerns over Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to delegate powers to the secretaries of different departments to initiate action against the media over any news item they consider defamatory.
On October 30, the Andhra Pradesh government had issued GO 2430, granting permission to secretaries of all departments to issue rejoinders or file defamation cases over any news item in print, electronic and social media if “baseless and defamatory news with malafide interest” against the government is published.
“The Guild believes that such blanket powers to top civil servants in each of the departments will be prone to misuse and their rampant application will do grievous damage to the freedoms of the media. The Guild has always upheld the principles of free, fair and responsible journalism. But such powers, earlier exercised only by the information commissioner, are now delegated to all secretaries and this will seriously undermine the functioning of the media,” the statement said.
“The Guild urges the Andhra Pradesh government to withdraw this order. Criminal defamation is bad enough by itself, in the hands of individuals. If the state were to employ it with its own limitless resources, it will amount to censorship by another name,” read the statement signed by Guild president Shekhar Gupta, general secretary A K Bhattacharya and treasurer Sheela Bhatt.
The Press Council of India had also taken suo motu cognizance of the order on November 2. PCI Chairman Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad had expressed grave concern over the government’s order. “The chairman is of the view that the threat to prosecute media personnel in general shall demoralise the journalists in large which shall have a severe bearing on the freedom of press. Not only this, the problems which the order in question seeks to redress can very well be remedied by the Council itself,” a PCI statement said.
However, state Minister for Information and Public Relations Perni Venkataramaiah defended the order, stating that if any section of the press makes baseless statements against a department, the department head has to send a factual rejoinder. The newspaper or the TV channel has to disclose the rejoinder to the people, the minister said. “If the newspaper or the TV channel does not disclose the rejoinder, the government would issue a legal notice and go to court… This was the crux matter of the GO. What is wrong in this and where was the government muzzling the freedom of the press? What the government wants is that the media should have proof when it is making allegations and they should not be baseless,” he said.
“Earlier , the Commissioner of Information and Public Relations had the authority to go to court, on behalf of the respective departments. Now, the GO has been modified and the special powers have been given to the top officials of the respective departments with Cabinet approval. Any person, company, or government can go to court in case of any injustice,” said Andhra Pradesh Public Policy Adviser K Ramachandra Murthy.