A day after Attorney General K K Venugopal claimed in the Supreme Court that reports on the Rafale deal were based on documents “stolen” from the Ministry of Defence and threatened to invoke the Official Secrets Act against two publications and a lawyer, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley Thursday said the government respects press freedom but “national security is an exception”.
Media bodies condemned the AG’s remarks as “reprehensible… threats” with the “potential of sending out a chilling effect to one and all in the media”.
In the Supreme Court Wednesday, Venugopal did not name the publications but towards the end of the hearing said “documents in the possession of The Hindu and ANI are stolen documents”. On February 8, a report in The Hindu, citing a “Defence Ministry note” of November 2015, stated that the Ministry “raised strong objections to ‘parallel negotiations’ conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the French side” in the Rafale deal. News agency ANI released the same note with additional notings.
At a briefing Thursday on Cabinet decisions, Jaitley said “it’s obvious” that “notings” of files of the Ministry of Defence, which are “sensitive interest to this country have been leaked out”. He said “don’t forget, we have a very free press in India, we respect it” and then added “even the framers of the Constitution said national security is an exception” and it has “never been challenged in the last 72 years”. On the proceedings in the Supreme Court, Jaitley said “what goes on in court, let’s leave it for the court to decide”.
But the AG’s remarks were denounced by media bodies. In a statement, The Editors Guild of India said it “unequivocally condemns the Attorney General’s comments before the Supreme Court pertaining to documents based on which the media, including The Hindu, had reported on the Rafale deal”.
It said the AG “sought dismissal of a petition for a review of the apex court’s earlier judgment, giving the government a clean chit, on the ground that the fresh petition had relied on documents that were ‘stolen’ from the Defence ministry and that investigations were going on to find out if it was a crime and violative of the Official Secrets Act”.
“Although the Attorney General later clarified that the investigation and contemplated action would not be initiated against journalists or lawyers who used these documents, the Guild is perturbed over such threats. These will intimidate the media in general and curb its freedom to report and comment on the Rafale deal in particular. Any attempt to use the Official Secrets Act against the media is as reprehensible as asking the journalists to disclose their sources. The Guild denounces these threats and urges the government to refrain from initiating any action that might undermine the media’s freedom and independence,” it said.
In a joint statement, Press Club of India, Indian Women Press Corps and Press Association expressed “deep concern” over Venugopal’s remarks. They said that Venugopal’s statement “that the publication of such reports and the documents imperiled national security and therefore should be deemed as criminal, has the potential of sending out a chilling effect to one and all in the media”.
The implications and ramifications of such statements made by the top most legal officer of the government, the press bodies said, “are not only for the media but also for the sources of information that journalists rely on”.
They said the government’s assertions that the reports violated OSA “contradict the very idea of a free press in an open democracy like ours”. Journalism, they said, is “bound by its dual responsibility of reporting what is in public interest as well as raising questions, irrespective of the government in power, which is part of its moral responsibility” and it is “deeply unfortunate that it is the discharge of this responsibility that is being sought to be stymied by top ranking officials of the government”.
The press bodies called for re-examination of the OSA and laws for defamation “given the potential of their misuse against the Fourth Estate”.