Invoking breach of privilege, the Karnataka Assembly has announced jail sentences for the editors of two Bengaluru tabloids. Perhaps the Speaker, K.B. Koliwad, misunderstands the purpose of the law of privilege, which is to protect the independence of the House. Privilege is to be invoked only if an intervention prevents members of the House from discharging their duties. Typically, this amounts to preventing legislators from speaking their mind. No such thing happened in this case, and the legislators who felt impugned by the tabloids could have taken recourse to the laws of defamation and libel, without dragging the issue into the House.
The action is objectionable on other counts. First, it marks an unfortunate departure from the doctrine of separation of powers and functions, on which the entire edifice of Indian democracy stands. The Speaker is complainant, advocate and judge, and has even fixed the quantum of punishment — a year behind bars and Rs 10,000 in fines. Which brings us to another objection against the move: There is very little clarity about the law of privilege, and whether it is proper for legislatures to award punishments remains debatable. This case should serve as a spur to bring clarity to the provision of privilege. Situations which attract it should be narrowly and unambiguously defined, and legislatures should not have the right to impose punishments unilaterally, only because some of their members feel impugned.
The misuse of privilege appears especially disturbing at this juncture, when the press is perceived to be under attack. Last winter, the closure of Kashmir Reader for almost three months, on the charge that its coverage of street protests following the killing of Burhan Wani of the Hizbul Mujahedeen could incite “acts of violence and disturbance of public tranquillity”, was entirely avoidable. The gratuitous misuse of legislative privilege in Karnataka is most unfortunate. The judiciary should immediately clarify the applicability of privilege, and ensure that legislatures can no longer play plaintiff, advocate and judge, all rolled into one.