The Attorney General of the Government of India K K Venugopal’s comments in the Supreme Court in the course of the hearing on the Rafale petition on March 6 pose a grave threat to the freedom of the press in the country at this moment when the hyper nationalism promoted by the ruling party and the government establishment, has already crippled the independent functioning of major part of the corporate led media in the name of national security.
The AG made a shocking statement by saying that the Supreme Court could not rely on” illegally obtained documents” to allow petitions asking an investigation into the Rafale deal. He threatened that the newspapers that had used such documents, allegedly from the defence ministry for writing the reports, could face charges under the Official Secrets Act.
The petition was allowed by the Supreme Court in the open house since the bench headed by the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi was convinced that the Government in the sealed envelope furnished untrue information on the basis of which the Court dismissed the petitions and gave clean chit to the Government in respect of the deal.
Since the last judgment was delivered on December 14, 2018, so many information and documentary evidence came to the public domain through the media that the Supreme Court had to agree to consider the review petition. The AG should have used the opportunity to prove that the new information was not true but he gave credence to the exposure documents by mentioning that the Court could not consider these documents submitted by the petitioners since these were based on stolen documents.
Further, without mentioning what action the Government has taken to trace the stolen documents, the AG threatened the newspapers for reporting the documents with notings under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) The next hearing of the Rafale petition is scheduled for March 14 but the initial response of the learned judges gives enough indication that they are not convinced of the plea of the AG to show judicial restraint in this case in the name of national security.
In fact, the AG has reflected the attitude of the Narendra Modi government which in recent months has shown scant respect to the constitutional values and the secular ethos of the Indian nation. Mr. Venugopal’s entire efforts in the Court were aimed at obstructing the process of assessing by the bench the authenticity of the documents and disallowing any probe by the Court by taking the plea of national security and the so called urgency of getting Rafale planes in the present phase of India-Pakistan tensions.
He was not ready to allow the Court to go into the issue whether the documents he filed in December last year in the sealed envelope were authentic or whether the Prime Minister’s Office carried on parallel negotiations on the Rafale deal and imposed it on the authorized Indian Negotiating Team resulting in loss to the Indian Government.
The documents are so explicit in pointing out the involvement of the PMO which means the Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the buck ultimately reached the top and this is what the AG on behalf of the entire NDA government was trying to obstruct.
The same scenario is likely to continue on March 14 also as continuous stress will be on obstructing the judicial scrutiny by taking the plea of national security and India’s interests more fervently so that the corruption issue and the breaking of rules by the PMO are not probed. It is up to the Court bench now to decide whether the learned judges will go by the semantics of the Modi government’s highest law officer.
As regards the press freedom, the Government is in a pathetic situation. The AG did not claim that the documents carried by The Hindu are not authentic. AG only said that the documents are “illegally stolen”. As of now, the Government has not taken any action against the newspapers since there has been a big uproar by the press and the Editor Guilds of India. Mr. N Ram of The Hindu has also claimed that he is not disclosing the sources.
He is perfectly right. Mr. Ram in early 1980s exposed the the Indira Gandhi government by publishing the IMF conditionalities which the Government was refusing to divulge. That was a great achievement of this veteran journalist and now again he has done a big service to the Indian public and media by publishing in public interest the documents on Rafale deal. His contribution to independent and public service journalism will remain a legend.
The present period of Modi era is a testing time for the Indian media. The newspapers are under tremendous pressure from the saffron forces as also Government. Very few have the guts to stand on their own defying the establishment. But the journalists and their organisations have to assert their rights and ensure that whatever freedom is there, is not taken away. In a joint statement, Press Club of India, Indian Women Press Corps and Press Association have expressed deep concern over Venugopal’s remarks.
The statement said “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 press bodies have also called for review of OSA and the laws for defamation given the potential of their misuse against the Fourth Estate.
This is the time for the media to be vigilant. Joint struggles have to be carried out in association with the lawyers and the civil society activists for t he protection of the press freedom. Demands have to be made for immediate review of the OSA and the defamation laws so that the independent media can work fearlessly taking into account the nation’s interests. It is a long haul but one has to be a part of it for building a secular, inclusive and open society in India.
Nitya Chakraborty is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.