Significance of Delhi High Court Verdict: Freedom of Press lies in Freedom in Acquiring Evidence

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

There were MPs in BJP that were in the practice of collecting money for putting prompted questions in the Parliament. Vajpayee, much before he became a Prime Minister, had advised his party members in both the Houses to stop this practice.

Journalists knew that this was going on. But exposing the felony with proof was not easy. Two of the web journalists – Anirudh Bahal and Suhasini Raj – used candid cameras to capture the proof. They captured as many as 11 MPs – 6 of whom belonged to BJP, 3 to BSP and one each to Congress and RJD – while taking bribe for asking coined-behind-the-curtain questions in the Parliament of India.

Loud-mouthed friends of some of these MPs in the Parliament had raised demands for prosecution against these two journalists for having transgressed the privilege of Parliament by conducting sting on its members. Their demands were rejected by the Loksabha Inquiry Committee headed by Pawan Kumar Bansal while recommending for dismissal of those MPs.

The Bansal Committee had said, “We would prefer more acknowledgments from the media that the overwhelming majority of public servants work hard and have high standards. We would prefer more recognition of the value of our democratic mechanisms and dangers of undermining them. But we do not hold the media in any way to blame for exposing genuine wrongdoing. They have a duty to inquire -coupled with a duty to do so responsibly and in that way we can contribute to the preservation of standards in public life”.

The Bansal Committee report had been fully endorsed by the Parliament and the tainted MPs had been dismissed.

But the crooks in politics have a habit of harassing journalists when exposed.

We may remember how, after Vajpayee government in the ministry of Defense and the two coalition parties – Vajpayee’s BJP and Fernandes’ Samata – were exposed by Tehelka for corruption in defense deals, a judicial inquiry commission headed by a sitting Supreme Court Judge Sri Venkatswamy constituted under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, was asked to look into “all aspects relating to the making and publication of these allegations.” This had made Noorani to warn through Hindustan Times, 31 March 2001, “If this move is allowed to pass muster, the press will effectively be muzzled.”

The same modus operandi was adopted in cash for question case. Delhi administration was used to prosecute the two journalists for conducting sting operations on members of Parliament and publishing their finding instead of confiding in the Police. Summoned by a Special Court, they had preferred a petition before the High Court of Delhi for their protection.

Justice S N Dhingra of this High Court has written a new chapter in the history of judicial concern for the people by quashing that case against Bahal and Raj on September 24.

He has not only rejected prosecution’s plea that the two journalists should have confided to the Police or the CBI instead of conducting the sting; but also has given a judicial approval to sting operation by investigative journalist in public interest.

“I need not emphasize that in cases of complaints against the persons in power, how the CBI and Police act. The fate of whistleblowers is being seen by people of this country. They are either being harassed or killed or roped in criminal cases,” Justice Dhingra has observed while saying, “I have no doubt in my mind that if the information would have been given by the petitioners to the Police or CBI, the respective MPs would have been given information by the police beforehand and they would have been cautioned about the entire operation.”

“The intention of the person involved is to be seen and the intention in this case is clear from the fact that the petitioners after conducting this operation did not ask police to register a case against the MPs involved but gave information to people as to what was happening,” he has noted.

Rejecting the prosecution plea that the role of the two journalists was that of agent provocateurs, Justice Dhingra has held, “In order to expose corruption at higher level and to show to what extent the state managers are corrupt, acting as agent provocateurs does not amount to committing a crime.”

This judgment is a great help for evolution of fearless free Press. It makes it clear that freedom of Press lies in freedom in acquiring evidence. Hence this is an epoch making verdict that will lead to evolution of Free Press in its relevant best.

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