By I. Ramamohan Rao
New Delhi, Feb.19 (ANI): Hundreds of media persons marched in protest in downtown Delhi on February 9 against the roughing up of their colleagues by lawyers inside the Patiala House Court premises earlier this week. There has been little effort by the police to bring the culprits to book. Representatives of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry too did not extend any help to the journalists who were attacked, nor did they meet with the protesting media persons.
The visuals brought to mind a similar march by journalists in 1988. The provocation for the march then was against the proposal to ammend the Official Secrets Act to bring in a Defamation bill. As Prinicpal Information Officer to the Government of India then, I was inovlved in the discussions that went on to formulate the language of the bill.
On a Friday, in July 1988, when I went to call on the then Union Home Secretary, C.G. Somiah, who was under orders of transfer, he told me “Ramamohan Rao, from now onwards, the government will be able to take quick action against newspapers who violate the law. The Lok Sabha has just passed the bill which lays down that the burden of proof in cases of defamation against the press would be on the defendant instead of the prosecution. “
I had not known the details of the changed Bill till then. I told Somiah that I was prepared to take a bet that the Bill would not be passed and would run into rough weather in the Rajya Sabha. The press would also object strongly, I told him.
Sure enough, a huge controversy erupted over the weekend. A demonstration was taken out on Raj Path by members of the press, very similar to the protest that one saw this week by journalists from the television and print media. The Rajiv Gandhi led Congress Government had a tiger by its tail. There was unprecedented defiance from the media, and even from within his own party. Many reminded him of the days of Emergency and warned that if he pushed this bill despite protests, he would have the same legacy as his mother- of stifling freedom of speech.
Fortunately, he paid heed and decided to test the waters.The then Information and Broadcasting Minister, H.K.L. Bhagat, invited representatives of the media for a conversation. He was totally unable to convince the media of the need to introduce the amendment which put the burden of proof on the defendant instead of the prosecution.
The media did not budge and said they would fight for their freedom and not accept any dilution in their freedoms. The bureacracy and political establishment of the day also advised the Prime Minister’s Office on the follies of pushing forward with the legislation.
On September 22,1988 Rajiv Gandhi called a Cabinet meeting and decided to withdraw the legislation which had been passed in the Lok Sabha. This was the first time in the history of Parliament that such a decision had been taken by a ruling party. The anti-government rallies that had been taken out all across the country by media persons supported by opposition parties suddenly stopped.
It was a victory for the media no doubt, but it wasn’t a loss for the Rajiv Gandhi government either. Press freedom is not to be trifled with and every government of the day learns that. Some the hard way.
(The incident is dealt with in the recently released book by I. Ramamohan Rao, entitled Pacific Communication: Chronicles of a Commentator) (ANI)