New Delhi: Press Council of India (PCI) chairperson Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad (retd) has drawn flak from several journalists for trying to intervene in a plea seeking an end to the restrictions on communications in Jammu & Kashmir.
The plea was filed by the executive editor of Kashmir Times, a Jammu-based English daily, Anuradha Bhasin, who sought the removal of restrictions on communication which she said were interfering with journalists’ right to exercise their profession.
In its application to the apex court, the PCI has supported the communication restrictions and asserted that they are “in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation”.
The Indian Journalists Union, a representative body for scribes, condemned the move and said the chairperson should have consulted the council before approaching the Supreme Court “and spared members and the institution the grave embarrassment it has caused”.
While this isn’t the first time Prasad has backed curbs on freedom of speech and expression, within the Valley and outside, there were occasions during his judicial career when he upheld it.
A career of over four decades
Prasad enrolled as an advocate in 1973 and was designated a senior advocate in 1989. He was elevated as a judge of the Patna High Court five years later. He served as the acting chief justice of the Patna High Court for two months in 2008 and for three months in 2008-09.
He also served as the chief justice of the Allahabad High Court for almost a year before being elevated as a Supreme Court judge in 2010. Months after his retirement in July 2014, he was appointed the PCI chairman.
In August 2012, Justice Prasad, along with fellow Supreme Court judge Justice Aftab Alam, had condemned the live coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and asserted that placing national interest in jeopardy cannot be justified by taking recourse to the freedom guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution.
The bench added that the coverage of the attacks had “done much harm to the argument that any regulatory mechanism for the media must only come from within”.
Upholding the death sentence awarded to terrorist Ajmal Kasab, the bench observed, “Any attempt to justify the conduct of the TV channels by citing the right to freedom of speech and expression would be totally wrong and unacceptable in such a situation.
“The freedom of expression, like all other freedoms under Article 19, is subject to reasonable restrictions. An action tending to violate another person’s right to life guaranteed under Article 21 or putting the national security in jeopardy can never be justified by taking the plea of freedom of speech and expression,” it added.
The bench pointed out that by covering the terrorist attacks in the way it was done, Indian TV channels were acting in their own commercial interests.
Internet curbs in Kashmir
In March 2016, the PCI took exception to 10 articles published in 2014-15 by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the Paris-based non-profit for press freedom.
In one of the articles, the RWB had condemned the Indian government’s “indiscriminate disconnection of the Internet” throughout Jammu & Kashmir from 25 to 28 September, 2015. It was titled “Three-day Internet ban prevents journalists from working in Kashmir”, and published in October 2015.
In a letter signed by Prasad, the PCI noted that the government was “expected to have taken the steps after due consideration and balance of all issues in national interest”.
In the context of the write-up, it said that “writing about any incident in a style that is likely to inflame passion, aggravate the tension, or accentuate the strained relations between the communities/religious groups concerned, which has a potential to exacerbate the religious groups concerned, or which has a potential to exacerbate the trouble, shall be avoided by the media”.
Concluding the letter, the PCI called on the RWB to factor in the “relevant parameters” before ranking India in the World Press Freedom Index, which is compiled by the non-profit.
Bringing social media under PCI
A year later, in 2017, Prasad advocated for bringing social media under the ambit of the PCI, as he interacted with editors in Odisha capital Bhubaneswar.
While acknowledging that every individual has a right to express their opinion, he said checks and balances were needed as these opinions were being posted in public domain.
“While every person has the right to express their opinions, there needs to be some responsibility because it is going out in the public domain… This suggestion is not to curtail its (social media’s) freedom but to make it more responsible,” he said.
He also demanded that the ‘Press Council of India’ be accordingly renamed ‘Media Council’.
‘Full freedom for creative artists’
However, Prasad followed a slightly different narrative as a judge of the Patna High Court as he quashed the temporary injunction granted by a lower court against the telecast of the serial, Ram Khilawan (CM) ‘N’ Family, which was allegedly meant to lampoon RJD president Lalu Prasad and his family.
In the judgment, Justice Prasad cited Article 19 of the Constitution and observed that a creative artist was free to project society or the political system in any manner he perceives, “provided its display does not affect public order, decency or morality, defamation or incitement to an offence”.
“It may be legitimate for the State to prohibit telecast of serial which incite (sic) violence or have a tendency to create public disorder, it cannot suppress even a very strong pungent satire of a political-leader, which has no such tendency,” he added.
He said he would “rather opt for full freedom to the creative artists to project the society seen through their eyes with all the dangers involved in wrong use of that freedom, than to suppress their creativity”.
‘Pen is in pain’
He adopted a similar argument in February 2018 as he emphasised the importance of press freedom and safety of journalists, saying “an act of aggression against a journalist is an attack on the basic fundamental right of the freedom of speech and expression”.
Speaking at an event in Dhaka, he said “free media is not an option in democracy, it is sine qua non (an essential condition)”.
“What oxygen is for human beings, freedom is for the survival of the media,” he added.
He, however, lamented the loss of credibility facing the media in present times, saying, “Pen is in pain, I do not know at whose hands. Is it self-inflicted or has come from outside, that needs a serious analysation.”