The BJP-led NDA government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be in panic if one takes a close look at the revelation that Attorney General (AG) K.K. Venugopal made in the Supreme Court on 6 March. He informed the apex court that “secret” papers published by a national daily — The Hindu
— on the purchase of 36 Rafale jet fighters were “stolen” from the Ministry of Defence
In his submission, the country’s AG said the publication of secret defence documents had put the national security at risk and had adversely affected relations with friendly foreign powers. He said the government was thinking of taking “criminal action” under the Official Secrets Act.
The AG went on to present a dangerous picture to the apex court: “In future, foreign countries will think twice. They will think defence purchases will have to go through Parliament, TV channels and then the judiciary. These defence purchases involve the very security of the state.. the purchase of the plane is essential for the survival of the nation, for the survival of each one of us.”
One of the foremost issue is related to the freedom of the press or should we replace media in place of press for giving a correct perspective.
The government’s intent as reflected in the AG’s submission raises several vital issues that are fundamentally crucial to the functioning of democracy in the country. One of the foremost issue is related to the freedom of the press or should we replace media in place of press for giving a correct perspective.
There cannot be any dispute that the freedom of the media is closely related to the smooth conduct of democratic institutions because intimidation and fear are anti-democratic attributes.
The Editor’s Guild of India
has condemned the Government’s proposition that documents published by the media related to India’s Rafale fighter jet deal with France were “stolen” from the Defence Ministry. The Guild said it was “perturbed” by the Government’s threats that criminal action would be initiated against journalists or lawyers who used these documents. “Any attempt to use the Official Secrets Act against the media is reprehensible as asking the journalists to disclose their sources,” the Guild stressed.
Many other media bodies, including the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ), also condemned the government’s stand, criticising it for threatening the media under the outdated OSA under the garb of national security.
Although the AG later clarified that the investigation and the contemplated action would not be initiated against journalists or lawyers who used these documents, but the fact that the government even thinks in this way is disturbing enough.
Like the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) has its roots in the British colonial times and the two have been misused to intimidate, threaten and silence dissent and opposition. The OSA’s predecessor act, The Indian Official Secrets Act, 1904, was enacted during Lord Curzon’s regime when he was the Governor General from 1899 to 1905.
Like the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act has its roots in the British colonial times and the two have been misused to intimidate, threaten and silence dissent and opposition.
However, in 1923, a new version of the Act was notified that replaced the earlier Act and was extended to all aspects of secrecy and confidentiality in governance in the country. The need to expand the scope of the Act arose because of the emergence of a large number of small and big newspapers that were opposing the British Raj policies boldly and fearlessly on a daily basis. The main objective of making the OSA stringent was to muzzle the press that was raising public consciousness about rights and freedom.
What is surprising and incomprehensible is that an Act that was an effective instrument to sustain the colonial rule that was exploitative and oppressive still continues to be on the statute book and is being misused against its own citizens who pursue truth.
The Vajpayee government had used this Act against then Kashmir Times
journalist Iftikhar Gilani who was arrested and charged under the OSA in June 2002 for allegedly possessing ‘secret documents’ related to deployment of troops in the valley — an open secret as the same information was available on the internet. Gilani was harassed and tortured by official agencies. Approximately a year later, the government withdrew the case.
A rare conviction under this Act came in 2018 when a Delhi court held former diplomat Madhuri Gupta, who had served in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, guilty under the OSA. She was sentenced to three years in jail for passing on sensitive information to the Pakistani ISI.
Governments world over love to suppress dissent because they fear criticism of their policies and acts. In this context, it is worth recalling one of the most determining observations in the US Supreme Court’s 1971 majority opinion that allowed the publication of Pentagon papers
that contained the American government’s history of the US-Vietnam conflict. “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” the judgement
Governments world over love to suppress dissent because they fear criticism of their policies and acts.
When The New York Times
, in June 1971, published the first three installments of a massive study documenting the US involvement in Vietnam, the Nixon Administration moved to the court for blocking the publication of further installments on the ground that it would hurt the national security.
First, the Federal Courthouse temporarily restrained publication for three days to study the case. Then in a ruling that was upheld by an appellate court and the US Supreme Court, the Judge rejected the US government’s national security argument and affirmed the right of publication.
“A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know,” Judge M.I. Gurfein stated. “These are troubled times. There is no greater safety valve for discontent and cynicism about the affairs of the government than freedom of expression in any form,” he pointed out.
One may argue whether India is facing troubled times or not, but the fact remains that the Modi government is not well disposed to the media. Let the country’s apex court take a dispassionate view of the national security argument that is driving the electoral agenda of the BJP. It is a dangerous argument and it needs to be rejected by the Supreme Court once for all following the US example.
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