The freedom of press index maintained by Reporters Without Borders ranks India, the world’s largest democracy, 136th out of 180 countries, not something to be proud of. Within India, Tamil Nadu would qualify for the last place if a similar index were to be prepared. The much lamented J Jayalalitha holds the record of filing more defamation suits against the media than all other Chief Ministers in the country put together.
During her first term in office, one media house alone faced 123 defamation cases that forced the Supreme Court to intervene and quash them in one stroke.
Eddapadi Palaniswamy, the present Chief Minister who has promised Jayalalitha-style rule, is not wanting in curbing press freedom. Moved by the tragic scene of a usury victim immolating himself with his wife and two young children in front of the Tirunelveli collectorate after the collector and the police commissioner failed to restrain the usurer from resorting to strong-arm tactics in spite of repeated complaints from the victim, G Bala, a popular Chennai-based cartoonist, published a cartoon lampooning the Chief Minister, Collector and police commissioner which was widely applauded by the public.
Incensed by the unflattering publicity, the government arrested Bala from his residence on Sunday, drove him all night to Tirunelveli to produce him in court on Monday on a complaint by the collector. The cartoon portrayed the trio without clothes covering their nakedness with wads of currency notes. The collector said there was a limit to creativity and freedom of expression. The judicial magistrate before whom Bala was produced on Monday was not impressed by the collector’s statement and granted the cartoonist instant bail.
The police was not willing to let their quarry go. They tried to take him into custody forcibly in spite of the bail order. The advocates present in the court rescued Bala and kept him in their chambers till the bail formalities were completed.
Although Article 19 of the Constitution provides to all citizens freedom of speech and expression, nothing explicitly guarantees freedom of the press and not much has changed since colonial rule. If anyone deserves to be arrested in this case it is the district collector for abetting the suicide of the family of four by ignoring repeated pleas for protection.
On 4 November, a group of about 10 police personnel stormed into the house of Rajarathinam, popularly known as Semmani, an advocate from Marankulam in Tirunelveli district, detained him in a local police station overnight, stripped him naked and took turns in torturing him.
At dawn they took him to another police station nearby and asked him to leave. He had to be hospitalised.
His crime, if it can be called such, was to defend Koodankulam antinuclear protesters. The time has come to ensure that freedom of press gets an institutional safeguard.