To place the issue in a timely and relevant context, it was a solid “vote” in favour of liberty that the Supreme Court of India cast on Wednesday when it decided to take due cognisance of “fresh” material, and agree to review its earlier order that had declined to order a further probe into the purchase of 36 Rafale combat aircraft from the French firm, Dassault Aviation.
Their Lordships, CJI Ranjan Gogoi, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph set a revised benchmark for the freedom of the Press by rejecting outright the Central government’s claim that it had “privilege” over documents recently published in a section of the media.
The government contended that those documents were “stolen” and hence inadmissible in judicial proceedings, and their publication violated the Official Secrets Act. To put it squarely, the highest court in the land came down heavily on the attempt by the administration to use its clout to muzzle the media. And, in the process, it projected in negative light the government’s top law officer, who collaborated with his principals in attempting to snuff out a vital element of democratic functioning.
At this stage there is little need to go into the merits of the demand to probe afresh the “politically-loaded” Rafale purchase ~ the complexities would be dealt with subsequently. Rather the court must be lauded for upholding the citizen’s right to unfettered flow of information. And to remind the nation of the fall-out of Press censorship during the Emergency of 1975-77, and the battle the media subsequently fought to pressurise Rajiv Gandhi to withdraw the Chidambaram-conceived “Defamation Bill”.
While the NDA government made no overt move to suppress Press freedom, the measures just deprecated by the court were a thinly-veiled attempt to do so. It is highly significant that though two separate judgments were written ~ each of them powerful in their own way ~ the conclusions drawn were similar.
And as the CJI wrote, they were in consonance with a series of earlier verdicts on the issue. The overall picture being that a free Press could not be demolished, not even with a huge majority in Parliament. The message to the media was that it should remain on constant alert ~ no government can ever be a genuine well-wisher.
Without delving into the political dogfight over Rafale or endorsing the claims of opposing camps, the defence ministry betrays itself by suggesting that those calling for a further probe were misleading the court ~ had the ministry furnished full information to begin with the need for reviewing the court’s initial order would never have arisen.
As for Nirmala Sitharaman’s claim that Rahul Gandhi was tottering on the brink of contempt of court, maybe she needs better luck than the Attorney General had when he threatened to invoke the Official Secrets Act against a leading newspaper for publishing “stolen” documents.