Journalist bodies condemn move to muzzle media

New Delhi: The Editors Guild of India on Thursday said it was perturbed by the reported threats that criminal action will be initiated against journalists or lawyers who use documents pertaining to Rafale fighter jet deal with France.

The Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, and the Press Association also expressed “deep concern” on the development.

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that petitions seeking an inquiry into the Rafale fighter jet deal were based on documents “stolen” from the Defence Ministry.

And the government would initiate “criminal proceedings” since the documents were related to sensitive military purchases and were covered by the Official Secrets Act, he said.

The Guild condemned the Attorney General’s remarks and said any attempt to use the Official Secrets Act against journalists would be reprehensible.

“Although the Attorney General later clarified that the investigation and contemplated action would not be initiated against journalists or lawyers who used these documents, the Guild is perturbed over such threats. These will intimidate the media in general and curb its freedom to report and comment on the Rafale deal in particular,” the Guild said in a statement.

It further said that asking journalists to disclose their sources was also reprehensible.

“The Guild denounces these threats and urges the government to refrain from initiating any action that might undermine the media’s freedom and independence,” the statement said.

A joint statement issued by Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps and Press Association expressed “deep concern” at the statements made by Venugopal.

“The Attorney General’s statements made in open court suggesting that the publication of such reports and the documents imperiled national security and therefore should be deemed as a criminal has the potential of sending out a chilling effect to one and all in the media,” said the statement.

The journalist bodies said that the fourth estate was bound by its dual responsibility of reporting what is in public interest as well as raising questions, irrespective of the government in power.

“It is deeply unfortunate that it is the discharge of this responsibility that is being sought to be stymied by top-ranking officials of the government. We feel it is the time that the Official Secrets Act, as well as the law on Defamation, are re-examined given the potential of their misuse against the Fourth Estate,” the statement added.