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Supreme Court stays arrest of The Hindu Editor, five others

By J. Venkatesan



Sam Mathew, assistant of Harish Salve, counsel for The Hindu, addressing mediapersons at the Supreme Court on Monday. — Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

New Delhi Nov. 10. The Supreme Court today stayed the warrants issued by the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly for the arrest of the Editor of The Hindu, N. Ravi, and four others, and that of S. Selvam, Editor of the Tamil daily, Murasoli. The warrants had been issued in pursuance of a resolution passed by the Assembly on November 7 sentencing them to 15 days simple imprisonment for breach of privilege of the House.

A Bench of Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice S.B. Sinha in its brief order said: "Issue notice on the writ petitions as also on the applications for ad interim ex-parte stay, returnable after three weeks. Meanwhile, there will be stay of warrant issued by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu against the petitioners and the respondents, their officers, agents and counterparts in any State of India shall be restrained from executing the warrants issued by the Speaker of the Assembly. Notice shall also be issued to the Attorney-General for India."

The matter will come up for further hearing on December 8.

The four representatives of The Hindu other than Mr. Ravi who had filed the petition are: the Executive Editor, Malini Parthasarathy, Publisher, S. Rangarajan, Chief of Bureau, Tamil Nadu, V. Jayanth, and Special Correspondent, Radha Venkatesan.

Following a request from senior counsel for the petitioners, Harish Salve and Kapil Sibal, that the order be communicated by fax to the Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu, the Bench asked the Registry to forthwith intimate about the order of stay to the DGP. The Registry carried out the direction accordingly.

Besides the Speaker, the respondents to whom notice was issued included: the Secretary, Tamil Nadu Assembly; the State Home Secretary, the DGP, Tamil Nadu; the Deputy and Assistant Police Commissioners, Triplicane Police Station, Chennai; the Chief Secretary, Karnataka; the Bangalore City Police Commissioner; and the Delhi Police Commissioner.

The resolution passed by the Assembly on November 7 said that an editorial published in The Hindu on April 25, 2003 was written in a manner that caused breach of privilege of the action of the Assembly Speaker who was the custodian of the Assembly, as well as the action of the Privileges Committee and in the process imputed ulterior motives to the House as a whole. The resolution held that the Editor, Mr. Ravi, and four others of The Hindu and the Editor of Murasoli, S. Selvam, had committed a punishable offence of breach of privilege of the House. It sentenced them to undergo 15 days simple imprisonment.

Mr. Salve, appearing for Mr. Ravi and four others, argued that the powers of the State Legislatures under Article 194 of the Constitution must be read in harmony with fundamental rights as envisaged in Article 19 (1) (a) (freedom of speech and expression) and Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) and could not be construed as authorising any authority of the State to arrest and detain a person.

To a question from the Bench on the extent and scope of judicial review, he said the question here was whether the power of the legislature under Article 194 (3) could be higher than the powers conferred on citizens under Article 19 (1) (a) and whether the legislature could enforce penal powers on the citizens without giving them sufficient opportunity to be heard. He cited various decisions of the apex court that had clearly held that the power of privilege of the Legislature would have to be harmonised with the fundamental rights of citizens.

Mr. Salve contended that the resolution was based on a complete misreading of law and facts by the House, however widely one were to construe the privilege of the House. He submitted that no person who had understood constitutional law correctly could ever come to a conclusion that the articles and the editorial were intemperate and amounted to lowering the dignity or breach of privilege of the House. He argued that the articles merely described the utterances of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa inside the House and these in no way interfered with the proceedings of the House, warranting any punishment for the journalists. Mr. Salve argued that the adjectives used by media could not be a breach of privilege.

Appearing for Murasoli Selvam, senior advocate Kapil Sibal contended that his client's newspaper had merely reproduced the editorial that appeared in The Hindu and this could not be construed as interference with the proceedings of the House.

"If it is a criticism of a political party, it does not amount to breach of privilege," he said. On the question of cancellation of passes to cover the proceedings in the Assembly for the newspaper as a whole, Mr. Sibal said that the House could not do it as it would be violative of the fundamental right to equality guaranteed under Article 14.

He said that at best the House could cancel the pass of the reporter or correspondent concerned who had written the article in question but could not deny an entire news organisation the facility to cover the proceedings of the House. However, since the Tamil Nadu Assembly was not in session, the Bench said it would consider this aspect later.

The Bench permitted senior counsel P. Chidambaram to file applications to intervene in the matter on behalf of the Chennai Press Club, the Madras Union of Journalists and the Journalists Action Group.

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