The Andhra Pradesh government on Wednesday issued an order, authorising bureaucrats to sue media houses for defamatory, baseless and false reports.
Two weeks after the state cabinet took the controversial decision to gag media and ignoring the protest from journalist fraternity and other quarters, the government issued orders empowering secretaries of the respective departments to sue media houses.
The Y.S Jagan Mohan Reddy-led government went ahead with its move by releasing the order.
“Government hereby accord permission to delegate powers to the secretaries of respective departments to issue rejoinders, file complaints and lodge appropriate cases, if need be, through public prosecutor against defamatory news items published/telecast/posted in print/electronic/social media pertaining to their respective departments after following due process of law,” reads the order issued by T. Vijay Kumar Reddy, ex-officio secretary to the government, Information and Public Relations Department.
Leader of Opposition and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president N. Chandrababu Naidu reacted strongly to the release of the GO and called it draconian. He said this would curb freedom of expression, and is meant to stifle people’s voice on social media.
The former Chief Minister noted that the right to question, criticize and showcase the failures of a government is fundamental to democracy.
“Prodded by the YSRC Party, the Police will now be able to foist false cases to harass media institutions & people who are showcasing the many failures of the Govt. If necessary, we will take the fight to the streets until this oppressive GO is cancelled,” tweeted Naidu.
It was on October 16 that the state cabinet decided to empower secretaries. The move evoked protest from the journalists’ unions, civil society organisations and opposition parties.
The ruling party clarified that it has only decentralized the powers hitherto vested with the Commissioner of Information and Public Relations.
The government also made it clear that filing of cases will be the last resort. It said the process will start with issuing a rejoinder, ensuing that the correction is given the same prominence as the wrongly published/televised news was given, including the placement/time slot and has full clarity besides being properly sourced.
The Jagan Mohan Reddy government, which came under attack for suppressing freedom of press, claimed it is committed to uphold democratic norms.
It believes that there is aimperative need for the flow of news pertaining to various government departments in an accurate manner “without any distortion, slant or prejudice”.
The clarification, however, failed to allay the apprehensions among journalist community that the powers will be misused to target the media houses, especially those critical of the government or ruling party.