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Hindu case blazes a trail

New Delhi, Dec. 8: The Supreme Court today referred to a five-judge Constitution bench the case of the Tamil Nadu Assembly resolution sentencing six journalists to imprisonment for breach of privilege.

“Interpretation of various constitutional provisions are involved. We refer the matter to a five-member Constitution bench,” the division bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and B.. Srikrishna said while admitting two petitions from the journalists.

This is the first time the apex court has referred such a matter to a Constitution bench as all earlier cases had wound up with the Assembly concerned withdrawing the resolution of arrest.

The Tamil Nadu Assembly’s privileges committee had on November 7 sentenced The Hindu editor . Ravi, executive editor Malini Parthasarathy, publisher S. Rangarajan, bureau chief V. Jayanth and special correspondent Radha Venkatesan to 15 days’ imprisonment.

S. Selvam, the editor of DMK mouthpiece Murasoli, was handed the same sentence for publishing the translated version of an editorial in The Hindu.

Harish Salve, senior counsel for The Hindu, today referred to an earlier instance of 1998 when the Andhra Pradesh Assembly had ordered the arrest of Ramoji Rao, the editor of Telugu daily Enadu. After the Supreme Court stayed the arrest on Rao’s plea, the Speaker asserted the legislature was “supreme” and so the police should carry out its order.

With the police caught between two conflicting orders from two supreme authorities, the Andhra Assembly gave the matter a quiet burial by withdrawing its arrest resolution.

Salve said a Constitution bench should decide whether the police should abide by the orders of the House or the judiciary in executing arrest warrants.

The Tamil Nadu government in the current case iterated the House was supreme and said “if the journalists against whom the resolution was passed accept the supremacy of the House, then there would not even be a requirement of (their) tendering an apology”. This indicated the legislature’s willingness to give the issue a quiet burial.

But the division bench observed: “You can do that outside. We will decide the question of law involved.”

The scanner will also be focused on the privilege of the House and a journalist’s right to report, comment on and criticise House proceedings.

The bench also extended the court’s stay of November 10 on the resolution till the Constitution bench disposed of the matter.

Today’s order has brought into sharp focus Articles 194(3) and 19(1a) of the Constitution. The first provides for powers and privileges of the House, including the right to award a sentence for breach of privilege. The second guarantees citizens freedom of speech and expression, which is interpreted as “press freedom”.

Salve contended that a legislature member’s privilege related only to the manner of speech and pattern of voting inside the House. This, he said, was to act as a “shield” to protect the member from any court action, and not as a “sword” to hurt others reporting, commenting on, criticising or analysing the proceedings or members’ speech/speeches.

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