JAIPUR: All major media organisations--including the Federation of Press Clubs in India have come together against the Criminal Law (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017 moved by the Rajasthan government that effectively gags in the media while protecting public servants, magistrates, serving and former judges from being investigated for on-duty action.

Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje who had decided to place the proposed Bill on the table of the House on Monday morning has had to to reconsider her decision in face of stiff opposition. The journalists, the opposition, as well as rights organisations like the PUCL have all come out in strong condemnation of Raje’s move with Public Interest Litigations already filed in court against the Bill that seeks to shoot the messenger even as it protects those favoured by the government of the day.

By the end of Monday Raje lost much of her determination and rushed to convene a meeting of senior BJP leaders and Ministers to discuss what could be done. She reportedly urged them to reconsider the Bill even though the BJP has full majority of 160 legislators in the Rajasthan Assembly.

Dear Vasundhara ji,

We, the undersigned journalist organisations would like to express our strong reservations and concern at the draconian Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017 that was tabled by your government on October 23. The Bill which was earlier in the form of an ordinance and promulgated on September 6, in effect restrains the media from what it is primarily meant to do, i.e, act a watchdog and ombudsman of society.

The Bill broadly seeks to protect public servants from allegations arising out of possible vested interests and restrains the reporting by the media of any possible allegations made against such officers. Not only does this clampdown on reporting militate against public interest as the public are impacted by government policies and decisions - good or bad - but the Bill subverts the basic freedom of the press which is enshrined in the spirit of Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution.

The Bill expressly prohibits the media from publishing the "name, address, photograph, family details or any other particulars which may lead to disclosure of identity of a judge or magistrate or a public servant against whom any proceeding is pending" until the sanction for prosecution, (by the government), is issued. Those violating these conditions would be punished with a jail term extendable to two years with a fine.

It is ironic and unfortunate that at a time when there is a great demand and an even greater need for public accountability and transparency, your government appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

We urge you, as chief minister, to withdraw the Bill as neither is it in public interest, nor does it serve the aims and objectives of our vibrant democracy.

Sincerely yours,

Shobhna Jain- (President, Indian Women's Press Corps)

Gautam Lahiri- (President, Press Club Of India)

Jai Shankar- (President, Press Association)

Nadeem A. Kazmi- (Federation of Press Clubs in India)

This letter comes on the heels of a statement by the Editors Guild of India thad had expressed deep concern about the Ordinance describing it as a “pernicious instrument to harass the media, hide wrongful acts by government servants and drastically curb the freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution of India.” The Guild had stated categorically that it expected the Rajasthan government “ to immediately withdraw the ordinance and desist from making it into law.”

The statement further added, “Rather than taking stern measures to prevent and punish those who indulge in frivolous or false litigation, the Rajasthan government has passed an ordinance that is bent on bludgeoning the messenger. While the Guild has always stood for fair, balanced and responsible reporting of FIRs filed in courts of law, it believes that the remedy being employed by the Rajasthan Government is draconian and gives it untrammelled power to even imprison journalists for reporting matters of public interest. The Guild requests the Chief Minister Smt. Vasundhara Raje to withdraw the harmful ordinance and prevent any Act from being passed that would endanger the freedom of the press.”

There is Opposition to the Bill that makes it a criminal offence for journalists to report on any accused public official without government sanction, from the Congress of course but also some BJP legislators. One of them Ghanshyam Tiwari who has gone public against this law comparing it to the Emergency in 1975/. He said that the BJP had not opposed the Emergency then to bring in similar laws now.

Significantly the Congress had moved similar amendments to the anti-corruption law in 2013 to ostensibly protect honest officials. The same argument is being given by Raje who has said that honest officers were finding it difficult to discharge their duties.

The Rajasthan government has hit the pause button for now, but it is still not a done deal.