Can a special law ensure safety for journalists?

The Maharashtra journalists’ protection law is based on a similar 2009 law for the protection of doctors. Till date, there have been zero convictions under it, say doctors' association representatives.

BySamrat X
Can a special law ensure safety for journalists?
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An organisation whose efforts led Maharashtra to pass India’s first law specifically aimed at protecting journalists and media houses has decided to broaden its campaign. SM Deshmukh, head of the Maharashtra Patrakar Halla Virodhi Kriti Samiti, said the organisation is now preparing to press for a national law of similar nature.

The new law provides for a jail term of up to three years and a fine of up to Rs 50,000 for anyone convicted of physical violence against an on-duty journalist or media house. The offence will be non-bailable.

Journalist organisations around the country have welcomed the law. Some, such as the National Union of Journalists and the Indian Journalists Union, have also highlighted their own campaigns for such a law, and their ongoing efforts to secure a national law for protection of journalists.

Mr Deshmukh said in a telephonic interview that the promulgation of the law was the result of a long struggle. Incidents of attacks on journalists in Maharashtra began to rise from 1990, he said. Finally, in 2005, the Marathi Patrakar Parishad demanded a law for protection of journalists. Successive chief ministers kept playing for time, Mr Deshmukh said. Matters escalated in 2011 with the murder of Mid-Day crime and investigations editor Jyotirmoy Dey in Mumbai.

“After the J Dey murder, all journalist organisations came together for the cause. The assurances from the government continued, but nothing happened,” Mr Deshmukh said.

A number of recent attacks on media persons in Mumbai again brought the spotlight back on the issue. In the week before the law was finally passed, four journalists were beaten up in Maharashtra, causing a crowd of angry media persons to descend on Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.

The CM agreed to their demand for a journalists’ protection law and has kept his word. However, whether the law will, in fact, help reduce attacks on journalists will depend entirely on implementation.

The Maharashtra journalists’ protection law is based on a similar law for protection of doctors, down to the details. The doctors’ protection law also provides for a jail term of three years and a fine of up to Rs 50,000 for anyone convicted of physical violence against on-duty medicare personnel or institutions. It is also meant to be non-bailable.

That law has been in existence since 2009, first as an ordinance and subsequently as law.

Till date, there have been no convictions under this law, according to Dr Sagar Mundada of the Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors.

Doctors in Maharashtra have continued to go on strike because of assaults by relatives of patients. The most recent such strike was last month. Following that strike, Maharashtra minister of state for home Ranjit Patil said the police would be sensitised about the 2010 doctors’ protection law.

What this implies, of course, is that the police are still ignorant about the 2010 law.

Even when cases are registered under provisions of the doctors’ protection law, they proceed at their usual stately pace, meaning it usually takes a decade or more to reach a decision if the case does not go all the way to the Supreme Court. Matters are often complicated because the accused in turn file cases against the doctors.

There is a common tendency in India to try and fix every ill with a special law. The argument in favour of such a law is often made on grounds of special vulnerability. Either such laws do not work, or they become prone to misuse. For instance, alleged misuse of the Atrocities Act, which gives special protection to members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, was one of the factors that provoked massive Maratha rallies in Maharashtra last year. Similarly, misuse of the Dowry Act had caused the Supreme Court to comment on a ruling that it was being used as a “weapon rather than a shield”. The SC had gone on to say that the police was largely considered a tool of harassment and oppression and not a friend of the public.

In the case of the special law for protection of journalists, one reason that delayed its promulgation was the fear that it might be misused by blackmailers masquerading as journalists. Mr Deshmukh of the Halla Virodhi Samiti pointed out another reason for the reluctance of politicians to pass the law – according to him, about 80 per cent of cases of assaults on journalists were by workers of political parties. Local mafias and the police account for most of the remaining 20 per cent, he said.

There had been 65 attacks on journalists in Maharashtra in 2014, Mr Deshmukh said, and the number had risen to 82 in 2016, but there had been zero convictions under existing laws – even though physical assaults can draw charges of attempt to murder. Even proper cases were not registered in many instances, according to him. “Many are just registered as non-cognizable offences,” according to him.

What this points to is the broad failure of the police and judicial system to dispense justice. For crime after crime, there has been an occasional outcry that something needs to be done. When the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012 happened, people hit the streets demanding death penalties for rapists. After every incident of racism, there is a renewed demand for a stringent law against it. It is likely that a surge in, say, cybercrimes might provoke citizens to demand a law to hang hackers.

That the special laws do not always do the job they were meant for is clear from the experience of the Maharashtra doctors, whose special law has not done much for them.

Fixing India’s police and court system is a mammoth task that may take forever. In the interim, some workable solutions have to be found. In the case of journalists, this is especially necessary in conflict areas and the hinterlands, where rule of law is weak…which means most of India outside some neighbourhoods in big cities.

Building a strong support system for journalists so that anyone with a problem has a place to go to for help would be a good place to start. The existing unions tend to not work in concert, the Editors Guild is not known to help journalists, and the Press Council seems powerless to actually do anything to protect journalists, whether it is from assault or arbitrary dismissal.

If journalist bodies were to follow up relentlessly on each and every single case of assault on a journalist to ensure convictions under existing laws, it may have served the causes of both justice and journalists’ protection as well as, or arguably better than, this special law.

After all, the deterrent effect of any punishment for crime kicks in only when the criminal is certain s/he will be caught.

The author can be contacted at samrat.choudhury@gmail.com.

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