A man walks in front of the seat of the Karnataka state legislature in Bangalore, India, April 2, 2017. (AP/Aijaz Rahi)
A man walks in front of the seat of the Karnataka state legislature in Bangalore, India, April 2, 2017. (AP/Aijaz Rahi)

Indian state assembly sentences two editors to prison for defamation

New Delhi, June 23, 2017–The elected assembly of India’s Karnataka state should revoke one-year jail sentences it imposed on two editors in Bangalore, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The assembly on June 21 sentenced Ravi Belagere, editor of Hi Bangalore, a Kannada-language weekly tabloid, and Anil Raju, editor of the Yelahanka Voice daily newspaper, to one year in prison and fines of 10,000 Indian rupees (U.S.$155) each for articles the assembly said defamed two of its members, according to media reports. BM Nagaraj and SR Vishwanath, two members of the assembly, had filed complaints before the legislative privileges committee against the two journalists, arguing that articles the editors had published defamed them. Neither Belagere nor Raju have been arrested, according to press reports.

“Even after coming before the committee and apologizing, Anil Raju continued to publish defamatory articles with mocking pictures,” The News Minute website quoted the committee order as saying.

“It’s ridiculous that a journalist should go to jail for mocking a politician,” CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler said from Washington, D.C. “We call on the Karnataka state assembly to reverse the sentences it imposed on Ravi Belagere and Anil Raju immediately and should cease abusing press freedom.”

CPJ’s repeated calls and messages to Belagere and Raju seeking comment went unanswered.

Indian constitutional expert Subash Kashyap explained to The Indian Express newspaper that state assemblies have sentencing authority in “breach of privilege” cases–those which the assemblies deem to obstruct their functioning or show contempt of the assembly, its committees, or its members.

“The [state assembly’s] Privileges Committee submitted a report to the House which unanimously passed a resolution accepting the committee’s recommendation. So the question of my individual opinion doesn’t arise,” KB Koliwad, speaker of the assembly, told CPJ when asked whether a jail term was excessive punishment for defamation.

The Karnataka assembly’s decision follows a precedent set the Tamil Nadu state legislature. In 1987, the assembly passed a resolution sentencing S. Balasubramanian, editor of Ananda Vikattin, a popular Tamil-language weekly, to three months’ in prison for publishing provocative cartoons of legislators. In protest, journalists in Madras–now called Chennai–boycotted the state assembly for a day, according to the newspaper India Today.