Karnataka High Court upholds voters’ right to know, sets aside media gag order favouring BJP’s Tejasvi Surya

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE Karnataka High Court has upheld “voters” right to know about the contesting candidates’ during elections, setting aside the temporary injunction passed by a Bengaluru sessions court that restrained media houses from publishing “defamatory” content against BJP candidate Tejasvi Surya. 

The HC order came in response to a public interest petition filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), seeking to quash sessions court’s injunction order dated March 29, 2019. It argued that the lower court’s “ambiguous order” came in the way of free and fair elections and would have a “chilling effect” as it denies the voters the information about the candidate.

Twenty-eight-year-old lawyer, Surya is contesting as the youngest BJP candidate from Bengaluru

South Lok Sabha constituency, which goes to polls on April 18.

While disposing of the PIL on Friday, April 12, 2019, acting Chief Justice L Narayana Swamy and Justice PS Dinesh Kumar wrote for the court that “the media can’t be prevented from publishing news that is not defamatory in their opinion.”

“What is defamatory can be tested and decided only if an act of making a statement or telecasting a programme is challenged by the aggrieved persons before an appropriate forum,” the division bench observed, before stressing on Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution that grants freedom of speech and expression to every citizen.

“In case the plaintiff is aggrieved by any such publication or telecast of any news item, he may approach the Election Commission of India,” the court stated.  



Also read: ‘Agitate for Hindu Rashtra’: Inside the mind of BJP’s youngest saffron star



The petition also contended that since the parliamentary constituency was going to polls before the next date of hearing, the gag order was likely to influence the polls and benefit the candidate. 

Maintaining that the gag order had grave implications on the constitution, democratic values and conduct of elections, the petition had further said that “the impugned order, with its ambiguity, amounts to violation of fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression as well as right to elect a candidate on the basis of accurate and fair information.”

“For free and fair elections to be conducted, information flow about the candidates including their antecedents is vital. Preventing information flow under the garb of defamatory suit vitiates free and fair elections,” it read.

It also stressed that the Supreme Court on various occasions has recognised citizens’ right to know every public act by the public functionaries or those aspiring to be public functionaries. “The impugned order would result in citizens being misinformed. The casting of vote by misinformed or uninformed voters will pose serious dangers to the democracy.”

 Prof. Trilochan Sastry, the petitioner and one of the founding members of the ADR told The Leaflet, “we are generally working for greater transparency and information for all the voters during the elections. The media gag order would have resulted in lesser information available to the electors. And it was not in the spirit of a robust democracy. Had the gag order gone unchallenged, who knows how many candidates would have moved court seeking similar orders, in different parts of the country.”

“Freedom of speech is an important issue in a democracy,” he remarked. 

The session court’s injunction had earlier put restrictions on The Times of India, Times Now, The Hindu, The Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Deccan Chronicle, The Bangalore Mirror, Prajavani, Kannada Prabha, Vijaya Karnataka, Lankesh Patrike, Gauri Lankesh Journal and Udayavani, TV9, Suvarna News, Public TV, CNN News 18, India Today, News X, Republic TV and ABP Live.

The blanket order also covered Facebook and WhatsApp among social media platforms besides Google, Yahoo and YouTube.

Pertinently, none of the media outlets had challenged the ex-parte gag order issued by the Bengaluru sessions court.



Also read: The Tejasvi Surya gag order violates a voter’s right to free speech and expression