Shut up

Monday 15 November 2004

Else, you'll get a legal notice

-- there is a new way to shut up the media. The legal notice is increasingly becoming a gag device. If a publication prints information and views that shows the incompetence or corruption of a person or agency, a legal communiqu (read: threat) is increasingly being used to prevent any further articles on the matter. What we have, in effect, is censorship by legal notice: an easy way out. The mere idea of a fat penalty is deterrent enough to a forthright debate in the public domain. It helps avoid any effort to explain, engage, inform.

The legal notice becomes all the more powerful, and hence damaging, when it comes from government officials. If an official sends a legal notice, it is assumed that s/he has the state's sanction. Not only is this intimidating for the publishers, it makes them 'respondents'. The legal procedure, once unleashed, is a punishment in itself. It involves several investments -- time and money -- that can bleed the respondent, slowly but surely. If some constraints exist to prevent public officers from acting on their own accord, it isn't too difficult to ignore these for the sake of convenience.

This magazine is in receipt of a legal notice from the district magistrate and the chief medical officer of Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh (up), who have contested some of the content carried in the article 'More arsenic' (Down To Earth, September 15, 2004). Did the officials seek permission from the upgovernment to send the notice? It is not clear. What's unmistakable is rule 17 of the All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968. This states that, normally, officials should take the government's permission before sending such a notice.

This should prevent public officials from taking recourse to the legal notice on their own. It should be so. The fibre of democracy also comprises freedom of speech, especially in public interest. Disagreements over matters that affect the masses -- that have a bearing on the collective good -- are best discussed in the public domain, not negotiated through legal counsel. At least in a just, open society. An official threatening a publication with legal action is using not just the force of law but also the threat of the state. But when the matter is grave and concerns public health, it amounts to gagging democracy itself. Public officials need to act in public interest, not private grudge.

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