Monday, April 19, 2010

Coverage of Parliament by a journalist

Our Constitution confers absolute immunity from proceedings in any court of law on all persons connected with the publication of the proceedings of either House of Parliament, if such a publication is made by or under the authority of the House. Article 105 (2) that deals with Parliamentary Privileges says, “No person shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of the publication by order under the authority of a house of Parliament, of any report, paper, votes or proceedings.”

The immunity also applies to the publication in newspapers or broadcasts by wireless telegraphy of substantially true reports of any proceedings of either House of Parliament, provided such reports are for the public good and is not actuated by malice. There are a few provisions that should be kept in mind by a journalist while covering Parliament:

    The immunity is given within the overall limitation that Parliament has the power to control and, if necessary, to prohibit the publication of its debates or proceedings and to punish for the violation of its orders. Generally, there are no restrictions imposed on reporting of the proceedings of the Houses. But, if the proceedings of the Houses or for that matter, of its Committees are reported mala fide or if there is any gross misrepresentation or suppression of the speeches of particular members, it becomes a breach of privilege and contempt of the House warranting punishment.
    Similarly, the Press cannot publish the proceedings or evidence given before or any document presented to a Parliamentary Committee before these have been laid on the Table of the House. Nor is the Press expected to disclose the proceedings or decisions of a secret sitting of the House till the ban or secrecy has been lifted.
    It has also to ensure that portions of debates expunged from the proceedings of the House by the Presiding Officer are not published.

In Pandit M.S.M Sharma v. Shri Krishna Sinha (1959), proceedings for the breach of privilege had been started against an editor of a newspaper for publishing those parts of the speech of a member delivered in Bihar legislative assembly which the speaker had ordered to be expunged from the proceedings of the Assembly. The editor in a writ petition under A. 32 contended that the House of Commons had no privilege to prohibit either the publication of the publicly seen and heard proceedings that took place in the House or of that part of the proceedings which had been directed to be expunged. The Supreme Court by a majority of four to one rejected the contention of the petitioner. The court observed that the House of Commons had at the commencement of our Constitution the power or privilege of prohibiting the publication of even a true and faithful report of the debates or proceedings that took place within the House. A fortiori the House had at the relevant time the power or privilege of prohibiting the publication of an inaccurate version of such debates or proceedings.

Article 361-A: Inserted by the 44th Amendment with effect from June 20, 1979 it provides that no person shall be liable to any proceedings civil or criminal for reporting the proceedings of either House of Parliament or a State Legislature unless the reporting is proved to have been made with malice.
Note: This provision does not apply to the reporting of proceedings of secret sittings of the Houses.

By law and convention, what applies to the Press applies to the other media as well. So the above provisions apply for print and electronic media equally.
Among the mass media, the Press plays an important role in parliamentary life. The Press has two main aspects, as a part of what is known as information industry and as a factor in the formulation of opinion. Most of the raw material for parliamentary questions, motions and debates comes from the Press and this is an important instrument on which a Member of Parliament relies. Simultaneously the Press keeps the people informed of what is happening in Parliament.
Every right carries with it a responsibility. Likewise, every freedom carries with it an obligation. It is primarily for a journalist, the main protagonist of the fourth pillar of democracy to determine what are his/her corresponding responsibilities and obligations while reporting for the highest institution of democracy.

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