NEW DELHI, Sept 6, Reuter: The Indian Press with owners and journalists in rare agreement, closed for the day on Tuesday in protest at a government defamation bill editors say would kill investigative journalism.

Only government run radio and television stations were working as the government sought to cool the passions aroused by a bill that would widen the definition of libel and reverse traditional law by obliging the accused to prove his innocence.

“In the eyes of the press, the provisions are obnoxious. The motivations of those who have drafted it are suspect and its legality is seriously flawed,” said the times of India in an editorial.

The Hindustan Times called the bill “an affront to press freedom.” Both are generally pro government newspapers.

The bill was passed by the lower house of parliament a week ago. But Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi delayed introducing it in the upper house after a storm of protest erupted.

Tuesday was the last day of the current session of Parliament due to reconvene in November and government officials said they hoped the interval would be used for talks with the press on the bill.

Gandhi set up a committee of seven ministers to conduct those talks, but many newspaper owners and editors have said nothing less than the withdrawal of the bill will satisfy them.

They have attacked the bill as a bid to shut down investigative reporting after the leading role newspapers played in allegations of government corruption in major arms deals, charges the government denied vehemently.

The opposition struggling for unity ahead of General elections due by the end of 1989 has seized on alleged corruption as the major issue in attacking the ruling congress (I) Party and is backing the newspapers heavily over the bill.

Senior Officials who asked not to be identified said the government had erred by introducing the bill hastily without consulting the press.

They said the government had been under pressure from Congress Party legislators to prevent newspapers from carrying unfounded allegations that were damaging their standing in constituencies.

Fighting a libel case in Indian courts can take years and the legislators said that effectively left them without redress.

One of the bill’s provisions would oblige courts to settle libel cases in three months.

“Now we are offering a dialogue with the press, and when you have a dialogue there is always a chance of compromise,” one senior official said.

He said it was likely the government would be willing to withdraw the bill’s provision obliging a defendant in a libel case to prove his innocence. A measure that has provoked anger among lawyers as well as the press.

That would be easy to concede, because existing legislation could be used to the same end. The official said, “Basically all this bill does is to consolidate existing legislation. Those opposed to it haven’t read it. The only mistake we made was to rush it into parliament without consultation in which we could have prepared the ground,” he said.

Article extracted from this publication >> September 9, 1988