Congress trying to restrict free speech, says Jaitley
New Delhi – Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley Monday accused the Congress of posing a threat to the right of freedom of expression, and said a “potential loser in the elections” cannot seek to alter the rules of free speech.
The Bharatiya Janata Party leader, in an article on the party’s website, was responding to a statement from the Congress seeking a restriction on opinion polls, in the run-up to the elections.
Jaitley said the government’s “unconstitutional censorship order” last month concerning “artificial competition” to the prime minister’s national day speeches was prompted by “Modi-phobia”.
He said that opinion polls too were part of freedom of speech.
“Restricting them is constitutionally neither permissible nor desirable. The Election Commission will be best advised to keep away from the controversy concerning the ban on opinion polls and allow the market place of democracy to accept or reject the findings of the opinion poll,” he said.
“When the trend of opinion polls are adverse to political parties, they rubbish them,” Jaitley, who is Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said.
According to the CNN-IBN-The Week pre-poll survey telecast last week, the BJP was set to retain Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and defeat the Congress in Rajasthan.
It said the BJP was slightly ahead of Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party in the three-way split in Delhi.
Five states, including Mizoram, are to go to the polls November-December.
Jaitley objected to the Oct 21 advisory of the Information and Broadcasting ministry which said that putting the prime minister’s speeches on national occasions in “artificial competition” with anyone was not appropriate.
Jaitley also objected to government moves to restrict the maximum number of advertisements that can be telecast in an hour, saying that it ostensibly hurts the business of a news channel but “effectively, it hurts the right of free speech”.
“Boredom of a viewer caused by lengthy advertisements is not a permissible restriction under Article 19(2)… If the size of a newspaper is restricted or the number of advertisements are restricted, it has a direct impact on its survival,” he said.
The information and broadcasting ministry advisory said that certain TV channels had attempted to denigrate the office of the prime minister by constantly trying to compare his Independence Day speech with that of other political leaders and said that it was “sensational, against all norms of ethical journalism”.
The advisory said that the prime minister spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort as the prime minister of the country, and not as the representative of a political party, and reminded the channels that they were bound to follow programme and advertising codes under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995.
The advisory asked TV news channels to follow the provisions of the code scrupulously and maintain the solemnity of national occasions while carrying speeches of the prime minister and the president, and cautioned that further violations would attract penal provisions under relevant rules and terms of uplinking and downlinking.
“This is an unconstitutional censorship order prompted by Modi-phobia,” Jaitley said.
“The effect of this order is that on days the prime minister addresses the nation, no other speech should be telecast. The chief ministers of the states must be boycotted. Any comment of an opposition leader should be censored. If this principle is accepted it may even extend to a finance minister’s budget speech or a defence minister’s comment on security,” he said.
Jaitely said censorship has no place in a democracy, and cannot be enforced directly or indirectly.
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had sought to punch holes in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day speech. The speech by Modi, who has been named prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, also featured on several TV news channels.