In what could be called an intense repartee turning into a heated debate on Tuesday, the government countered the Supreme Court’s move to create guidelines for regulating and restricting government advertisements in newspapers. The Court was hearing a petition filed by Common Cause and Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL).
In yet another curt quip, Attorney General MukulRohatgi reminded the Court that the issue was out of the Court’s domain and did not fall within the purview of judicial review. He pointed that there is no yardstick for the Courts to decide if government advertisements were only meant for gaining political mileage. Since such problems fell outside the judiciary’s domain, the Courts must make way for the government. Advertisements are a medium through which the government interacts with the general public/citizenry on matters of governmental policy and others. The Bench hearing the petition, comprising RanjanGogoi and Pinaki Chandra Ghose reserved its verdict and stated that it will deliberate upon and consider the views and submissions of all the related parties which include the central government.
The Attorney General’s argument came as a surprise, as a week ago, the government had agreed by way of an affidavit with the guidelines of the Supreme Court appointed panel on the same issue. The expert panel set up by the Court comprised Prof.MadhavMenon, TK Vishwanathan and then senior advocate (now the Solicitor General of India) Ranjit Kumar had provided elaborate guideline to prevent ruling establishments from patronizing media houses by way of government advertisements. According to the panel, government advertisements are also a not so subtle way of gaining political mileage and undeserving glory for its political leaders.
K Ganesan, DG at the Directorate of Audio-Visual Publicity (DAVP) had filed the affidavit on behalf of the government on February 5. In the affidavit, he had for the most part, agreed with the expert panel’s recommendations. However, there was a slight opposition to the use of “political mileage” with Mr.Ganesan observing that a “democratically elected government functions through political leaders.”
Mr.Rohatgi further pointed out that the money allocated to government advertisements is already approved, audited and micro-analysed by the Parliament and CAG. If this pandora’s box is opened, tomorrow there could be a PIL questioning the government’s allocation towards defence expenditure.
In its report, the panel had also recommended that an Ombudsman be appointed in order to scrutinize government advertisement for “arbitrariness”. Advocate Meera Bhatia, appearing for Common Cause, suggested that the proposed Ombudsman should draw a distinction between facts, analysis and opinion which the government shares in the public domain through its advertisements. CPIL represented by PrashantBhushan, also rejoiced at the prospect of an ombudsman while stating that such an appointment could be made independent from the government, through an institution like the Election Commission.
However, the AG retorted immediately stating that the concept of an Ombudsman to scrutinize the advertisements is not only unacceptable but will also amount to pre-censorship. And if a guideline for the appointment of an ombudsman were to be accepted, then there is a possibility for every government advertisement to be characterised as an effort towards gaining political mileage. It is the government’s right to propagate its achievements and policy decisions. Since this is a legitimate exercise and a largely political issue, the judiciary cannot exercise its authority over it, Mr.Rohatgi pointed out.
by Siddhartha Singh