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Delhi HC Says Need To Balance Conflicting Interests While Disposing Plea Of Journalist Denied Rajya Sabha Pass

The Delhi High Court on Wednesday has dismissed a plea filed by freelance journalist against the denial of annual pass to cover the Rajya Sabha proceedings while stating that it would be advisable for the ‘Media Advisory Committee’ to revisit its Rules and Guidelines for issuance of passes keeping in view the mandate of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. 

A Single Bench of Justice Navin Chawla dismissed the writ petition filed by Anil Chamadia a freelance journalist  who alleges discrimination in issuing an annual pass to the journalist under the freelance category for covering the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha by Media Advisory Committee (MAC)  and observed that “Rules/Regulations for Admission to Rajya Sabha Press Gallery/Central Hall makes a distinction between newspapers on the basis of their circulation, news agencies, non-wire news-agency and feature service, for purpose of weekly, fortnightly and monthly passes. It also provides for issuance of Temporary Press Gallery Card to a freelance journalist. Without going into the number of passes and the nature of passes issued to these categories, the distinction made between various categories on the basis of circulation or the nature of agency et cetera, cannot be said to be arbitrary.”

The Court Noted in its order, “However, as contended by the learned senior counsel for the petitioner, issuance of only sessional passes to freelance journalists would restrict their right to access information when the Parliament is not in session. He submits that even when the Parliament is not in session, meetings of various Parliamentary Committees are held within the precinct of the Parliament House. Non-issuance of an annual pass would therefore, deny the freelance journalist of first-hand access to information regarding the decisions taken in such meetings and the deliberations therein.”

Therefore, clearly there are two conflicting interests that are to be balanced and tested on the touchstone of doctrine of proportionality, observed the Delhi High Court Justice Navin Chawla. 

Senior counsel Salman Khurshid appeared for petitioner and argued that a freelance journalist with an extensive and long career having various contributions based on his reporting of the Indian Parliament and the petitioner held the Permanent Rajya Sabha Press Gallery pass till the decision taken by the MAC on 06.07.2017. Further contended that the decision of MAC was not only violative of the Fundamental Right of the petitioner guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India but also under Article 14 inasmuch as it fails to give any reasonable basis for treating the freelance journalist as a separate category from the accredited journalist for issuance of the Rajya Sabha Press Gallery Pass. It was contended that the decision seeks to create a divide and treat freelance journalists unequally and as being inferior to those journalists who are affiliated to media houses or news agencies.

Ms. Tatini Basu appeared for The Chairman Media Advisory Committee Rajya Sabha and defended the committee action and submits that the freelance journalists were not being given annual/sessional Press Gallery Passes till 2008 and MAC in its meeting held on 19.09.2008 decided to consider the request from freelance journalists of repute for issuance of sessional/annual Rajya Sabha Press Gallery Pass based on merit, on a case-to-case basis. Accordingly, in 2009, the petitioner and three other journalists were recommended for annual pass under freelance category. One of them, however, did not avail the pass. 

Further the MAC, decided on 19.11.2011 to issue only sessional passes to the freelance journalists. The recommendations were to take effect prospectively. Based on the said recommendations, on 16.03.2015, “Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists under the Freelance Category” were adopted. While clause 5 of the Guidelines restricted the number of passes for the Freelance Journalists, clause 6 of the Guidelines provided that only sessional passes and not more than two temporary passes not exceeding two weeks in a session shall be issued to journalist admitted under Freelance category.

With the adoption of the above Guidelines, an anomalous situation arose wherein three freelance journalists, including the petitioner herein, were holding annual pass, while others admitted to the Press Gallery were holding sessional passes. A Sub-Committee of MAC was set up in May 2017 to examine and recommend the number of freelance journalists to be admitted to the Press Gallery of the Rajya Sabha and also to rationalize the existence of two types of passes in freelance category decided to issue only sessional passes and two other freelance journalists who had been granted permanent passes have since got themselves issued sessional passes under the freelance category from 2018, after the expiry of their respective annual passes of 2017. So, there is no discrimination with the petitioner and he can apply for sessional passes to cover proceedings of Rajya Sabha.

The High Court further opined after hearing the rival contentions of parties “I must observe that under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, though the expression “Freedom of the Press” has not been used, it has been held to be comprehended within the same. It has been held that freedom of expression has four broad social purposes to serve: (i) it helps an individual to attain self fulfilment, (ii) it assists in the discovery of truth, (iii) it strengthens the capacity of an individual in participating in decision – making, and (iv) it provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and social change. All members of society should be able to form their own beliefs and communicate them freely to others. In sum, the fundamental principle involved here is the people‟s right to know. Freedom of speech and expression should, therefore, receive general support from all those who believe in the participation of people in the administration.”

“As noted hereinabove, there is no challenge to the decision of the MAC taken in its meeting on 19.11.2011. Therefore, this Court refrains itself from proceeding further with such consideration. However, it would be advisable for the respondents to revisit its Rules and Guidelines for issuance of passes keeping in view the mandate of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India,” the Court said in its order. 

Read the full Judgement here;

High-Court-Judgment

-India Legal Bureau

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