Several veteran editors, senior journalists, and former members of Press Council of India (PCI) have appealed to Chief Justice of India (CJI) S A Bobde to intervene and facilitate the publication of the contents of the First Information Report (FIR) and related developments regarding the alleged corruption in the purchase of land in Amaravati Capital Region in Andhra Pradesh.
Several experts and civil society organisations have also taken strong exception to a recent Andhra Pradesh High Court order that restrained media from publishing contents of an FIR registered by the state’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in a land corruption case.
On September 15, Andhra Pradesh High Court stayed the investigation by ACB involving a former Advocate General of the state, relatives of a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, several deputy collectors and tehsildars. The bench headed by Chief Justice J.K.Maheshwari restrained print and electronic media, as urged by the former Advocate General, from publishing the contents and context of the FIR registered by the regulatory authority. The court adjourned the case for four weeks for further hearing.
“Freedom to report such crimes from the stage of filing FIR is well within the frame of the constitution-based-rule of law, in the interests of the public, democracy, and criminal justice,” stated the signatories in their appeal to the CJI. They pointed out that the Supreme Court disfavoured ‘prior restraint’ and made it clear in several judgments that it should be resorted to only when such publication of news interfered in the due process of the court.
“We make a humble representation requesting your good self to facilitate the ordinary publication of news about the FIR and further developments, in the public interest, to protect rule of law and equality,” concluded the statement signed by veteran editor A B K Prasad, Ramachandra Murthy, Editor of United News of India (UNI), VIjay Kumar Reddy, Press Club Hyderabad President, Shahid Abbas, Press Club of India Vice-president and senior journalist, Gautam Lahiri, former President of Press Club of India and Madabhushi Sridhar, Columnist and Professor of Media Laws at Bennett University and several members of PCI.
The National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and the Delhi Union of journalists (DUJ) have earlier termed the High Court order as ‘ominous’, and a ‘clear cut case of judicial overreach’. “Since a FIR is the first and cardinal step in the criminal justice system, we call upon the Hon'ble High Court of Andhra Pradesh to rescind its order to gag the media. Such gag orders in our opinion, should go lock stock and barrel, to save journalism for tomorrow. Vigilance is the need of the hour,” noted the unions.
Urging the High Court to reconsider its decision and lift censorship, the representatives of Human Rights Forum said that the matter relates to allegations of corruption with respect to land dealings and linked to insider information so as to gain undue pecuniary advantage in the Amaravathi area of Guntur district. This is a case of alleged abuse of power at the highest levels for purchasing lands and benefiting private parties, they said. It is a case of public importance and thus, media coverage and public scrutiny are of immense importance. "There is no material whatsoever to justify the imposing of a gag order except for the former Attorney General claiming that he is being subjected to political vendetta. The High Court’s interim order imposing blanket restrictions on any reportage amounts to judicial overreach, is legally untenable and totally uncalled for," the organisation said.
Amaravathi Land Scam
Notably, in March, July and September, the YSRCP government requested the centre to entrust the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with the alleged land scam in Amaravati capital region and also the scandal related to the AP State FiberNet Limited.
The previous Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government collected over 33,000 acres through land pooling for the construction of Amaravati as a capital. However, ever since the YSRCP came to power in May 2019, the ruling party leaders have been alleging that large portions of land in Amaravathi has been illegally acquired by several high profile people through ‘insider trading’ in nexus with the then state government.
Furthermore, last year, a state cabinet committee which inquired into the Amaravati land acquisition process, has claimed that it found scandalous irregularities in the matter and eventually, the state government ordered an ACB probe into the land scam. Simultaneously, ACB began probing the case.
On July 31, Andhra Pradesh Governor Biswa Bhusan Harichandan cleared two Bills -- the Andhra Pradesh Decentralisation and Inclusive Development of All Regions Bill, 2020, and the AP Capital Region Development Authority (Repeal) Bill, 2020, making way for the state government to go ahead with its plan for setting up three capitals for the state from the earlier unilateral capital Amaravati in Vijayawada-Guntur region. While the legality of the bills is pending hearing in the Supreme Court, hundreds of farmers in Amaravati region have been protesting against the three-capital model.