IFJ Calls for Debate after Conviction of Columnist in India

Posted on January 31, 2011 The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is concerned by the January 28 conviction of Anish Trivedi, a one-time columnist for the Mumbai-based afternoon daily Mid-Day on charges of causing offence to communities disadvantaged by India’s traditional caste hierarchy.

In a column published in 2006, Trivedi argued that the dismal performance of many of India’s institutions of governance was a consequence of the policy of affirmative action, which assured disadvantaged communities representation in the staffing of all these institutions. He followed up this assessment with remarks on individuals belonging to these communities that aroused serious resentment.

Mumbai city police soon afterwards took up the prosecution of this matter on the basis of a complaint received from aggrieved private citizens.

On January 28, a trial court in Mumbai sentenced Trivedi to a six-month term of imprisonment and a fine of INR 25,000 (USD 535).

The IFJ is informed that Trivedi had, even before the formal institution of charges against him, apologised unconditionally in the columns of Mid-day, and retracted all the observations made.

“The IFJ recognises that affirmative action was introduced for the benefit of people and communities disadvantaged by historical circumstances, and is a part of the settled political consensus in India,” IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.

“We are also supportive of the special legislation introduced by the Indian government to curb atrocities – in both word and deed – against these communities.”

The IFJ however, is unsure about the wisdom of sentencing a columnist to a six-month term of imprisonment for remarks that he has apologised for. In normal circumstances, the right of reply granted unconditionally to any individual or community that may have reason to feel aggrieved by a published opinion, would be considered fair compensation. If that is deemed insufficient, then an apology by the author of the offending piece would be called for, accompanied by a full retraction of his opinion.

“These procedures appear to have been followed by Mid-day, despite which the columnist has earned a prison term”, Ms Park said.

“The IFJ supports public debate in India on the norms that should be applied in matters involving the sensitivities of particular communities. Free speech cannot be construed as the right to cause offence. Yet there should be sufficient safeguards to allow for expressions of opinion that would contribute to the public dialogue on important issues of policy”.

Trivedi has been granted bail by the Mumbai trial court, pending appeal.

*Posted on www.scoop.co.nz