Rajasthan government’s Criminal Law ordinance has created quite a ruckus as the Opposition, legal experts and the media are questioning how the ordinance affects the media’s ability to function freely and reduces accountability. The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, was promulgated on September 7 through the governor. After widespread criticism, the Vasundhara Raje-led government has, on Tuesday, referred the ordinance to a select committee of the Assembly.

The ordinance aims to protect high-ranking officials from getting prosecuted without prior government approval. While this has always been a criteria to ensure that high-ranking officials such as joint secretary and/or above are protected from arbitrary prosecution, the new ordinance has widened the pool of public servants that would enjoy immunity from even being investigated. 

All that’s wrong with the Ordinance

The introduction of the ordinance – a temporary law introduced when the legislature is not in session – may have been a sneak attack, but it wasn’t a very smart one. Legal experts have argued that the ordinance not only disallows investigation against judicial officers and bureaucrats without prior sanction, it also infringes upon the media’s freedom of speech, The Indian Express reported. The ordinance would affect the media’s ability to function freely as it penalizes reporting about the offences of the high-ranking officials or even disclosing their name. The ordinance states that anyone going against this rule could face jail for upto two years and/or fined, thus leaving no room for any reportage on ongoing corruption scandals and the like.

Slamming the move and asking for it to be repealed, the Editors Guild of India put out a statement saying:

“Rather than taking stern measures to prevent and punish those who indulge in frivolous or false litigation, the Rajasthan government has passed an ordinance that is bent on bludgeoning the messenger. The Guild requests the Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje to withdraw the harmful ordinance and prevent any Act from being passed that would endanger the freedom of the press.”

The ordinance prohibits probe into the duties carried out by current and former judges, magistrates and public servants without government approval. It also forbids the media from reporting on the allegations against the person being investigated unless the prosecution gets an approval from the sanctioning authority.

The Times of India reported that the ordinance is also directly against sections 156 and 190 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC ). This would mean that all public servants, including politicians will be shielded from investigations for 180 days (6 months), following which sanction may be given.

The justification?

The Vasundhara Raje-led government claims that this would insulate the officials and thus enable them to function without any deterrence. The government claims that it would insulate officials at these important posts from frivolous allegations by those attempting to bring about policy paralysis.

Has this been done before?

In 2016, Maharashtra passed a similar law, which has now been challenged in Bombay HC. However, there are certain aspects that are different between the two bills, The Indian Express reported, such as there’s no penalty or ban on reporting about the public servants being investigated. Secondly, the maximum time for acquiring the sanction is three months in Maharashtra as opposed to the six months wait time in the Rajasthan Bill.

What is the status now?

Seems like the Rajasthan government is rethinking the bill as it is up for review by a select committee of the Vidhan Sabha. However, reports suggest that the committee will be headed by the Rajasthan home minister, who is also actively involved in handling the bill.