Karnataka Speaker Koliwad wants a few journos jailed. But his muscle flexing does not end there
Karnataka Assembly Speaker KB Koliwad is a man on a mission. He is determined to send a couple of journalists to jail before he demits office in less than six months from now.
Based on a ‘unanimous’ resolution passed by the Assembly at its recent session in Belagavi, he has ‘sentenced’ Ravi Belegere, veteran journalist, who edits, publishes and owns Hai Bengaluru, a Kannada tabloid weekly, and Anil Raj, editor of another tabloid, Yalahanka Voice to one year imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000 each.
He has ordered the state Home Ministry to arrest the scribes and put them behind bars, but the two journalists have approached the Karnataka High Court questioning the Speaker’s competence to punish them “without a fair trial”.
Though there have been a number of cases of journalists being hauled up before the privileges committee of the state Assembly, it will be the first instance of journalists or anyone being jailed at the instance of Karnataka legislature, if it happens.
As a matter of fact, it is the second attempt to send the two journalists to jail for the same alleged offence. In June 2017, the scribes had approached the high court when a similar order had been issued by Koliwad.
Additional Advocate General of Karnataka, AS Ponnanna, had told the court that he had spoken to the Speaker on the issue and the journalists would not be arrested if they appeared before him and submitted a petition seeking reconsideration of the punishment.
After the counsel for the accused, advocate Shankarappa give such an undertaking, Justice Ashok Hinchigeri disposed of their petition challenging the Speaker’s order. The court gave the liberty to the two accused to revive the petition if “the parties did not heed to court’s advice to find an amicable solution”.
The scribes allege that the suggested compromise was a ‘ploy’ to keep the matter alive and prevent the court from going into the merits of the case. They claim that Speaker Koliwad repeatedly thwarted their attempts to meet him personally and plead their case and at the Belagavi session of the legislature, he obtained another voice vote confirming the sentence issued earlier.
Like most of their counterparts across the country, the Karnataka legislators have a grouse against newspapers and TV channels that highlight ‘negative’ aspects about them. When they have some power to wield, they would like to see ‘pesky’ journalists either silenced or punished. Five-time Congress MLA from Ranebennur, KB Koliwad has been one among them.
When Siddaramiah was elected chief minister in May 2013, Koliwad was disappointed that he did not find a place in the cabinet. He made no secret of his desire to be a minister. But, when the Speaker’s chair fell vacant in July 2016 with the then Speaker Kagodu Thimmappa joining the Cabinet, Koliwad was persuaded to take the Speaker’s post.
In 2014, Koliwad, as an MLA, had filed a breach of privilege complaint against journalist Ravi Belegere over an article published in Hai Bengaluru making critical observations about his attempt to get into the state cabinet. He himself was chairman of the committee.
After he became the Speaker, he prevailed upon the privileges committee to expedite the proceedings against Belegere. When Belegere allegedly failed to respond to some of the summons issued to him due to ill-health, the committee recommended to the Speaker to initiate action against him.
The committee also looked into a complaint by BJP MLA from Yelahanka, SR Vishwanath, who had accused Anil Raj of publishing ‘defamatory’ articles against him. Anil Raj was held guilty of breaching the privilege of a legislator.
In the Assembly, Koliwad allowed a day-long discussion on the “treatment” of elected representatives by the media, which saw many legislators venting their ire on the media and demanding curbs on “irresponsible journalism” with effective legislation. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and many of his colleagues were interested onlookers, without at any trying to restrain the venom-spitting legislators.
When Speaker Koliwad proposed constitution of a House committee to frame ‘rules and regulations’ on the functioning of the media, minister Basavaraj Rayareddy’s was the lone voice of dissent, who cautioned that the legislature should not cross its limits.
Koliwad has been peeved with the media for some time for highlighting his penchant for excessive spending of public funds and for his alleged acts of nepotism.
According to media reports, Koliwad influenced the Karnataka Legislature Employees Housing Cooperative Society to allot prime sites in Bengaluru to four of his married daughters in violation of the rules and regulations.
Though Koliwad already had a large site allotted to him by the Karnataka Housing Society – which barred him from seeking sites for his immediate kith and kin – he allegedly prevailed upon the society to allot sites measuring 1,500 sq ft to 2,400 sq ft to his daughters, though they were not even members.
The society secretary admitted to the media that after he became Speaker, Koliwad had helped them to get the approval of the Bengaluru Development Authority to the layout plan “in no time” and they were able to distribute 120 sites to their members.
Not denying the ‘illegal’ allotment of sites, Koliwad’s response to reporters was: “Don’t highlight issues (which are) not in the interest of the society”.
Acting arbitrarily, he expanded and renovated his office at Vidhana Soudha at a cost of a few crores of rupees. When his office tried to take over the maintenance of the state secretariat from the hands of public works department, Siddaramaiah put his foot down and cancelled the Speaker’s order.
During the recent diamond jubilee celebrations of the Vidhana Soudha, the Speaker’s office had sent a proposal directly to the finance ministry seeking Rs 30 crore for a three-day event. The majestic building constructed during Kengal Hanumanthiya’s chief ministership, had cost Rs 1.75 crore in the 1950s. Following public criticism, Siddaramaiah pruned the expenditure to Rs 10 crore.
After the recent Belagavi legislature session, the Speaker’s office has stirred one more controversy by submitting a bill of Rs 31 crore for the 10-day session, which is 200% more than what was spent last year.
No doubt, Speaker Koliwad loves his privileges.