The court said it is willing to transfer the matter to the Delhi High Court. (File)
The Supreme Court Monday voiced displeasure over bitter arguments between the Andhra Pradesh government and a leading Telugu newspaper over the choice of an Andhra Pradesh High Court bench to adjudicate the dispute regarding a government order on purchase of newspaper by local bodies volunteers, calling it a "sorry spectacle".
The dispute has its genesis in a tussle between two leading Telugu dailies-- Eenadu owned by Ushodaya Publications and Sakshi, published by Jagati Publications owned by Chief Minister Y S Jaganmohan Reddy.
Eenadu has accused the state government of promoting the sales of Sakshi newspaper. The top court said the judges are "extremely disturbed" with the arguments canvassed by the Andhra Pradesh government and the company that publishes Eenadu.
A bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala said it is willing to transfer the matter to the Delhi High Court.
"This is a sorry spectacle and we three judges are extremely disturbed with your arguments. One side does not want the matter to be adjudicated by a single judge bench and the other side does not want it to be heard by the division bench. This is a matter of propriety. Therefore, now, we are willing to transfer the matter outside the state to Delhi High Court," the bench said.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the publishers of Eenadu, insisted the matter be listed before any single judge bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, while senior advocate CS Vaidyanathan, representing the state government, wanted it to be heard by a division bench.
When the bench said it is willing to transfer the matter to the Delhi High Court, Mr Vaidyanathan contended he needs to seek instructions on the transfer. The top court granted him time till April 17.
At the outset, Mr Vaidyanathan said the state government is willing to increase the additional financial support of Rs 200 per month to Rs 210 per month for village and ward volunteers for purchase of newspapers and it would cover almost newspapers.
The bench told him it should not appear that the government is favouring one newspaper and that it has to ensure a level playing field.
Mr Rohatgi said the beneficiary volunteers are members of local bodies and village committees who are given financial support to buy the newspaper favouring the government (Sakshi) in order to take the message of its schemes to the people.
"They (the government) claim we are a newspaper which is favoured by the opposition and that is the reason for the dispute," he said.
Mr Vaidyanathan said that the matter related to volunteers is pending before the high court and the opposition has not challenged the scheme.
The bench posted the matter for further hearing on April 17 and asked the state government to convey its response on transfer of the matter to the Delhi High Court.
Ushodaya Publications alleged the Government Order (GO) violated the fundamental rights to equality and freedom of speech and expression, and that the widest circulated Telugu newspaper in the state 'Eenadu' was deliberately kept out on account of the fixation of an additional financial support of Rs 200 per month for village volunteers and ward volunteers.
"It is relevant to note that 'Eenadu' (petitioner) has a monthly subscription at the rate of Rs 207.5 and the newspaper published by R-7 (Sakshi) has a monthly subscription rate of Rs 176.5. It is relevant to note that the newspaper with the third widest circulation, that is 'Andhra Jyoti', has a monthly subscription rate of Rs 207," the plea has said.
It has claimed the amount of Rs 200 has been fixed by the state government so the volunteers do not purchase Eenadu.
On March 29, the top court had the response of the Andhra Pradesh government and others on a plea moved by Ushodaya Publications challenging the government order (GO) "aimed at increasing the sales of the Sakshi newspaper".
Ushodaya Publications, which has moved the appeal against an Andhra Pradesh High Court order that refused to stay the impugned GO, alleged that allowances are being given to village and ward volunteers in the southern state to buy "Sakshi".
"The state government has also said Eenadu does yellow journalism and hence, do not go for it. This is a state propaganda," Rohatgi had earlier argued and referred to the remarks made by the chief minister against Eenadu.
"This is a classic case where the respondent -- the state government at the instance of respondent number 9 (the chief minister) -- has made every attempt to curtail freedom of press, including freedom of circulation of the petitioners, in an arbitrary exercise of jurisdiction.
"The constitutional rights guaranteed under Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution of a newspaper (petitioner number 1) are infringed by the abuse of the official position by respondent number 9, who is making every attempt to strangulate the operations of 'Eenadu', published by petitioner number 1," Ushodaya Publications has said in its plea filed through lawyer Parmatma Singh.
The petition has challenged the two high court orders by which the plea seeking the suspension of the GO dated December 8, 2022 was rejected.
"The high court failed to appreciate that the aforesaid GO was ex-facie violative of Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution. The objective of the said GO was to provide gram volunteers and functionaries with 'one widely circulated daily newspaper'," the plea said.
"The state government has not given a choice to the readers of subscribing to a newspaper of their own choice and has forced them to buy 'Sakshi', which promotes the political agenda of a particular political party, and not to subscribe to any newspaper that is critical of the state government," the plea has said.
Besides seeking a stay on the operation of the high court orders, it has also sought a direction to the Audit Bureau of Circulations of the Andhra Pradesh government to "suspend auditing the circulation of Sakshi newspaper for the period from July-December, 2022 and for subsequent period".
The GO sanctioned Rs 200 per month from the state funds as an additional financial support for each gram volunteer and ward volunteer to enable them to purchase one widely circulated Telugu newspaper.
The Andhra Pradesh High Court had said there was no material showing that the GO instructed the gram volunteers or ward volunteers and village secretariats or ward secretariats to subscribe to "Sakshi".
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)