India may prosecute newspaper under secrets act over Rafale documents

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s top lawyer told the Supreme Court on Wednesday it may file a criminal case against The Hindu newspaper under India’s Official Secrets Act for publishing “stolen” government documents about a deal to buy 36 Rafale jets from France.

FILE PHOTO: A Dassault Rafale fighter takes part in flying display during the 52nd Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France June 25, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal argued that the documents published by The Hindu should not be examined by the court, which is considering petitioners’ requests to review how the deal was awarded, as he says they were stolen.

He added that the government was considering prosecuting The Hindu under the act that seeks to protect government secrets.

N. Ram, author of a series of articles that cited the documents and chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group, said they were published in the public interest.

“There is nothing to worry about. What we published is legitimate and we stand by it,” Ram told Reuters.

India has ordered the planes costing a total $8.7 billion from France’s Dassault Aviation as part of a modernization program of the air force which is phasing out its Soviet-era planes.

But the deal has been the center of allegations from India’s main opposition party, Congress, that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid too much and that it forced Dassault to accept Indian businessman Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as its Indian partner even though the company had no such prior experience in defense contracting.

When asked for comment, a Dassault spokesman referred to comments its CEO Eric Trappier has made in the past on pricing and the choice of a partner. Trappier has previously defended the pricing, said there was no scandal, and stressed that it was not forced to pick Reliance as a partner.

Reliance Defence declined to comment.

Ambani has previously said that the Congress party has been misled and misinformed by corporate rivals and vested interests.

The Hindu, one of India’s oldest and most widely read English newspapers, wrote five reports over the past several weeks that cited internal government documents about the process of procurement and pricing.

Those found guilty of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which remained on the books after India’s independence from Britain in 1947, can face imprisonment of up to 14 years. The law has been used to jail journalists in the past, and is opposed by rights groups as they say it violates free speech.

Venugopal said the Supreme Court should exercise restraint and stay away from politics, adding that a defense deal should not be equated to a public interest petition about a road or a dam.

Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty; Writing and additional reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Martin Howell and Andrew Cawthorne