In a sweeping move, the Andhra Pradesh cabinet has empowered its secretary-level officers to sue media houses for reports in the print, electronic and social media against their respective department. So far, only the Special Commissioner of the State’s Information and Public Relations Department could do so. The language of the Cabinet note could have been picked right out of Orwell’s 1984: “...departmental secretaries with thorough knowledge of the affairs about (sic) the departments and having wherewithal to judge whether the news is true or false..should be allowed to file appropriate cases...”

The justification for the order is just as Orwellian: “The adverse news item...will bring down the morale of the implementing agency which ultimately would lead to suboptimal performance of the department and can hamper the progress of the State...” It seems that the YSR Congress government is quite innocent of Article 19 of the Constitution, or worse still feels that it can brazen its way out of such a crude gag order. The judiciary is expected to take note of this development.

Such overtly undemocratic acts take us right back to the Emergency, when VC Shukla, the Information and Broadcasting Minister at that time, is reported to have driven many dissenting publications to closure – his actions having been documented by the Shah Commission which went into the excesses of that period. Nearly 45 years later, it is disturbing that non-Congress governments, including the BJP (or rather, its predecessor the Jana Sangh) which fought the Emergency, are doing quite the same.

Home Minister Amit Shah recently remarked that the Right to Information Act was no longer necessary as the Centre was forthright in providing the information the citizens needed on its portals. However, citizens are looking precisely for information in the public interest that governments routinely conceal. If RTI queries have dwindled, it is because the RTI machinery itself has been systemically run down – and for this even the UPA is to blame.

It is evident that there has been a decline in freedoms, both in the media and the social space, even if we choose not to take rankings such as the global press freedom index seriously. Democracy is not just about having free and fair elections; it is also about the health, autonomy and balance of power between institutions, including the Fourth Estate.

Government speak and doublespeak today are eerily reminiscent of the slogan of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984: War is peace/freedom is slavery/ignorance is strength.