Nikhil Kanekal in The MINT
New Delhi: New Supreme Court reporting norms, if enforced, will result in 80% of the journalists who have been covering proceedings being disqualified. The Supreme Court can bar any correspondent from coverage without offering any reasons under the new rules.
Issued by the court on Saturday, the norms require that permanent and temporary accredited print journalists have a professional law degree and at least seven years of experience. Electronic media reporters need, apart from the law degree, at least three-and-a-half-years of experience. The circular did not set a deadline for the norms to come into force. Court officials didn’t throw light on when the circular would come into effect, when asked on Tuesday.
The new norms follow instances in which faults were found in coverage.
Two of these arose from coverage of the Vodafone tax dispute. Vodafone lawyer Harish Salve complained to the Supreme Court that a Press Trust of India (PTI) report on 10 August had misquoted him. Salve had argued that Vodafone could “avoid” tax as tax avoidance was permissible under law. Indian income-tax authorities have alleged that Vodafone evaded tax by structuring its $11.2 billion transaction to buy out Hutchison’s Indian cellular business through tax-saving routes. Salve spent more than a day demonstrating to the bench the difference between tax avoidance and evasion, and that his client had acted in accordance with law.
The court sought a response from PTI on an application made by Salve after the agency’s report.
On 18 August, PTI’s lawyer Shyam Divan issued an unconditional apology to the court, Vodafone and Salve.
Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia’s three-judge bench asked PTI to file a detailed affidavit explaining whether its reporter was present in the court at the time Salve made his argument. The court reportedly observed that norms for journalists needed to be revisited in light of the incident and what it said were other recent inaccurate reports.
Previously, Kapadia had expressed displeasure at a 15 December news report in a national daily that said the judiciary wanted to retain 1% of the Rs. 2,500 crore deposit made by Vodafone to the court’s registry. The report suggested that a “cash-strapped” judiciary was trying to source funds from “novel” methods such as these. Kapadia had then said: “People write whatever they want.” But the court did not initiate any action against the reporter or the newspaper.
Different benches of the court have, in the past, pointed to inaccurate or sensational news reports. However, Mint could not immediately ascertain the immediate reasons for the revision of the norms.
A.I.S. Cheema, secretary general of the court, the senior-most official on the administrative side, did not have time to meet this reporter on Tuesday for clarity on reasons for revising the norms.
The court’s media officials said reporters could make representations that would be forwarded to decision makers.
Justice Dalveer Bhandari, the Supreme Court judge in charge of granting accreditation to journalists, could not be reached on phone. His staff said he would not be available to comment till later this week.
A media law expert said India has an open court system that inspires confidence among people on the judiciary’s functioning.
“In India, unlike in the US, the press has no independent right under the freedom of expression. The journalist exercises his right as a citizen of this country under Article 19 (1)(a) and also acts as a trustee of the public’s right to know. In certain situations, he might get more access than others, but technically under our open court system that shouldn’t be necessary,” said the expert, who did not want to be named.
“Everyone can have access as it’s meant to be a check on the judges. It’s a check on the system. What is to stop me if I go into a court as lay person and write about something which I think is worthy of sharing with the public? As long as I’m not distorting the proceedings, there should be no problem,” this person said.
The Supreme Court has expressed its appreciation for the role played by the press in its annual reports. “Supreme Court attached great importance to the role of media and complementary to that of judicial organ in a democratic polity. In order to strengthen this partnership, the court took certain initiatives for mutual benefit,” said the 2008-09 report as it elucidated programmes organized by it to train court correspondents.
A February 2002 report in Frontline magazine cited a Supreme Court judgement that contained a defence of the freedom of the press. “Public trial in open court is undoubtedly essential for the healthy objective and fair administration of justice. Trial held subject to public scrutiny and gaze naturally acts as a check against judicial caprice or vagaries and serves as a powerful instrument for creating confidence of the public in the fairness, objectivity and impartiality of the administration of justice.”
There are currently 14 permanent accredited correspondents in the Supreme Court and approximately 80 temporary accredited journalists, according to the court’s officials.
Newspaper and television editors said the requirement for a law degree might be excessive and that the unilateral provision in the norms to withdraw a journalist’s accreditation was not desirable.
“Reporters need not have a law degree to report on the Supreme Court. They need to have strong news sense and an acquaintance of legal nuances,” said Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief, Times Now.
“The new norms seem overly restrictive and will make it more difficult for the media to cover the Supreme Court properly,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu. “While I share the concerns of the honourable judges that court proceedings are sometimes not reported accurately, the solution lies in proper editorial supervision by our newspapers and TV channels, rather than by specifying, with mathematical precision, the onerous qualifications court reporters must possess in order to be given access to a court room.”
“In the absence of access, there may actually be a greater likelihood of inaccurate reporting as journalists will be forced to rely on one-sided accounts of courtroom proceedings by lawyers representing their clients,” he said.
Sanjay Gupta, editor, Dainik Jagran, published by Jagran Prakashan Ltd, said: “As an editor, I will anyway not hire a fresher to report on Supreme Court judgements. However, I don’t think there should be a prerequisite for reporters to have a degree in law. If reporters have adequate experience and are reporting judgements intelligently, and if the editors don’t have an issue, I don’t think it’s fair for the court to then have stringent norms.”
“I don’t want to comment much on the revised norm to withdraw the accreditation without giving any reason. Withdrawal of accreditation should be a bilateral dialogue between the authority and the newspaper. The editors have a right to know when a particular legal correspondent’s accreditation is withdrawn,” he added.
Abhilasha Ojha contributed to this story.