Come Tuesday, the Supreme Court will begin contemplating ‘framing of guidelines’ for court reporters. How the hearings play out affects both reporters and you, the citizen
Picture this: After months of waiting, your property dispute or society imbroglio finally comes up for hearing. Enter the court reporter — seeing his presence in the court causes a palpable impact on the behaviour of lawyers and judges alike. However, if the Supreme Court of India has its way this Tuesday, court reporters across India will now have to follow guidelines on how to report matters of their beat. The court will be hearing interventions in the matter of ‘framing of guidelines for reporting of cases in media.’
The guidelines the Supreme Court frames potentially impact coverage of all courts in India. In 2007, the SC had also framed a similar set of norms for accreditation of legal correspondents covering the apex court, which, among other things, insisted that journalists have a law degree, and a certain amount of experience. On March 20, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice of India SH Kapadia took up the issue of framing guidelines for the media to report cases in courts. The setting up of the Constitution Bench by the CJI comes in the wake of misreporting of court hearings and leaking of confidential information affecting litigants.
Veteran journalist and columnist MJ Antony considered the impact the move would have on the freedom of the press. “If a report is found to have been in violation of the guidelines, are we going to scrutinise individual paragraphs to prove it? Who will be held liable for the mistake? What is the punishment and what is the remedy?” Besides, he points out that all media organisations have their own code of conduct, besides which exist bodies like the National Broadcast Association and the Press Council of India. Advocate Madhavi Divan, author of Facets of Media Law, a commentary on aspects of media law and its regulation emphasised that the ‘open justice system’ must not be forgotten. “Traditionally, any member of the public could come in and watch court proceedings. The logic of this has been that the public should be allowed to understand the administration of justice. As they say, ‘justice must seem to be done’.”
But she adds that the media is in a slightly different position. “Unlike the American Constitution, ours confers no special status to the press beyond ‘freedom of speech and expression‘, but the media still remains a trustee. The public relies on the media for responsible dissemination of news, and this must be taken into account. As long as the guidelines do not unreasonably restrict the freedom of speech and expression, the media cannot protest.” Welcoming the move, court reporter-turned-advocate Rajiv Wagh said, “Reporting court proceedings is quite different from covering politics or crime. One does not need technical knowledge to cover those subjects. Some training imparted by news organisations would be helpful. The court itself could also consider running short training programs specifically for court reporters.”
To some extent, adds Antony, the media can correct its own mistakes. “If a doctor makes a mistake, the patient may die. If a structural engineer makes a mistake, a building might collapse. But if a newspaper makes a mistake, it can issue a clarification and rectify it.”
The biggest problem, say journalists, is the lack of a proper channel to dispense information from courts in real-time. Many orders and judgements are uploaded on the Internet, but that is often too late for reporters to make a good story of. Reporters must also be familiar with the laws of contempt, in order to safeguard their interests and yet manage to break stories.
Motive and Intent
Above all, added Wagh, your motives should be clear. “You can tell from a report when a story is motivated. When your motives are clear and your only intent is to get the truth out, you will rarely get into trouble.” There is also an urgent need to implement a system of cross-verifying what a reporter hears in court. Divan said, “There has been talk of implementing video recording, which would go a long way in preventing inaccuracies. Abroad, every word uttered in court is recorded in writing, so the question of misreporting doesn’t arise.”
Concluded Divan, “It is unfortunate that the courts have had to step in; it should not have come to this. The media ought to have regulated itself from the outset.”