In a constitutional democracy based on rule of law, citizens operate under a golden rule: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”. This articulation by American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes has conveyed to every one, including newspaper reporters, that their right to freedom of expression is not higher than the fundamental rights of others.
If a baseless swing of a reporter’s pen scratches another’s nose, then he faces law like ordinary citizens. But, some grave and incessant misreporting in media in the last few months has forced the Supreme Court to constitute a five-Judge constitution bench to deliberate on framing reporting guidelines on sub-judice matters.
The exercise is welcome. The guidelines will, probably, contain the golden principles telling reporters what to report and what not to, and importantly, how to write a news report. In the Indian Express judgement [1985 (1) SCC 641], the apex court had said the right to freedom of expression enjoyed by reporters could not be subjected to additional restriction other than those provided under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
The SC had also said: “Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse…. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which could not be palatable to the government and other authorities. With a view to checking malpractices which interfere with free flow of information, democratic constitutions all over the world have made provisions guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression laying down limits of interference with it.”
“It is the primary duty of all national courts to uphold the said freedom and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with it, contrary to the constitutional mandate,” it had said.
Even if one takes that framing of guidelines for media on reporting sub-judice matters is a pressing issue, would it be more important than about 30% of the country’s population going hungry every day even after 62 years of India becoming a republic? When a vast humanity is living below poverty line and yet the government jokes that those who spend Rs 29 a day are not poor, doesn’t it ring an alarm bell about something being seriously wrong with governance? How about a guideline to make the right to life of one-third of Indians a little more meaningful? Would the SC attempt it?
The poor have been waiting for justice for years with no signs of better times in the immediate future. Another six crores (it would be much more but we take a very conservative estimate by assuming that only two persons are involved in each of the nearly 3 crore cases pending) are waiting for years in a labyrinthine queue for justice. Should the excruciating delays result in denial of justice? Would a guideline to limit case life to 2-3 years not pressing enough?
Talking about maladies faced by the country, the Vohra committee report in the 1990s pinned the blame on the unholy nexus among police-criminal-bureaucrat-mafia-politician. The SC in the Vineet Narain judgement dealt with this issue but did not issue a guideline to break the nexus.
It had also dealt with hawala scam in the 1990s and black money only two years ago. According to a conservative estimate by the National Institute of Public Policy, black money in our economy is around Rs 37,000 crore, which is a little more than one-fifth of the gross domestic product (GDP). It is an admitted position that on a conservative estimate the black money in circulation in India would match the quantum of white money. Should the SC not put forth guidelines to unearth the black money? A two-judge bench of the SC did make an attempt. But, the order is in limbo as a fresh bench hearing the Centre’s review petition gave a split verdict.
To give a specific example, the Rs 14,000-crore Satyam scam happened because of alleged deliberate auditing manipulations by chartered accountants of a reputed firm. With the plummeting share prices, dreams of millions crashed. Should the Supreme Court not frame guidelines for chartered accountants on how to audit, at least when it involves big listed companies?
For framing of guidelines, we must not forget the riots and its virulent kind, the communal riots. The apex court has dealt with the two most notorious ones in the history of modern India – the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 post-Godhra riots. It did a great job in the 2002 case. It brought the perpetrators to book by breaking the shield provided to them by those in power. Should the SC have not framed guidelines for both police and governments on how to deal with communal riots? A guideline for rehabilitation of victims and prosecution of culprits would also not be out of place.
- SC will begin contemplating ‘framing of guidelines’ for court reporters (indialawyers.wordpress.com)