LAW RESOURCE INDIA

The public needs both gavel and pen

Posted in FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS, MEDIA ETHICS, MEDIA ISSUES, MEDIA LAW by NNLRJ INDIA on March 30, 2012

The public needs both gavel and pen

The public needs both gavel and pen

SIDARTH VARDRAJAN IN THE HINDU

The Supreme Court’s proposal to impose guidelines on how to report cases will be harmful to press freedom and democracy, the bedrock of which is an informed public.

The Judiciary is the third branch of government. As with the Executive and Legislature, the public has a right to see and know and understand the functioning of this branch. That is why India, like every other democracy, has embraced the concept of open court proceedings and trials, except in those situations where, for security or other compelling reasons, in camera hearings are required.

In the Mirajkar case (Naresh Shridhar Mirajkar And Ors vs State Of Maharashtra And Anr on 3 March, 1966) a nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court under its legendary Chief Justice, P.B. Gajendragadkar, held that “save in exceptional cases, the proceedings of a Court of justice should be open to the public”.

“A Court of justice is a public forum”, the 1966 judgment declares. “It is through publicity that the citizens are convinced that the Court renders evenhanded justice, and it is, therefore, necessary that the trial should be open to the public and there should be no restraint on the publication of the report of the Court proceedings. The publicity generates public confidence in the administration of justice. In rare and exceptional cases only, the Court may hold the trial behind closed doors, or may forbid the publication of the report of its proceedings during the pendency of the litigation.” (emphasis added)

Unrestricted openness

Once the objective of a public trial in open court is accepted, it is obvious that this openness cannot be restricted to those members of the public who have the facility and inclination to be present in a given court at a given time; rather, the reference is to the wider public, to the citizenry as a whole. The only way court proceedings, and the wider functioning of the judicial system, can be subject to public scrutiny is if the media — who are the people’s eyes and ears — have the freedom to both be present in open court and to give an account of what transpires in open court.

It is thanks to contemporary newspaper reports of the day-to-day hearings in landmark cases like Kesavanada Bharati (1973) (certainly in The Hindu, and perhaps elsewhere too) that the public then — and legal scholars now — have an accurate picture of all the intricacies involved, including the oral arguments made and questions raised by the Bench. Many more such examples can be cited.

To be sure, covering the courts requires skill, competence and some domain knowledge of the law, in much the same way that coverage of foreign policy, defence, business and finance, and even politics requires reporters knowledgeable about those subjects. The Supreme Court has seen fit to specify that accredited correspondents must possess a law degree; it has also quantified the amount of reporting experience, at different levels of the judiciary, that these correspondents must have. No other branch of government or public or private institution — not the armed forces or Defence Ministry, not the Ministry of External Affairs, the Police, the Ministry of Agriculture or Health — has insisted on a degree or professional qualification as a condition for accreditation. Nor to my knowledge is a law degree a requirement to get accreditation as a correspondent to the Supreme Courts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, etc. I raise this point here not to challenge the Supreme Court of India‘s system of media accreditation, but merely to note that having raised the bar for entry, imposing further restrictions in the form of guidelines on these correspondents — all of whom have been allowed in precisely because of their knowledge of, and sensitivity towards, the functioning of the Court — seems especially superfluous.

No doubt the most experienced and knowledgeable reporter can make a mistake on a particular matter. These mistakes can be harmless, hurting only the reputation of the concerned journalist or media house. But there can be mistakes which have consequences for the reputations of the parties to a case and their counsel, or to the Bench and Court. If an error by a reporter has adverse consequences for the reputation or standing of the Court or plaintiffs, remedies exist under existing statute and court procedures and it is up to the Bench or the affected parties to invoke those remedies. If a factual mistake has been made, or wrong information conveyed, no media house can claim immunity, on the basis of press freedom, from the ordinary process of law. If the error is innocent, and the Court is convinced this is so, the matter might rest with a simple apology; if, on the other hand, mala fide is suspected, the Court is empowered to take punitive action.

Given these remedies, none of which are necessarily inconsistent with constitutionally guaranteed press freedoms, it would seem unnecessary to impose a regime of “prior restraint” or even “temporary postponement” via guidelines on what aspects of court proceedings may be reported. Indeed, such a regime would have a chilling effect on media coverage of the Supreme Court and, eventually, the entire judiciary, at great cost to the general interest of society.

It is true that the Law Commission has recommended ‘postponement’ of reportage citing jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada, where jury trials are sought to be insulated from public opinion. But in India, there is no trial by jury; and surely the judicial independence of judges — and their vulnerability to what appears in the media — cannot be the same as that of the average citizen-juror.

Of course, it is a matter of concern that sections of the print and visual media sometimes report police accounts of crimes without the necessary qualifiers demonstrating that the truth of the matter is not known. Worse still, these accounts are often attributed not to named officers but to ‘anonymous’ police sources. An individual may thus stand “convicted” in the eyes of the public without any recourse to corrective measures. The bald reporting of a petitioner’s claims or accusations can also mislead the public if presented as fact. These are real problems that require remedying. However, a true reading of Article 19 of the Constitution requires that the press regulate itself in this regard and strive, as a collective, for the highest ethical standards. Given the public’s growing disenchantment with the media in the wake of various scandals, it is also in the media’s interest to heal itself. This is a subject journalists are pursuing at multiple levels within the print media and there is also the oversight of the Press Council of India, which, under the chairmanship of Justice Markandey Katju, has re-energised itself. Imposing further judicial restrictions on democratic access to information concerning Supreme Court proceedings would amount to overkill.

Undermines people’s right

My apprehension is that if the Supreme Court, which sits at the apex of the third branch of government, were to insist that reporters covering it abide by guidelines that the Court itself lays down, this would open the door to the other branches of government — that too, at all levels — making similar demands on the media as a precondition to gaining access to Parliament and Legislatures, Ministries, public institutions, hospitals, universities, etc. The natural instinct of most politicians and bureaucrats is to hide or suppress information on one pretext or another. The adoption of media guidelines by the Supreme Court would embolden them, further undermining the public’s right to be informed. Recently, for example, a Karnataka Assembly committee tasked with investigating the scandal involving Ministers caught on camera watching pornographic material sought to blame the media for recording what the Ministers were doing. Shouldn’t you be focusing just on the official Assembly proceedings, journalists were asked.

Courts in open societies elsewhere, particularly in North America, may have had occasion to be upset with media coverage of cases but they have not sought to frame guidelines of the sort being envisaged by the Supreme Court of India. The only etiquette rules courts in the United States seem to focus on are the circumstances under which journalists may use recording devices and cameras. Today, the debate on this issue in the United States is focused on whether journalists should be allowed to carry mobile devices into the Supreme Court so that they can “tweet” live from inside without having to come outside the courtroom. The court forbids this. At issue, however, is not the right of the journalist to provide near-live coverage of a hearing, should she so desire but only whether she can use the communication technology on court premises.

Of course, journalists and editors should be honest in accepting that the reason the Supreme Court — and the government — want to step in is because the media act as if they are not accountable to anyone. Aggrieved citizens have no forum they can approach for an effective and swift remedy in the event of being injured by misreporting. Unless newspapers and television stations get serious about self-regulation, the pressure of external regulation will always remain.

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