NEW DELHI: A panel set up to review norms for no-go areas that will protect certain areas from commercial activity is likely to recommend mining should be disallowed in all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the country.
Sources in the government told TOI that the committee, headed by the Union environment and forests secretary, is likely to close the debate over no-go areas as it is not inclined to reassess protected areas in view of existing legal protection provided to national parks and sanctuaries that has been supplemented by orders of the Supreme Court.
The committee was set up after a Group of Ministers (GoM) on coal asked the environment ministry to reconsider parameters for no-go areas, where mining is not permitted. They were renamed inviolate areas and the ministry asked to set new norms to be put before the GoM.
The panel’s decision can make it difficult for any relaxation of a policy that has come under pressure from some central ministries and state governments. While ministries like coal and mining have been keen that the no-go policy be made less rigid, the committee does not seem to favour any dilution.
The panel, sources said, feels that parks and sanctuaries provided a higher level of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1976, should not be re-evaluated for their forest value. The head of the Wildlife Institute of India, Forest Survey of India and other senior forest officers from the Centre and select states are the other members of the committee.
There are 661 such protected areas comprising of 100 National Parks, 514 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 43 Conservation Reserves and 4 Community Reserves that add up to roughly 5% of the country’s geographical area. This includes the tiger reserves as well.
The committee is likely to recommend that patches of forest be measured for their forest cover as well as biodiversity values. The panel has not considered the implications of the Forest Rights Act as yet. Under the existing rules, the ministry cannot allocate forest lands to development projects until the rights of the people under the FRA have been settled and the village councils of the affected area agreed to the diversion of forest.
Once the committee’s recommendations are considered by the GoM and approved, the ministry would be asked to again demarcate the no-go zones for mining, but this may happen only after the cases of Mahan and Chhatrasal blocks in Madhya Pradesh, which the GoM has pushed hard for clearing, are reassessed.
The judiciary and Parliament seem to think they could do with less coverage
The Problem Of Too Much Attention
A PIL in Feb alleged that CJI Kapadia had a conflict of interest in the Vodafone tax case. It was dismissed; a penalty was imposed.
Advocate Harish Salve says he was misquoted in the Vodafone matter. Eligibility criterion spelt out for court reporters.
In Mar, CJI says reports on the disproportionate assets of ex-CJI K.G. Balakrishnan are upsetting
SC hurt by reports of a judge listing her daughters in ‘liabilities’
Advocate Fali Nariman says a confidential exchange between his client Sahara and SEBI was leaked on TV. CJI directs parties to make submission in the matter.
Court expresses concern over how the media reported on events surrounding the murder of Arushi Talwar and on her personal life
Over the last couple of days, two pillars of democracy have decided that the media must be kept on a leash. First, the Lok Sabha secretariat declared that the media would not be allowed in the vicinity of parliamentary standing and joint committee meetings. Reporters usually hang about for informal briefings from MP acquaintances—it’s the life-breath of in-depth coverage of Parliament. Media professionals wonder if the unprecedented order is timed to prevent reporting on the three defence chiefs’ appearance before a parliamentary committee, slated for April 20. Second, the Allahabad High Court prohibited the media from writing or reporting further on the sensational news of troop movements towards Delhi on Jan 16-17. The Union i&b ministry followed up with an advisory seeking strict adherence to the court order. The two restrictions come even as the Supreme Court is mulling guidelines for law reporters covering it.
So, is this the system recoiling at all those big news stories of scams and criminal investigations that have come out recently? Media professionals feel these ‘guidelines’ would end up stifling them. The bigger fear is that, when institutions like the Supreme Court and the Lok Sabha start writing rulebooks for the media, they might prompt others—say the bureaucracy and the police—to do so too. The cascading effect could shrink the space of reporting in the same proportion as RTI added to it.
It was in the backdrop of an information explosion triggered by television channels, where opinions were sought and decisions arrived at swiftly, that the Law Commission finalised its 2006 report, ‘Trial by Media’, framing guidelines for reporting on criminal proceedings in court. The report makes a case for not covering a trial till it is concluded. It is learnt the Centre is in active consultation with the states on the commission’s report.
As the five-judge constitution bench under the Chief Justice of India, S.H. Kapadia, engages in a threadbare discussion on the media with advocates of freedom of the press and others, it is perhaps time to ask, as indeed the court is doing, whether guidelines regulating the media are required at all. In fact, is there any reason to suppose that media coverage has led to miscarriage of justice. And have existing guidelines failed? Linked to both questions is the public’s right to know and be informed.
Already, there are quite a few guidelines to begin with. There’s the Press Council Act of 1979, though its powers could be debated. Presided over by a retired judge and with journalists and newspapers’ representatives on the board, the council has the power to censure, warn and admonish the press if it fails to adhere to the guidelines. Its present head, Justice Markandeya Katju, has called the Allahabad High Court’s gag order “not correct” and said that “the media has a fundamental right to make such a publication, as it did not endanger national security”.
Then, there’s the News Broadcasting Authority of India (NBA), a self-regulatory body of broadcasters with academics, eminent persons and a former CJI on its rolls. It has a detailed programme code, advocates voluntary adherence and imposes penalties. After the 28/11 attack on Mumbai, it had drawn up rules for reportage by the electronic media.
In his capacity as chairperson of NBA, which is a party to the SC’s deliberations guidelines for the media, former CJI J.S. Verma says, “I feel that, as there are already guidelines drawn up by the channels themselves, the bench in my view could suggest modifications if it so wished. In fact, if the judiciary says compliance with existing guidelines is desirable, that itself will have the desired effect.”Verma—who is often openly critical of media reports—thinks peer pressure works better than imposed guidelines.
Other senior lawyers hold the view that the court has no power to make laws. Former SC judge Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer calls the SC’s attempt to regulate the media a case of judicial overreach. “It’s Parliament that has the right to legislate, not the court.”
Though the chief justice of India has repeatedly clarified that the aim is to regulate, not control, these recent exercises are seen as part of an overall process to control a media that is seen as increasingly critical and combative. The judiciary and the media, which appeared to be working in tandem at one point, now appear to have fallen out.
Does the public have a right to know about how justice is delivered? And if it does, how will that happen if reporters are not permitted to report? Such a move would also run against the open court proceedings our judiciary has adopted till now. There are many who suggest that instead of a broad arc of guidelines, what is required is a case-to-case examination. If an error takes place due to the media, there are adequate grievance redressal structures within the courts in the form of contempt and defamation laws. Moreover, journalists enjoys no special immunities or privileges by law.
Says Kumar Ketkar, editor of Divya Bhaskar, “I am quite critical of the media, but I feel the Supreme Court is overstepping its brief in wanting to frame guidelines for court reporting as the move creates an impression that the court alone is the upholder of integrity, sovereignty and the national interest. This is unfortunate. It would also appear that court and the media are in direct confrontation with each other.”
Adds Arnab Goswami, head of Time Now, “If everything now becomes a matter of litigation, there will be nothing to report on. What will we report on?”
Constitutional battles are usually delicious if you’re a geeky spectator of parliamentarians, policy wonks and jurists. It’s not fun to be one of the embattled sides in an unfair fight.
“Journalists like to believe…that all constitutional rights depend on the right to know and the right to know depends on a free press”—Benjamin C. Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, 2 June 1974. Constitutional battles are usually delicious if you’re a geeky spectator of parliamentarians, policy wonks and jurists. It’s not fun to be one of the embattled sides in an unfair fight.
The battle is unfair because the media is being forced to fight against the judiciary on the latter’s turf. A constitutional bench of five judges in the Supreme Court of India has set out to create a framework for the press to report on the judiciary and its proceedings. The press, unlike Parliament or the executive, has no further remedy once it gets tied down by the Supreme Court. Through Indian constitutional history, the court has been the custodian of free speech and, indirectly, of an uncurtailed and robust press. As it stands, the protector is threatening to limit our rights. Given that the court’s verdict is bound to affect the way people like me carry out our trade, I’m not pleased about the scenario in the least, especially since so much that needs to be said on our behalf is not even coming before the bench.
Yes, journalists are being represented in the case—Rajeev Dhavan has argued for the Editors’ Guild of India and the Forum for Media Professionals, Anil Divan represented The Hindu and Prashant Bhushan argued for Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu. Other bodies such as the self-regulatory body for 46 television channels, News Broadcasters Association, the Indian Newspapers Society and the Press Council of India are being heard by the court.
I don’t blame the judges for not understanding the nuances involving journalistic craft. They are judges, not journalists. If it were so easy to understand how reporters, editors and newsrooms worked, there would be no such confrontation between the two sides. And the same is true of the media—few people in newsrooms really understand how the judiciary works.
The language of both the professions also causes mutual tension. To a journalist sitting on a newsdesk, the words “suit” and “petition” are interchangeable, and a headline writer is more likely to use the former because it fits in a smaller space. To lawyers and judges, the gulf between a judge’s quote in a news story suffixed with “said the judge” and “observed the court” is massive. The former might well be an order or directive, while the latter could merely form part of the debate between the bar and the bench. After all, judges must throw searching questions at lawyers in order to properly excavate the points of dispute. The line of questioning, while it is a good indication, doesn’t necessarily mean that the court will eventually rule in that direction.
If you read multiple newspaper reports of the same court case and compare them, they might seem like accounts from different hearings. This is because daily hearings go on for hours, more so in appellate courts. A journalist will have only a few hundred words, or a few minutes of airtime, to tell a story. Obviously the newsiest details must make it to the top—the inverted pyramid rule. And this is not usually the most crucial legal argument being propounded in a case.
Eventually, lawyers think court reporters have done a bad job. The challenge is to succinctly summarize the proceedings. Different newspapers and television channels have varying styles of presenting news.
To most journalists, especially those who don’t normally report court-related news, when a lawyer opens his mouth, all that comes out is legalese.
To be sure, the judges may decide after the hearings are completed not to do anything that may be seen to be muzzling press freedom. The Supreme Court has also clarified that the ongoing constitutional bench hearings dealing with media coverage of sub judice cases will be restricted to questions of law related only to this aspect.
But we must ask the questions since it is germane to the arguments before the court: Is the Supreme Court’s constitutional bench the right forum to resolve bad journalism that emanates from our courts? Do the judges and lawyers appearing before them have the necessary expertise to deal with the myriad issues at hand, especially if they are not of a litigious nature? Does the court have the power to tell the media how it might report judicial proceedings?
What’s happening isn’t new. There have been similar breakdowns between the courts and the press elsewhere.
In March 1975, the top jurists, lawyers, editors, reporters, government officials and other stakeholders in the US came together in what has come to be known as the Washington Conference. Both sides “tested the high ground of principle against the erosive force of real world legal and journalistic practice, agreed to disagree, sometimes even agreed, and learned more about each other than was previously known,” reads a brief preview to the discussions at the conference. Jurists and journalists sat together and while mutually devising solutions, respected each other’s domain.
In 2009, a committee of judges and journalists in the UK decided how reportage would be conducted in the criminal courts.
Dhavan has already submitted to the Indian Supreme Court that a similar joint committee of members from the press and the judiciary would be the best way out of the woods we now find ourselves in. After all, there is no defending bad journalism.