MEDIA VS SUPREME COURT
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?”
ANURADHA RAMAN IN THE OUTLOOK