NEW DELHI: Former solicitor general Harish Salve on Wednesday said the Supreme Court should make the media aware of the boundaries within which it must operate while reporting court proceedings and suggested that the constitutional court must bring clarity to the contours of press freedom to prevent breach of a citizen’s right to fair trial and right to life with dignity, guaranteed under Article 21.
He agreed with most lawyers in telling a five-judge bench of Chief Justice S H Kapadia and Justices D K Jain, S S Nijjar, R P Desai and J S Khehar that it was not for the apex court to frame guidelines but disagreed with other senior advocates who had said that the court could have a case-to-case approach in scrutinizing media reports for transgression of right to life related sub-rights of an accused or a private citizen.
“The Supreme Court is not Press Council of India to tell the media what should not have been written. Media too cannot decide what should be the spread and extent of its right to report conferred on it to meet the people’s right to know. So, the Supreme Court is the only organ under the Constitution which can bring clarity by declaring the contours of right to free speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) by balancing it against the crucial right to life,” Salve said.
“What the Supreme Court declares as the limits under Article 19(1)(a) will be abided by the responsible media, most of whom are very responsible. That is the surest way to safeguard citizen’s right to life which encompasses their right to privacy and right to live with dignity in a society,” said Salve, who appeared in an application moved by Vodafone months ago complaining about misreporting.
The senior advocate said continuous commentary on the merits of a case while it was being argued and targeting of individuals by media had a chilling effect on judges and lawyers, inhibiting free and frank discussion in a court room. “After all, judges and lawyers are human beings. The court should clarify if such reporting puts in peril such discussion during court proceedings,” he said.
Salve said government’s affidavits could be reported by the press even before it came up for court scrutiny. But if scurrilous allegations were made in any affidavit branding people as terrorists, murderers or money launderers, then the media has to wait till the court scrutinizes the contents of the affidavit in an open court hearing, he said.
The bench asked, “In our country the ground reality is that suit for damages or defamation is not an efficacious remedy against such errant reporting as it would take 20 years for conclusion of such proceedings. Will a high court or the Supreme Court be accused of violating Article 19(1)(a) if it entertained a petition from a person aggrieved by scurrilous allegations reported in the media and passed a temporary restraint order?”
Salve said constitutional courts would be well within their limits to entertain and pass appropriate orders on a writ petition from a private citizen complaining that his/her reputation was being destroyed by scurrilous allegations repeatedly reported by TV channels or print media.
If Salve cited Nupur Talwar case to point at spurious effects of brazen media coverage on a person and his right to fair trial, former law minister Ram Jethmalani cited the Jessica Lal murder case proceedings in Delhi High Court to highlight miscarriage of justice because of sustained media campaign.
Before concluding his arguments, Jethmalani said the courts have power to order repeat publication of material that hurt the right of the accused to fair trial or interference in the administration of justice. “Guidelines on media reporting will not solve the problem. On the contrary, it may create additional problems. The solution lies in enforcing Contempt of Court Act. Send one or two persons to jail under the contempt law and that will bring sanity in reporting,” Jethmalani said.
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