Harish Salve explains SC powers on contempt

DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

NEW DELHI: If a person is found guilty of committing contempt of Supreme Court, will the apex court’s constitutional power to punish him be circumscribed by the Contempt of Court Act (CCA) provisions?

Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing in the application filed by Vodafone complaining about misreporting during the hearing of its case, said CCA only provided the guiding principles and would in no way limit the apex court’s power on quantum of punishment, which in appropriate cases could exceed what is provided in the statute. The response came to a query from a five-judge bench comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and Justices D K Jain, S S Nijjar, Ranjana P Desai and J S Khehar whether Article 129 of the Constitution, which provides that “the Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself”, meant it was bridled by the CCA.

After hearing Salve’s view, the CJI said though the bench had not taken any final view, it was of the opinion that provisions of a statute could not limit the Constitution-vested powers of the apex court. In the midst of long deliberation on the necessity of framing media reporting guidelines to protect right of an accused to reputation and dignity as well as preserve sanctity of fair trial, the bench asked for Salve’s view on restricting press freedom derived from right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and whether it could only be done through parameters specified under Article 19(2).

The senior advocate said, “The Supreme Court need not deal with the restrictions specified under Article 19(2) because it is only engaged in an exercise to define the contours of press freedom in reporting pending investigation or trial of a case and balancing it with the right of the accused to dignity and reputation.”

Salve said these days it was common to find TV channels standing outside a house being raided by investigating agencies and telecasting minute by minute details of the search operation. “This surely besmirches someone’s reputation. What happens if the agency does not find any incriminating material or does not press any charge at the end of the investigations? Can he not move the constitutional courts seeking relief on the ground that such reporting was destroying his reputation,” he asked.

“The media should be beyond government regulations except acceptable censorship. But to argue that media is beyond all regulation is the limit,” he said. Salve also objected to media using unnecessary hyperboles to describe intense questioning by a bench in serious issues.

He said, “Judges ask sharp questions to get the best out of lawyers. There is no pulling up, tearing into or lambasting involved in the oral argument-based judicial scrutiny system in India. There is a talk of restraining judges from making comments on institutions. If anyone has to exercise restraint, it is the reporters who cover the courts, not the judges nor the lawyers who must not be inhibited in any manner from free and frank exchange of views.”

Counsel Nitya Ramakrishnan said the investigating agencies had been regularly leaking information to media to prejudice an accused branding him as a terrorist though ultimately he might get acquitted in a trial. Appearing for Rajasthan government, counsel Manish Singhvi said a state producing clear and cogent evidence of consistent media misreporting could seek temporary deferment of publication for a limited period.

“However, the order for postponement of publication must be direct, proximate with investigation and must be least intrusive to the freedom of press/electronic media. Thus, the press has a right to report even criminal sub-judice matters as long as they do not impair or destroy fair investigation,” he said. Singhvi said subordinate courts had sovereign power to dispense justice and hence, they had inherent powers to pass appropriate orders to secure the ends of justice.

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Don’t lay guidelines, outline contours of press freedom: Salve

DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

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.

DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

Judiciary can’t regulate press freedom: Jethmalani

Ram Jethmalani (born September 10, 1923) is an...

Ram Jethmalani (born September 10, 1923) is an Indian politician and a famous and controversial criminal lawyer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

NEW DELHI: Former law minister, MP and senior advocate Ram Jethmalani on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that it would be unconstitutional to curtail or regulate press freedom through judicially evolved guidelines because Parliament alone was competent to undertake this exercise through legislative route.

Appearing for a media association before a five-judge constitution bench comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and Justices D K Jain, S S Nijjar, Ranjana P Desai and J S Khehar, the octogenarian lawyer suggested that the best method to evolve guidelines for reporting subjudice matters without infringing the rights of the accused was to seek consensus through meetings between judges, lawyers and leaders of the media.

“The guideline evolved through this process could be recommended to Parliament for appropriate legislative action. I can assure you that Parliament would act on such a recommendation,” he said.

Though the bench had doubts about the efficacy of normative guidelines in protecting fair trial because of excessive reporting intruding into the domain of judges in certain cases, it said, “If we have to recommend, we will do so. There is no problem at all. But the limited question is what should the court do when a person approaches it complaining against media’s blatant breach of his right to presumption of innocence till pronounced guilty? Would the court be breaching Article 19 if it protects the right of the accused by ordering deferment of reporting for a short period.”

Jethmalani was unrelenting. He said, “A pre-publication ban is ultra vires. A guideline to this effect is unconstitutional. Even if the Supreme Court has some legislative power, when the issue involves Article 19, restrictions must come from a statute made by Parliament.”

However, he agreed that if a constitutional court was convinced that a newspaper report compromised the right of an accused and jeopardized fair trial or administration of justice, it could surely put a ban on subsequent publication of the matter.

Jethmalani said the malady of misreporting or biased reporting could be controlled if the judges shed their populist approach and sent a couple of errant journalists to jail under contempt of court law.

“Contempt of court law is not invoked as much as it should be to invoke the fear of god in journalists. The court will not have to worry about media guidelines if contempt jurisdiction is invoked and sent a message that press cannot get away with contemptuous reports,” he said.

Appearing for the Statesman newspaper, counsel Madhavi Goradia Divan argued against court-framed media guidelines saying mere reporting of trial proceedings would not vilify anyone as the public was aware of the cardinal principle ‘presumption of innocence till pronounced guilty’.

On the flip side, she said well-intentioned guidelines could be taken out of context and attempts would be made to achieve something which was completely different from what the court was intending to do. “The trial courts are well aware of the powers conferred on them to control reporting of proceedings in a criminal case,” she said.

The bench clarified, “Our effort is not to punish but to prevent. This exercise is an awareness process for everyone. We want to put in guidelines to avoid certain situations by deferring reporting for a limited period of time. We are not going into reporting of other wings of government but of a limited restraint on reporting as far as court proceedings are concerned.” The arguments will continue on Wednesday.

Judiciary can’t regulate press freedom: Jethmalani

Freedom of the press and journalistic ethics

Justice Markandey Katju  IN THE HINDU

Freedom is important, so is responsibility. In countries like India, the media have a responsibility to fight backward ideas such as casteism and communalism, and help the people fight poverty and other social evils.

Freedom of the press and journalistic ethics is an important topic today in India — with the word ‘press’ encompassing the electronic media also. There should be a serious discussion on the topic. That discussion should include issues of the responsibilities of the press, since the media have become very prominent and very powerful.

In India, freedom of the press has been treated as part of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, vide Brij Bhushan and Another vs. The State of Delhi, AIR 1950 SC 129 and Sakal Papers (P) Ltd vs. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305, among others. However, as mentioned in Article 19(2), reasonable restrictions can be placed on this right, in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Hence, freedom of the media is not an absolute freedom.

The importance of the freedom of the press lies in the fact that for most citizens the prospect of personal familiarity with newsworthy events is unrealistic. In seeking out news, the media therefore act for the public at large. It is the means by which people receive free flow of information and ideas, which is essential to intelligent self-governance, that is, democracy.

For a proper functioning of democracy it is essential that citizens are kept informed about news from various parts of the country and even abroad, because only then can they form rational opinions. A citizen surely cannot be expected personally to gather news to enable him or her to form such opinions. Hence, the media play an important role in a democracy and serve as an agency of the people to gather news for them. It is for this reason that freedom of the press has been emphasised in all democratic countries, while it was not permitted in feudal or totalitarian regimes.

In India, the media have played a historical role in providing information to the people about social and economic evils. The media have informed the people about the tremendous poverty in the country, the suicide of farmers in various States, the so-called honour killings in many places by Khap panchayats, corruption, and so on. For this, the media in India deserve kudos.

However, the media have a great responsibility also to see that the news they present is accurate and serve the interest of the people. If the media convey false news that may harm the reputation of a person or a section of society, it may do great damage since reputation is a valuable asset for a person. Even if the media subsequently correct a statement, the damage done may be irreparable. Hence, the media should take care to carefully investigate any news item before reporting it.

I know of a case where the photograph of a High Court judge, who was known to be upright, was shown on a TV channel along with that of a known criminal. The allegation against the judge was that he had acquired some land at a low price misusing his office. But my own inquiries (as part of which I met and asked questions to that judge and many others) revealed that he had acquired the land not in any discretionary quota but in the open market at the market price.

Also, sometimes the media present twisted or distorted news that may contain an element of truth but also an element of untruth. This, too, should be avoided because a half-truth can be more dangerous than a total lie. The media should avoid giving any slant to news, and avoid sensationalism and yellow journalism. Only then will they gain the respect of the people and fulfil their true role in a democracy.

Recently, reports were published of paid news — which involves someone paying a newspaper and getting something favourable to him published. If this is correct, it is most improper. Editors should curb this practice.

Media comments on pending cases, especially on criminal cases where the life or liberty of a citizen is involved, are a delicate issue and should be carefully considered. After all, judges are human beings too, and sometimes it may be difficult for them not to be influenced by such news. The British law is that when a case is sub judice, no comment can be made on it, whereas U.S. law permits such comment. In India we may have to take an intermediate view on this issue: while on the one hand we have a written Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech in Article 19(1)(a) — which the unwritten British Constitution does not — the life and liberty of a citizen is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21 and should not lightly be jeopardised. Hence, a balanced view has to be taken on this.

Also, often the media publish correct news but place too much emphasis on frivolous news such as those concerning the activities of film stars, models, cricketers and so on, while giving very little prominence to much more important issues that are basically socio-economic in nature.

What do we see on television these days? Some channels show film stars, pop music, disco-dancing and fashion parades (often with scantily clad young women), astrology, or cricket. Is it not a cruel irony and an affront to our poor people that so much time and resources are spent on such things? What have the Indian masses, who are facing terrible economic problems, to do with such things?

Historically, the media have been organs of the people against feudal oppression. In Europe, the media played a major role in transforming a feudal society into a modern one. The print media played a role in preparing for, and during, the British, American and French Revolutions. The print media were used by writers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Junius and John Wilkes in the people’s fight against feudalism and despotism. Everyone knows of the great stir created by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ during the American Revolution, or of the letters of Junius during the reign of the despotic George III.

The media became powerful tools in the hands of the people then because they could not express themselves through the established organs of power: those organs were in the hands of feudal and despotic rulers. Hence, the people had to create new organs that would serve them. It is for this reason that that the print media became known as the Fourth Estate. In Europe and America, they represented the voice of the future, in contrast to the feudal or despotic organs that wanted to preserve the status quo in society. In the 20th century, other types of media emerged: radio, television and the Internet.

What should be the media’s role? This is a matter of great importance to India as it faces massive problems of poverty, unemployment, corruption, price rise and so on.

To my mind, in underdeveloped countries like India the media have a great responsibility to fight backward ideas such as casteism and communalism, and help the people in their struggle against poverty and other social evils. Since a large section of the people is backward and ignorant, it is all the more necessary that modern ideas are brought to them and their backwardness removed so that they become part of enlightened India. The media have a great responsibility in this respect.

(Markandey Katju is a Judge of the Supreme Court of India. The second part of this article will follow.)

http://www.hindu.com/2011/06/03/stories/2011060363621400.htm