SC to frame guidelines for reporting sub-judice matters; we need many more guidelines

SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

In a constitutional democracy based on rule of law, citizens operate under a golden rule: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”. This articulation by American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes has conveyed to every one, including newspaper reporters, that their right to freedom of expression is not higher than the fundamental rights of others.

If a baseless swing of a reporter’s pen scratches another’s nose, then he faces law like ordinary citizens. But, some grave and incessant misreporting in media in the last few months has forced the Supreme Court to constitute a five-Judge constitution bench to deliberate on framing reporting guidelines on sub-judice matters.

The exercise is welcome. The guidelines will, probably, contain the golden principles telling reporters what to report and what not to, and importantly, how to write a news report. In the Indian Express judgement [1985 (1) SCC 641], the apex court had said the right to freedom of expression enjoyed by reporters could not be subjected to additional restriction other than those provided under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

The SC had also said: “Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse…. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which could not be palatable to the government and other authorities. With a view to checking malpractices which interfere with free flow of information, democratic constitutions all over the world have made provisions guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression laying down limits of interference with it.”

“It is the primary duty of all national courts to uphold the said freedom and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with it, contrary to the constitutional mandate,” it had said.

Even if one takes that framing of guidelines for media on reporting sub-judice matters is a pressing issue, would it be more important than about 30% of the country’s population going hungry every day even after 62 years of India becoming a republic? When a vast humanity is living below poverty line and yet the government jokes that those who spend Rs 29 a day are not poor, doesn’t it ring an alarm bell about something being seriously wrong with governance? How about a guideline to make the right to life of one-third of Indians a little more meaningful? Would the SC attempt it?

The poor have been waiting for justice for years with no signs of better times in the immediate future. Another six crores (it would be much more but we take a very conservative estimate by assuming that only two persons are involved in each of the nearly 3 crore cases pending) are waiting for years in a labyrinthine queue for justice. Should the excruciating delays result in denial of justice? Would a guideline to limit case life to 2-3 years not pressing enough?

Talking about maladies faced by the country, the Vohra committee report in the 1990s pinned the blame on the unholy nexus among police-criminal-bureaucrat-mafia-politician. The SC in the Vineet Narain judgement dealt with this issue but did not issue a guideline to break the nexus.

It had also dealt with hawala scam in the 1990s and black money only two years ago. According to a conservative estimate by the National Institute of Public Policy, black money in our economy is around Rs 37,000 crore, which is a little more than one-fifth of the gross domestic product (GDP). It is an admitted position that on a conservative estimate the black money in circulation in India would match the quantum of white money. Should the SC not put forth guidelines to unearth the black money? A two-judge bench of the SC did make an attempt. But, the order is in limbo as a fresh bench hearing the Centre’s review petition gave a split verdict.

To give a specific example, the Rs 14,000-crore Satyam scam happened because of alleged deliberate auditing manipulations by chartered accountants of a reputed firm. With the plummeting share prices, dreams of millions crashed. Should the Supreme Court not frame guidelines for chartered accountants on how to audit, at least when it involves big listed companies?

For framing of guidelines, we must not forget the riots and its virulent kind, the communal riots. The apex court has dealt with the two most notorious ones in the history of modern India – the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 post-Godhra riots. It did a great job in the 2002 case. It brought the perpetrators to book by breaking the shield provided to them by those in power. Should the SC have not framed guidelines for both police and governments on how to deal with communal riots? A guideline for rehabilitation of victims and prosecution of culprits would also not be out of place.

Advertisements

The Lokpal and the CBI

JAN LOKPAL BILL

JAN LOKPAL BILL

R K RAGHAVAN IN THE HINDU

The ushering in of a Lokpal should in no way dilute the CBI’s legal authority or operational effectiveness.

It is a happy turn of events that there is, at last, a kind of truce between the Central government and the Anna Hazare Team on the Lokpal issue. Both sides have displayed a measure of maturity that augurs well for the future of public life in India. The stage is now set for some animated but objective discussion of the law that will concretise the idea of a strong ombudsman. It is not enough for the two sides to say that they are for a credible Lokpal. They need to go the extra length to accommodate each other’s sensitivities. Otherwise things will be back to square one. This is why a lot of importance should be attached to the meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee scheduled in the next few days.

The Anna Team’s focus is rightly on the status of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the future scheme of things. With all its faults — some real and many imaginary — the CBI is still the best bet to strike at the venality that marks public life in India.

To say that politicians alone are guilty of corruption, an impression given by the Anna Team, is greatly skewed. Civil service misdeeds are equally enormous and cannot be ignored. Take, for instance, the recent arrest of a senior Income Tax Department official who allegedly demanded a sum of Rs.50 lakh to overlook the suppression of unaccounted income by a company. Instances are legion of top officials of enforcement agencies asking for a bribe without any sense of shame or fear. The magnitude of corruption in the Central government departments is mind-boggling, and this is why we first need an effective anti-graft machinery at the Centre, rather than in the States. The corruption in the States could be tackled subsequently. If the Lokpal is unable to cut at the roots of the civil servant-politician nexus in promoting dishonesty, it would have hardly justified its creation.

The ushering in of a Lokpal should in no way dilute the CBI’s legal authority or its operational effectiveness. This should be the starting point for any discussions of the Standing Committee. A former Union Minister, referring to the plea for total autonomy for the CBI from the Executive, asked this writer some time ago as to who exactly the organisation should be answerable to if it wants to be autonomous — particularly when monitoring of all CBI cases by the judiciary was impractical. This query by an otherwise well-meaning public figure summarises the political perspective of the whole issue of the CBI’s autonomy. It reveals the unconcealed desire of the average politician to somehow retain at least a semblance of control over the CBI.

It is generally known that the senior bureaucracy is also not exactly unhappy with the current state of affairs wherein the CBI is under the thumb of the Department of Personnel. Perhaps the most significant move that came in 2003 was the insertion of Section 6A in the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act, 1946, making it mandatory for the CBI to get prior government permission before it can even proceed with a preliminary enquiry (PE) against an official of and above the rank of Joint Secretary. This was a dubious amendment to the Act, based on the specious ground of saving civil servants from needless harassment by the CBI. But it amounted to deliberate emasculation of an organisation that requires teeth to tackle public servant corruption. The provision has been questioned in judicial forums as violative of the fundamental right of citizens to equality before law. Let us hope that this issue is resolved soon in favour of maintaining the integrity of the public services.

It is against this backdrop that the Anna Team’s demand to bifurcate the CBI, attaching its anti-corruption wing with the proposed Lokpal machinery, should be examined. This is ostensibly in order to remove the organisation from the clutches of the Executive. The rationale is unexceptionable. The practicality of the proposed arrangement is, however, highly debatable.

The CBI does not operate with any watertight compartmentalisation of its numerous wings. No doubt there is a distinct Anti-Corruption Wing functioning at its headquarters. In the field units the distinction is, however, blurred. There is a pooling of resources at all levels when a major case, invariably a sensational conventional crime, is investigated by the CBI at the request of a State government or on the orders of a court. This will no longer be possible if a large chunk of the CBI representing the anti-corruption staff is removed and tagged on to the Lokpal. The current top brass of the organisation are reportedly opposed to such an arrangement, which would deny them the substantial manpower needed for non-anti-corruption work. The CBI’s resources are already quite slender, making it difficult to cope with the nearly 1,000 cases registered by it each year and about 7,000 cases that are on trial.

Following the Vineet Narain judgment (1997) by the Supreme Court, the superintendence of the CBI’s anti-corruption work is with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). This is a nominal arrangement which has worked reasonably well, because we have had some non-interfering and mature Central Vigilance Commissioners, and an equally responsible and self-effacing CBI leadership. Under an aggressive and egoistic CVC this arrangement could have become untenable. If, however, you want to disturb this stable state of affairs with a view to yielding to the demand of the Anna Team, the whole process of transition will have to be carefully conceived and worked out.

As one who has headed the CBI, I am totally against any dismemberment of the organisation. That would cause more harm than good to the objective of rooting out corruption. If the Lokpal becomes a reality, the most sensible thing to do would be to transfer the existing authority of superintendence of the CBI from the CVC to the Lokpal. Any other arrangement would result in the creation of two separate investigating agencies, namely, the CBI, and the small unit envisaged for the Lokpal. That would lead to confusion and a clash of functions. Along with such empowerment, the Lokpal could be conferred the authority (that currently vests with the government) to sanction the prosecution of public servants. This can be done by suitably amending Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 and Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The power enjoyed by the government under Sections 377 and 378 of the CrPC to deny or accord permission to the CBI to go on appeal or prefer a revision petition against the orders of lower courts could also be vested in the Lokpal. It should be remembered that we have been witness to totally political decisions in such matters. Finally, the entire budget allocation for the CBI could be placed at the hands of the Lokpal, so that the CBI enjoys freedom from any tendentious holding up by government of sanctions of money required for its day-to-day running and implementing its long-term projects.

All these suggested moves may be viewed as being too drastic. But, then, without them the CBI will remain tied to the apron strings of the Executive. The former Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma, must be a disappointed man. His bold judgment in the Vineet Narain case was aimed at insulating the CBI totally from political caprice. If, however, in the public perception this has not materialised, both the organisation’s leadership and the executive will have to bear the cross.

The opportunity that is currently available to improve the image of the CBI through a thoughtful fusing of the agency with the Lokpal should not be frittered away. A lot of magnanimity on the part of the current Executive is called for. At the same time, the role of the media and the citizenry at large in bringing enough pressure for a reform of the system can hardly be overemphasised.

(Dr. R.K. Raghavan is a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.)

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article2424159.ece

Independence, probity intrinsic to public office

Indian Parliament Building Delhi India

Image via Wikipedia

DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA

A politician with chargesheets pending against him in a corruption case, yet getting a plum ministerial post does not surprise many in this country when corruption has spread its tentacles far and wide, restricting the growth potential of the country. But when it came to P J Thomas presiding over the office of Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) — the statutory corruption watchdog given teeth by Supreme Court in its 1997 Vineet Narain judgment — there was a din on the ground that there was a chargesheet pending against him in the Kerala palmolein import scam.

Why this double standard in measuring the suitability of a person to an important post, be it the Council of Ministers or CVC? Did not Lalu Prasad remain railway minister at the Centre even when the fodder scam trial was going on against him? In the case of Thomas, the incongruity of the person’s suitability, not eligibility, to become the chief vigilance commissioner was the question, given the duty cast on the body by SC to protect an endangered quality — maintaining probity in public life.

Let us take a look at what SC expected of CVC in its judgment while entrusting it the important role of overseeing CBI’s anti-corruption work:

CVC shall be given statutory status and will be responsible for the efficient functioning of CBI
CBI shall report to CVC about cases taken up by it for investigation, cases in which chargesheets are filed and their progress

Recommendations for appointment of CBI director shall be made by a selection committee headed by the CVC with home secretary and secretary (personnel) as members. The final selection shall be made by Appointments Committee of Cabinet from the panel recommended by the selection committee. These three recommendations will tell the common man, witnessing a wide range of investigations being undertaken by CBI at a time when scams haunt the political and bureaucratic spectrum, the importance of a clean CVC.

Thomas is clean and has impeccable integrity. No one can probably question his eligibility to head the CVC. But, is he suitable? Like any honest person, Thomas is an angry man. And he is getting angrier with every question aimed at his suitability, which he mistakes it as being aimed at his eligibility for the post of CVC.

But how can a person, facing a chargesheet in a corruption case, even if the charge is criminal conspiracy, oversee the functions of CBI in corruption cases? He may have recused himself from overseeing investigations into the brazen 2G spectrum scam, but can he do it in every corruption case? After all, the chargesheet against Thomas is there since 2000 and is not going to vanish in a hurry, given the slow process of trial courts.

And, can Thomas head the selection panel to choose the director of CBI or empanel IPS officers who, like him, have impeccable integrity but have a chargesheet pending? What will he ask the concerned department about non-grant of sanction for prosecution in corruption cases, as many as 300-odd are pending? What if they reply that they are going to grant sanction against him for prosecution in the palmolein import scam? In the Vineet Narain verdict, SC had said, “Holders of public office are entrusted with certain powers to be exercised in public interest alone and, therefore, the office is held by them in trust for the people.”

So, whatever Thomas may say explaining his own integrity and honesty by producing a dozen certificates, the core question will remain: Is he suitable to head CVC when a chargesheet, howsoever politically motivated it might be, is pending against him?

 

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Independence-probity-intrinsic-to-public-office/articleshow/7089048.cms