SC spreads its media gaze from court to crime to contempt

Constitution Bench has expanded its reach to other spheres of journalism.

Written by Krishnadas Rajagopal | New Delhi | Published: April 6, 2012 10:01 pm

A Constitution Bench set up to frame guidelines for reporting of cases in courts,led by Chief Justice of India S H Kapadia,has expanded its reach to other spheres of journalism,namely a ban on “media leakage” in a pending crime investigation,restricting sex and violence on TV and drafting norms for news coverage by electronic media.

A three-page order uploaded on the Supreme Court’s official website on April 4 shows that four pending cases in the apex court regarding complaints of perceived media excess have been transferred to the Constitution Bench. It states that the Bench has given “liberty” to parties concerned in these four matters “to make submissions on issues relating to media coverage” on April 10,the next date of hearing.

The four cases listed concern media reports in the Arushi double murder case and the contempt proceedings against former India Today magazine editor Prabhu Chawla and correspondent Mihir Srivastava in the Batla House encounter,apart from petitions seeking norms regarding presentation of sexual abuse and violence on TV as well as guidelines for TV news coverage.

This mid-way expansion in the jurisdiction of the Bench comes even after senior lawyers have argued in hearings conducted over the past fortnight that journalism cannot be left to the “whims” of the judiciary,and that journalists are indeed capable of self-regulation.

In earlier hearings,senior advocate Fali S Nariman had suggested to the Bench that the best way would be to “pull up” the reporter for misrepresentation on a case-by-case basis rather than frame “general” guidelines,which may in effect curb the freedom of the press.

The Arushi matter is a PIL filed by a lawyer,Surat Singh,against the publication of news stories on the ongoing investigation into the murders of Noida teenager Arushi Talwar and domestic help Hemraj in 2008. The petition had accused the Noida police of passing on sensitive information to the media,and sought orders to curb with “strict discipline” the “tendency of the police to rush to the media while the investigation agency is not sure who is the real culprit”.

The April 4 order notifies that in the Arushi case,the court will specifically decide whether to pass directions to police chiefs across all states to ban media leaks in criminal cases pending investigation.

The PIL wants the court to issue directions to the I&B Ministry and Press Council of India “to evolve and enforce certain norms of covering criminal cases pending investigation by media,both electronic and print,so that the right to privacy and to live with human dignity is not at the mercy of the irresponsible press as media has been in the Arushi murder case”.

The second case was filed by NGO Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD) in 2011 to initiate contempt proceedings against Chawla and Srivastava for publishing confessional statements made by an accused in the Batla shootout case.

The petition claims that the news item had “prejudiced or had a tendency to prejudice the due course of judicial proceedings of the accused”. The Delhi High Court had given a clean chit to the police,while keeping the question of media excess open.

Like in the Arushi case,the ANHAD petition in the apex court wants it to order the government to issue directions regarding the release and publication of information and evidence gained through interrogation or investigation of an accused in a sub-judice matter.

The third case the Bench has picked is a 12-year-old petition filed by NGO Common Cause seeking the court to intervene with the government to prescribe “definite norms and guidelines” for restricting violence and sexual abuse in TV serials and programmes to “avoid undesirable mental impact on viewers,particularly children”. It wants the court to ensure that channels and producers adopt self-regulatory measures.

The fourth is an appeal by NGO PUCL,filed in 1999,in which the News Broadcasters’ Association wanted to be made a party on the issue of what norms should be put in place to govern news coverage by the electronic media.

Objecting to the Supreme Court’s intention to frame guidelines which have the “the force of law”,Fali S Nariman spoke about how “a high court judge says in court that 97 per cent of the people in the country are fools” and the media reports it. “All sorts of judges say all sorts of things,all sorts of lawyers say all sorts of things… We cannot build a wall around ourselves… There should be self-restraint on lawyers and judges as well not to say just about anything in court,” he said.

Nariman spoke in favour of press freedom despite the fact that he was appearing for the Sahara Group,the aggrieved party in case of media leak of a confidential document in an ongoing litigation in the Supreme Court.

Senior advocate Rajiv Dhavan,appearing for the Editors’ Guild of India,pointed out that we were now in the age of social media. “Media has extended in style and expanse of operations to include Twitter and Facebook,where news and opinions are churned out within seconds to millions of readers across the globe,” he said,also speaking up for press freedom.

He asked the court to distinguish between yellow journalism and respectable media,and said it was for the media to resolve errors in news reporting “internally”.

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