Taking strong exception to what it called a “trial by media”, the Delhi High Court Thursday directed newspapers, TV channels and websites to refrain from publishing any report highlighting the allegations of sexual harassment against former Supreme Court judge Swatanter Kumar without specifying in the headline that they are “mere allegations”.
The court, however, made it clear the injunction will apply only until it hears the matter fully from February 24.
Justice Manmohan Singh also held that the observations made in the order were “prima facie in nature” and would not stop the media from reporting court cases and events as facts covered under the ambit of fair reporting “on the basis of true, correct and verified information”.
The 42-page order of the court came in response to an application by Kumar, presently the chief of the National Green Tribunal, to restrain the media from reporting the allegations against him by a former law intern.
Kumar had also filed a defamation case against The Indian Express, a senior reporter of the paper, Times Now, CNN-IBN and the former intern.
The court also issued a temporary injunction on all media organizations, restricting them from publishing photographs of the retired judge “which may suggest connection of the plaintiff with the said allegations”.
Taking note of the articles published in The Indian Express and the debates on the two TV channels between January 11 and 13, the court held that the media was restrained from publishing any article or write-up or telecasting programmes that highlight the allegations against Kumar in the form of headlines connecting or associating him with those allegations, particularly without disclosing in the headline that they are mere allegations against him, or any other similar articles or TV programmes.
The court also observed that news reports in multiple newspapers and TV channels “make out a strong prima facie case” for granting the injunction sought by the former judge, and directed the media organizations to “delete the offending content” on the internet or other electronic media “within 24 hours”.
The court accepted Kumar’s argument that the allegations against him were as yet not verified and he had not been investigated or tried in any manner.
“I find that the plaintiff has been able to make out a strong prima facie case on the basis of the disclosure of the material available on record…and the CDs which clearly show that the defendants have published the write-ups and telecasted by highlighting the allegations on the front page in order to create sensation amongst public and made it apparent by creating the impression that the plaintiff in all probability is involved in such incident,” the court said.
“Prima facie, I find that the publications…connect the plaintiff with such allegations in the manner which creates a trial by media kind of situation by creating a sensation amongst the public by highlighting and underscoring mere allegations on the front pages of daily routine news and thus the same or similar nature of publications are required to be postponed,” the court held.
Cautioning the media against what it said was “excessive adverse publicity”, the court has also held that such publication could be curtailed by the courts “even if some kind of fairness is ascribed to the publication” because it would hamper a fair trial.
“It may also result in creating an atmosphere in the form of public opinion wherein a person may not be able to put forward his defence properly and his likelihood of getting fair trial would be seriously impaired,” it said.
The court observed that the “continuous adverse publicity” of persons holding positions of public confidence was “destructive of their reputation as well as the public good in the form of the loss of confidence in the institution itself…”
Referring to the gap between the time of the alleged incident of harassment and the complaint being filed by the former intern, the court said that a “balanced approach” needed to be taken in light of the mechanisms provided under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act.
It said it was also of the view that there should be a limitation of time for the purpose of filing of such complaints, otherwise no one would know when the complaint ought to have been filed and decided.
The court has now directed Kumar to give copies of the complaint to the defendant media organizations, and will hear the matter relating to defamation and permanent injunction from February 24.