Full text of CJI Sathasivam’s speech at Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards ceremony

CJI Sathasivam speaking at Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards.

Written by Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: October 31, 2016 2:33:40 pm

I am delighted to be invited as the chief guest to the most prestigious Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards. These awards are a class apart from others as they recognise the commitment,courage,enterprise and excellence of the finest in Indian print and broadcast journalism.

Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards: The Winners

The Ramnath Goenka Awards have attained their momentum owing to dual reasons. First,it is a tribute to the person who was the kingpin in journalism and,second,the recipients over the years have further boosted the prominence of these awards. I render my appreciation to all the winners of these awards. It is truly an honour to be amongst the finest journalists on this special occasion.

It is universally agreed upon that good journalism and a diverse range of free and strong news media are an indispensable pillar of a democratic government. As James Madison phrased it: “A popular government,without popular information,or the means of acquiring it,is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will for ever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors,must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

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These words,which the fourth president of the United States wrote in 1822 about the importance of education in the young democracy he has presided over,capture well the central role journalism can play almost three centuries later,as the supplier of popular information. It is widely asserted and believed that no one in contemporary democracies does as much to keep people abreast of pubic affairs as journalists do. I consider this occasion an opportunity to pay reverence to all journalists whose dominant calling is to empower the people with information. I appreciate the entire journalist clan for striving to keep the democratic process going on.

In Pics: Ramnath Goenka Awards

The adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 ushered in a global awareness of the recognition and respect for human rights. Subsequent thereto,a number of treaties and other instruments incorporated its provisions. One common feature of almost all human rights documents is the inclusion of the freedom of,or the right to,speech and expression. The significance of which is that freedom of expression is regarded internationally as a human right that must prevail in any system that claims to uphold democratic values.

The Constitution of India was adopted,enacted and given to themselves by the people of India with a view to constituting India into a sovereign democratic republic and for securing,among other things,liberty of thought and expression for all its citizens. Freedom of speech and expression enumerated in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is portrayed as the mother of all rights. In the first case involving interpretation of the guaranteed right,Justice Patanjali Sastri (as he then was) of the Supreme Court said: “There can be no doubt that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of propagation of ideas and that freedom is ensured by the freedom of circulation.” Thereby he upheld the liberty of the press as an essential part of the right to freedom of speech and expression declared by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

I quote Justice Brandeis: “those who won our independence believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly,discussion would be futile; that with them,discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine.” It is indeed an indispensable tool,and one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. When this support is taken away,the Constitution is dissolved and tyranny is erected on its ruins.

Thus,in today’s free world,freedom of press is an essential requisite of a truly functioning democracy. It is the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy because public criticism is essential to the working of its institutions. It is the heart of social and political intercourse. It is imperative to have a vigorous,vigilant and free press to have democracy blossom to its fullness. A free press means a press free from fear or favour,a press,which remains upright in the face of coercion or corruptive allurements. By nature,a free press is untamed; capable of speaking unfiltered to public opinion and it has always been a vital conduit for free expression. Such a state of the press is possible only if it has enough strength to withstand all these. In order to achieve the same,the press must be made more responsible and should adhere to certain additional norms of ethics,thereby enjoying credibility and confidence in public perception. It is the responsibility of every individual associated with the press to act prudently with a sense of duty towards society and the nation. Their work must signify a belief in principle,exhorted by democracy and made concrete in every form of publication. It is upon this principle that journalism thrives.

An independent judiciary is the bulwark of a free society as is an independent media and,therefore,it has been designated as the fourth estate,or the fourth branch of government in addition to the legislature,executive and judiciary. As two pillars of democracy,the media and the judiciary need each other and the public needs both.

The journalist fraternity plays a central role in promoting legal awareness among the masses. While publishing the verdicts of courts,which have in a number of ways expanded people’s rights and protected their interests,livelihoods,privacy and dignity,the media and press indeed generate legal literacy amongst the people.

Until 1980,a person could only approach the court if he had locus standi. This system underwent a change with the introduction of public interest litigation,when locus standi was extended to public interest and rulings had the effect of class action. As a consequence,if any person is denied his rights or is subjected to discrimination,he has the right to move court in public interest and the relief which he gets would apply to all through the doctrine of class action.

Journalism’s most important role in a democracy is to keep the people informed. Simultaneously,the media highlights the collective grievances of the people and enables their sentiments to be conveyed. The media not merely spreads the word but,by publicising wrongs and atrocities,enables the court to take suo motu cognisance of such matters. The media gave justice a million eyes and ears. Therefore,the courts and media must work hand-in-hand for enabling a wider reach of justice to the common masses.

While the role of the media is being acknowledged,it must be mentioned that the free flow of information and free speech are obstructed by limitations and restrictions that are usually brought to bear in the context of constitutional and legal provisions. All the major legal systems of the world,including ours,recognise that the expression of facts and ideas and opinions can never be absolutely free. Words can do damage in many ways even if they are true,such as by prejudicing a trial or by inciting communal hatred. Aptly remarked,“free speech is what is left of speech after the law has had its say.”

It is admitted on all hands that if the freedom of the press is to be safeguarded and cherished by society itself,then it cannot verge on licence. Thus,any institution that relishes such a distinguished position in a democratic set-up is also laden with great accountability. If any section of the press fails to act responsibly,there must be some machinery to deal with it. The temptation to correct the media through an external regulatory authority may seem a dominant urge,but it is surely not the answer. The press is naturally and rightly touchy about it. External regulation could result in a perilous departure from the cherished principle of the freedom of the press as the sine qua non of our democracy. So what can the media do to deal with the lapses from professional ethics?

Gandhiji in his autobiography mentioned,“The newspaper is a great power,but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops,even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without,it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.” Thus,one thought that is fairly straightforward,and is consistent with the freedom of thought and expression,is self-regulation by the profession itself. This supposes two concurrent roles on the Press Council: on the one hand,to deal with cases of violation of journalistic ethics in order to maintain high standards; on the other hand,to uphold and defend the freedom of the press.

It goes without saying that the fundamental freedom of speech and expression is that of the citizen for whom the media provides a collective voice. By this token,media organs and agencies are trustees of the public weal. Facts and information are sacred and must be portrayed as objectively as possible. However,today,many newspapers and channels have highly prejudiced headlines,with facts and essential background taking a backseat!

To meet the commercial concerns in a highly competitive environment,in an attempt to be the first to break the news,sensational and provocative headlines are flashed even before all facts have been fully verified. The most deceptive aspect in this context is the trial by media. It has resulted in a real conflict because it involves two conflicting principles — free press and free trial,in both of which the public is vitally interested. The ever-increasing tendency to use the media while the matter is subjudice has been frowned upon by the courts on several occasions. Recently,a Constitution bench of the apex court dealt with this issue. It is of extreme public interest that no conduct should be permitted which is likely to prevent a litigant in a court of justice from having his case tried freely and fairly. A media that cherishes its independence must recognise that this freedom is as essential for the judiciary to deliver justice as it is for the media to observe its impartiality. I quote Lord Denning’s statement from his book The Road to Justice: “press is the watchdog to see that every trial is conducted fairly,openly and above board,but the watchdog may sometimes break loose and has to be punished for misbehaviour.” Any irresponsible attitude towards subjudice cases is likely to prejudice the outcome of the trial. It is pertinently observed that,“The media creates a mindset about what is right or wrong. When the judgment is not on those lines,the judge’s image is tarnished and all sorts of motives are attributed to him and his judgment becomes suspect.” Thus,the only way of functioning orderly is to maintain a clear balance between the two pillars of democracy,which its people trust the most.

Ladies and Gentlemen,to a large extent,yesterday’s journalism is today’s history. Just so,today’s journalism will be the dominant part of tomorrow’s history. Thus you journalists owe a larger responsibility and accountability not only to the present generation but the future as well. Journalism is the principal means of making the picture of the world in any citizen’s head something more than a caricature of the real thing. Thus journalism is a great power,which plays a major part.

What has been said about the press is applicable to all modes of journalism. The impact of journalism is so extensive that it plays a central role in the process of nation-building. It is true that initially journalists largely confined themselves to expressing opinions,but soon turned to reporting the news,on which opinion is based,in a manner that was fair and impartial. Journalists who have the power to mould public opinion and motivate society should be pioneers of change and development.

Therefore,journalists should be conscious to see that journalism does not become a destructive force. I strongly suspect that the negative impact of news coverage in the past decade has done a great deal to build the mood of despair and helplessness that exists among too many people. Always remember,you form people’s interest. You frame the mind of the people. Therefore,a free press is as important as a responsible press too. It is the power to make the fresh winds of truth blow through your minds. It is in this that reporting has its greatness.

Ladies and Gentlemen,journalists must be at the forefront in informing and educating the people on major socio-cultural,political and economic issues and developments so that they can make informed choices and decisions. Justice Venkataramaiah,in one of the early judgments on freedom of expression,pointed out four social purposes to serve while exercising the freedom of the press: one,help an individual to attain self-fulfillment; two,assist in the discovery of truth; three,strengthen the capacity of an individual in participating in decision-making; and four,provide a mechanism by which it would be possible to maintain a reasonable balance between society and social change. All members of society should be able to form their own belief and communicate freely to others. In sum,the fundamental principle involved here is the right to know.

Journalists must be guided by the above four purposes to be served every time they exercise their freedom of press.

I studied in a Tamil-medium school; newspapers were the only tutor I could afford in those days for improving my English. I’m truly indebted to the press for whatever little English I can speak today. So,you have a great power at your disposal that can change politics,educate the masses,create awareness and alter anything and everything,which you desire. This power is bestowed on you by the will of the people; therefore,the journalists’ fraternity as a whole has an obligation to behold the trust vested in them.

India is a vast country with diverse languages,religions and cultures and a shining example of unity in diversity. So is reflected in the press and media. It is true that media is the mirror of society and reflects the contemporary needs and aspirations. But equally,it is also a trendsetter and has its own impact on all the above. Recognising its pivotal role,you must always be mindful of every act you commit.

Journalists’ freedom is the heart of the freedom of the press and the exercise of this freedom depends largely on the editor. I would like to remind you that having the enormous power in your hands,you could illuminate the future of not only your own country but that of the whole world.

The press in India is fast-growing ahead of its counterparts in several Western and developed countries. Here comes the responsibility on the shoulders of journalists to ensure that while marching on the road to growth,it preserves its values and heritage that have given our country a unique place in the world. As per the World Press Trends released in 2011 by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA),of the 10 highest circulation newspapers in the world,five are from Japan,two from India,and one each from China,Germany and the United Kingdom. I hope and look forward to the day when our country takes a prominent position in the world of journalism.

I also take this opportunity to thank the journalists’ fraternity in India for the positive role you continue to play in society,especially in promoting and defending the ideals of freedom and just governance. I have no doubt that media has a multidimensional role to play in the promotion of society’s values and virtues as well as in the dispensation of justice. However,with the advent of 24-hour satellite news channels,the internet and blogs,etc,the task before today’s media persons is more demanding. Never allow the market forces to determine the news. Remember,journalism’s first obligation is to the truth and its first loyalty is to the citizens.

These awards celebrate the values that stand for good journalism. I once again congratulate all the winners.

Thank You!

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