The gag order by a special CBI court in Mumbai, restraining the media from publishing proceedings of the trial in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh alleged fake encounter case, is questionable at best, and undemocratic in fact. It amounts to prior restraint which curbs not just the freedom of the press but also the citizen’s right to know. It does so in the name of “security”, without making even a minimally compelling case for how it is threatened if the media does its job. A public trial ensures that not only is justice done, but also that it is seen to be done. In effect, therefore, the court seeks to insulate from public gaze a matter which it says “appears sensational” — a judicial euphemism, perhaps, for the fact that the list of accused has featured an array of high-profile individuals such as ministers and high-ranking police officers of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, including BJP president Amit Shah and Gujarat anti-terrorism squad chief D.G. Vanzara, both of whom were discharged in controversial circumstances in 2014 and 2017 respectively.
Ever since the 2005 death in police custody of Sohrabuddin — accused of involvement in a range of crimes from extortion to terror — and subsequently of his wife Kausarbi and associate Tulsiram Prajapati in Gujarat, the unfolding of the case has invited charges of political interference. It is for this reason that it has had an unusual trajectory: The Supreme Court mandated an inquiry in 2007, with the investigation to report directly to the court. In 2010, the SC transferred the case to the CBI. In 2012, after the CBI submitted that witnesses were being threatened and the trial could not be held in a free and fair manner, the SC airlifted the case to Mumbai. More recently, controversy broke out over the death in 2014 of the CBI judge hearing the case, B.H. Loya. An investigation by this paper has found no evidence of foul play in that particular incident. It is also true, however, that many unanswered questions persist in the case. That’s why there is a strong public interest to hear the arguments and counter-arguments, averments and submissions of the defence and the prosecution.
The court’s gag order seems to confirm an ominous pattern. A larger climate of censorship appears to have infected the courts as well. Just weeks ago, the Allahabad High Court barred the media from reporting on the 2008 Gorakhpur hate speech case, in which UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is the prime accused, saying that “wrong reporting” has been “causing a lot of embarrassment” to the state. Earlier, in May, the SC barred the media from publishing or reporting the orders passed by controversial Calcutta High Court judge, Justice C.S. Karnan, while sending him to jail for contempt. It would be tragic if the court’s overreaction then, and its excessive deference to an unproven security threat now, should cast a shadow on its reputation as an institution that upholds, not circumscribes, openness and freedoms.