An extraordinary standoff between lawyers and the media in Kerala has gone on for three weeks now. The two sides have brawled, the High Court has shut down the media room, and barred reporters from judges’ chambers and the steno pool to obtain details of proceedings. The court has asked for a judicial probe, and the government has ordered that a committee headed by the Advocate General, and comprising representatives from both sides, be set up to investigate the matter. What’s happening?
An alleged molestation
On July 14 night, Government Pleader Danesh Mathew Manjooran was arrested in Kochi for alleged molestation. But he was granted bail after the complainant gave an affidavit saying it was a case of mistaken identity. But the police still rushed the woman to a magistrate to record her statement under Sec 164 CrPC, after which they allegedly leaked her statement to the media. Manjooran and his supporters have argued they did this to settle scores in a dispute he had with an officer.
Resolution and report
On July 18, the Bar Association general body passed a resolution protesting the police action against Manjooran, and decided to march to the central police station, where the case was registered. But the following morning, a newspaper reported that a rift in the association had prevented the resolution from being passed, triggering anger among lawyers. The same day, Manjooran moved the High Court for an order to quash the case against him. The reporter who had reported the news about the association’s resolution was present in the court, and was heckled twice by groups of lawyers. All the court reporters subsequently assembled in the media room to petition the Chief Justice and Registrar General, and boycotted a press conference in protest. The Bar Association apologised, but the matter did not end.
Stones, street battles
Advocates and reporters argued in the media room, and an advocate, who is also the legal correspondent for a TV channel, was involved in a minor scuffle with other advocates after he intervened on the side of the journalists. In the mean time, journalists in the city came to know of the incident, and took out a protest march from the Press Club to the Bar Association office. As they approached the building, another round of scuffling followed. Some reporters then allegedly threw stones at the chambers of advocates, and raised slogans. The lawyers alleged one of their colleagues was injured, and another had his expensive mobile phone damaged. Despite a ban on processions on the High Court premises, the police did not intervene. Advocates then met the court Registrar to demand that the media room be shut down, and were reportedly promised that the matter would be taken up with the media.
Escalation and boycott
On July 20, after discovering the media room was still open, some lawyers tried to evict women reporters. The reporters met the Registrar General, who told them that given the tense situation, it had been decided to shut down the media room. In the meantime, advocates came out in protest, and clashes broke out with TV crews after some journalists raised slogans. As a camera was damaged and some reporters manhandled, journalists from across the city arrived at the court complex and began a sit-in on the road. Police did not try to remove them. Soon brickbatting began from both sides, a reporter tore a lawyer’s gown, and another lawyer had a cut upper lip. Tensions eased only after senior police officers reached, and the acting Chief Justice promised to look into the matter.
The following day, advocates boycotted the High Court, and the clashes moved to the district court complex in Thiruvananthapuram — allegedly after a poster saying “No admission for fourth gender” appeared in front of the media room, which was deemed insulting. A picture of the poster was shared on WhatsApp, and as angry reporters reached the court, advocates locked its gates and threw stones. A TV reporter and a clerk of an advocate sustained injuries.
Protesting journalists then staged a sit-in for an hour, disrupting traffic on the road, which annoyed local people. As an area leader told the journalists to settle the matter and leave, an argument followed, which quickly became a mob attack on journalists. The media, however, chose to largely blame the lawyers.
Attempt at reconciliation
The next day, two High Court judges meet representatives of the judiciary, lawyers and media in Thiruvananthapuram to resolve the dispute. A few days later, a meeting convened by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan decided to form a panel headed by the A-G to settle the issues between media and lawyers.