On August 23, the Patna High Court pulled up the CBI for its failure to submit an Action Taken Report in connection with the probe into the Muzaffarpur shelter home rape case. The court issued a directive to the agency to show urgency in the matter. At the same time, however, it took a narrow view of the investigation by restraining “all print and electronic media from reporting anything with respect to the case, more particularly, with respect to the investigation already undertaken and which is likely to take place.” It also directed the Bihar government and the CBI to ensure that the order is “complied with by everyone”. A division bench reasoned that reporting on the case could “seriously hamper the investigation”. The court’s concern over the pace of the CBI probe is welcome. However, a blanket ban on reporting of the case will be counterproductive for more than one reason.
There are compelling reasons to see the Muzaffarpur shelter home case as different from other cases of sexual assault. The allegations point to political patronage, they raise questions about the role of individual officers and show regulatory agencies in poor light. By all accounts, the media has played an important role in uncovering the exploitation of the inmates of the shelter home. The CBI investigations are the crucial next step in ensuring justice to the survivors. But beyond that, the probe would also be significant in uncovering how the state fails the most vulnerable. It is, therefore, imperative that the details of the investigation are open to public scrutiny at every stage. The media, CBI and the public at large, must, of course, be sensitive to the fact that the more than 30 victims in the case are minors. The Patna High Court has not specified if that was indeed the concern behind its restraining order. But it could have outlined safeguards to protect their identity instead of resorting to the blunt instrument of a gag order.
The judiciary, in the past, has found orders banning the reporting of CBI investigations as “violating the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression”. In January, for example, the Bombay High Court overruled a CBI court’s gag order on reporting of the Sohrabuddin encounter case. It needs no repeating that the court’s reasoning that “reporting on trials serves the larger purpose of making information available to general public” is salutary in the Muzaffarpur shelter home case as well. The Patna High Court must read the message in the orders of its counterpart in Mumbai and review its blanket ban on the media. In case it does not do so, the Supreme Court must step in.