India’s Supreme Court and the media

Published: May 6, 2012

The writer is a syndicated columnist and a former member of India’s Rajya Sabha

The media owes a lot to the Supreme Court of India for the freedom it enjoys. But when the apex court tries to meddle in its professional work, it arouses doubts.

I have great respect for Indian Chief Justice SH Kapadia. His integrity is beyond reproach and I have often mentioned his name for the appointment as India’s first Lokpal. But lately, I have been disappointed over the unrelenting way in which he is trying to ram down guidelines to instruct the press on reporting the proceedings of the Supreme Court. It seems that he is determined to impose the guidelines even though they violate the fundamental right under Article 19(1) of the Constitution on freedom of the press.

That the media has not maintained the standards to which it adhered for years is something with which many journalists agree. But the media itself must sort this problem out. It does not mean that the court should interfere. Reporting on court proceedings is an arduous assignment given to experienced hands and just as all judges in the judiciary are not of the same calibre, journalism, too, experiences the same limitation.

The harm that the judiciary can do is worse than the media is capable of doing. A wrong judgment plays havoc compared with the outcomes of an incorrect news story. Incorrect reporting can be rectified unlike a wrong judgment, which stays until a superior court or a bigger bench changes it. The apex court is not infallible and has made mistakes in the past. Why pick on the media? The judiciary and the media have an important role to play — both have jointly thwarted assaults on freedom, essential to sustain the spirit of democratic polity.

Journalists found guilty of intentional or motivated misreporting of court proceedings can be referred to the Press Council. The Editors Guild of India has devised a code of ethics and has often discussed self-regulation. While sometimes there are aberrations, this does not mean that the Supreme Court should clamp down on the right to know; the sword of contempt of court is always hanging over the heads of journalists while reporting legal cases.

Senior Counsel Anil Devan is right when he says: “Article 19(1)(a) includes the right to know and the right to be informed. Media (print and electronic) are the eyes and ears of the citizen and unless media freedom to report court proceedings is protected, the right to know is impaired.” If the court still insists on guidelines, it must approach parliament which alone can legislate on such matters.

Parliament, too, would have to ensure that it does not whittle down the freedom guaranteed to the press under the Constitution. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was unhappy over incorrect or speculative reports that appeared in the press. His viewpoint, as expressed at the All India Newspapers Editors’ Conference on December 3, 1950, was: “I would have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.” The Supreme Court itself has given many judgments to uphold the media’s right to say.

Chief Justice Kapadia has said that it is not the question of freedom of the media but that if the media is used to destroy someone’s reputation, what is the remedy? He is talking about the motivated reporting which none in the media upholds. Yet, the media trial he is apprehending has been able to get justice in the case of Jessica Lal’s murder and earlier, the Uphaar cinema house tragedy which killed 59 people in New Delhi in 1997. Similarly, the Commonwealth Games scams would not have come to light but for the media’s meticulous investigation. There can be no rules or guidelines in such cases. Each case is different and as the time passes, media persons will become more experienced and the judges less sensitive. Let Chief Justice Kapadia not go down in history for undertaking an exercise which can be detrimental to the rights of the press.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Spud
    May 7, 2012 - 5:37AM

    I have no respect for the Indian media though I read Indian newspapers regularly and write comments. The Indian journalists reportinstances of extreme corruption every day and then drop pursuing the perpetrators and move on. This is why India has not progressed more than it should have. So Mr. Nayar can bleat about media being not treated well and until they prove themselve will not my respect.

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  • Disco
    May 7, 2012 - 7:12AM

    I fail to understand the concept in both India and Pakistan that the court orders are in ‘intereference’ The court is the guardian of the constitution, it’s orders are to be respected, there are no ‘bubbles’ around these institutions (media or parliament) that make them immune to justice. Respect your CJ, Respect your courts.

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  • swet
    May 7, 2012 - 8:04AM

    a lucid,compact and pressing article. a man holding the post of CJI of india has no leisure to be adamant and irrational even for a single moment. he should learn from these two lines.
    I would have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.
    Incorrect reporting can be rectified unlike a wrong judgment, which stays until a superior court or a bigger bench changes it. The apex court is not infallible and has made mistakes in the past.

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  • ali
    May 7, 2012 - 8:56AM

    I agree that supreme court need not be too instructive in developing code of conduct. Nonetheless it reminds the indian media of the need to take the initiative on its own before they lose credibility. Attack the messenger was the strategy used by senior Bush against the media effectively. The Indian politicians may also be forced to think on similar lines soon.

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  • BlackJack
    May 7, 2012 - 9:20AM

    @Spud:
    I must concur. India electronic media has a rapacious appetite for sensational stories – the underlying motive appears not to be that justice must be (swiftly) served, but that TRPs should also reflect viewership from traditional soap watching audiences. I still believe that newspapers like the Hindu (and to a certain extent the New Indian Express) maintain high standards of content (you could take a look at them), but are increasingly seen as passé and unable to attract youth outside their fiefdoms; while the ToI juggernaut rolls on. I would humbly advise that you do not waste your time writing (and definitely not reading) comments in Indian newspapers like ToI/ HT – they do not have a robust filtering mechanism and anything can get posted (they are good for a couple of laughs however). On the subject of this article, Mr Nayar is obfuscating the issue by referring to cases wherein the media’s role has been commended and not condemned as proof points to buttress his argument.

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  • Rakib
    May 7, 2012 - 10:54AM

    Nehru said what he said in 1950 as a matter of his personal & noble article of faith and not to consign Indian journalism, especially of the vernacular press, to a state of perpetual cretinism with incurable & unendurable cognitive disabilities. Mr Nayar has to answer questions before he asks any. Why was Supreme Court driven to this extreme? How does his showing a judge being mistake prone mitigate journalistic sins? Why did Indian journalism not grow in to maturity but regressed instead? What did the Editor’s Guild/Press Council do in last 60 odd years to ensure a self-regulatory mechanism exists effectively to prevent paid news & motivated reporting? What was Mr Nayar’s contribution as a senior journalist in putting his own tribe’s house in order and with what face does he now take umbrage at Kapadia, Katju et al.?

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  • usmani
    May 7, 2012 - 11:19AM

    I appreciate the KN Taking the topic such as apex Apex court against the media.Though i personally believe that Indian media is not as mature academically as it should be. Or Pakistani media is much better than as compare to the Indian media.Chief justice Kapadia instruction to media when writing the proceeding of the supreme court is tantamount to the curtailment of the rights of the media or the free press.

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  • vasan
    May 7, 2012 - 4:00PM

    Spud : I agree. But I guess other than exposing the corruption and possibly filing a PIL, media cannot do much. But once PIL is filed, then the media follows that up vigorously. Some of the channels , english, are so biased, that one loathes watching them. Following up corruption cases should be an investigating agencies’ job.

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  • ayesha_khan
    May 7, 2012 - 11:25PM

    @Spud: Many thinking Indians would agree with you. Times of India and Hindustan Times do not even pretend to be unbiased. The same can be said about some electronic channels like NDTV. Thinking Indians go to The Hindu, The New Indian Express and DNA. Just as we tend to come to Express Tribune and DAWN.

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  • B K GUPTA
    May 8, 2012 - 3:08PM

    You have very rightly quoted the lines.Keep posting these lines on other sites also.@swet:

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