Monday, March 31, 2008

Dialogue between two natural allies: Day II

The second day of this interesting workshop began with a discussion on how journalists should report the filing of First Information Reports. The Additional Solicitor General, Gopal Subramanium brought sense to the confusing nature of the subject, by suggesting that all FIRs are not to be treated similarly. If it is a case of murder, and similar offences, they should be reported without hesitation. In the second category are those cases registered by the police and the CBI, after a swoop, for instance, when they disclose unaccounted money. Such economic offences also need to be reported. In the third category are the cases which involve ventilation of private disputes and complaints, where there is need for caution and circumspection, as there can be an action for defamation if they are reported.

The propriety of reporting oral observations of the Court continued to dominate the discussions today. Considering that almost all Judges raised this issue, and some senior advocates, after prodding by Judges, also touched the issue, showed how seriously the Court considered it. But the solution suggested by the Judges that the media must ignore the observations had few takers. If the media could not ignore, at least they should understand and let the readers appreciate the context in which such observations are made, otherwise it would give a misleading picture, the Judges suggested.

Senior advocate Ashok Desai expressed his disagreement with Justice Arijit Pasayat who said yesterday that you cannot call a judgment rubbish. Justice Pasayat was referring to the contempt case in which the PUCL leader in Raipur, Rajendra Sail was convicted for contempt by the Madhya Pradesh High Court, for calling a judgment rubbish. On appeal, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence, but upheld the conviction. Sail's apology was not accepted, while the journalists who reported his statement apologised, and were forgiven.

Ashok Desai referred to two recent observations of the Judges: one by Justice Katju when he said corrupt officials must be hanged; the other by another Judge that if Ministers don't vacate Government houses, should third degree methods be used. In both these instances, the Judges were only expressing their anguish, and not advising the Government, but the media got them wrong. Saying that he prefers a Judge who articulates and offers a tentative view, rather than remain silent, he suggested that Judges should give stress to their views through their judgments.

K.Parasaran, Senior advocate, said most Judges are careful, but some moralise, which is a human tendency. The media, he said, therefore, should go by the context.

The Judges also seemed to be troubled by the growing tendency among lawyers to speak to the media, on pending cases in which they are appearing. Desai's suggestion to the media is to avoid seeking their views. K.K.Venugopal said the media should avoid articles/commentaries on cases which are likely to be considered by the Courts in the near future. B.G.Verghese questioned the relevance of such voluntary restrictions when Courts are flooded with several PILs on contemporary issues. We will then have a moratorium on discussion of public issues, till they are disposed of by courts. I believe the question of media trial is being exaggerated by the Judiciary. If Judges are human beings, would they not stand to benefit by a vibrant discusion in the media on the pros and cons of an issue before them. It is upto them to ignore them or consider them as mature persons. But to ban them just because they may get unconsciously influenced by reading them appears unreasonable.

At the end of the workshop, do the Judiciary and the media understand each other better? While they claimed to do so, to me,it appeared the objective of the Judiciary in organising the workshop remained only partly fulfilled. For one of the key objectives, namely, getting the media agree to some sort of internal regulation on following certain norms on court reporting may have to be pursued, as the media remained unconvinced, for instance, on the question of ignoring individual observations of the Judges in the Courts. On observations, I do agree that Judges have a point, but as one agrees with Tarunabh in the comments to the previous post, on how media sensationalises, and distorts even Judgments, are observations any more sacred than judgments?

One positive outcome is perhaps the decision to appoint a Press Officer for the Supreme Court who would interact with the media on a daily basis to give the official view on judgments, observations and anything concerning the Supreme Court. Clearly, the Supreme Court appears to be suffering from a serious image problem - partly because of its own making, and partly because of the media's hunger for sensationalism.
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