Gag on media

A fresh threat to the right to free speech and expression, which has been sanctified by the Constitution, has come from an unlikely place, the Supreme Court of India, which has in the past protected and promoted it as a basic entitlement of citizens. Its judgement empowering courts to ban reporting of hearings in cases where there is a perceived chance of interference in free and fair trial amounts to muzzling media freedom. It needs to be opposed like all other assaults on the functioning on the media, which are becoming frequent now. The court has propounded a  ‘constitutional principle’  which would allow aggrieved parties to seek postponement of the publication of hearings if they are seen to be prejudicial to the administration of justice. But this is disguising an unfair restriction as a constitutional doctrine, creating a devious device to undermine a basic right.

The court has desisted from laying down general guidelines on reporting of cases. That is welcome. But the right to seek a postponement of reporting and giving the courts the power to grant it on a case-by case basis would amount to imposition of the restrictive idea inherent in such guidelines. The court  considers it as a preventive rather than a prohibitive measure, and a neutralising technique to balance freedom of speech and fair trial and to protect the confidentiality of proceedings. But in effect many accused, especially those with resources, will become aggrieved defendants seeking a blackout of information in sensitive and important cases. Granting of their plea to hide information is not in public interest. Even if the press does not report there is a chance that the information can circulate in the cyber media.

Judicial proceedings have to be transparent so that decisions carry conviction with the people. It is a basic judicial idea that justice should not only be done but should also be seen to be done. A watchful and vigilant press is necessary for this. The media even now accepts and goes by reasonable restrictions on reporting of judicial proceedings. There are also instances of the courts conducting closed trials in rare cases. They also have the power of contempt to punish those who violate the rules of fair judicial reporting. There is no case to go beyond these and undermine important principles like the right to free speech and the right to know. The court should review its decision for the sake of basic rights and public interest.

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