Rescind gag order

The Editors’ Guild of India’s statement on Delhi High Court’s gag orders on the media organisations from reporting on a law intern's sexual harassment complaint against a former Supreme Court judge is welcome.

The Guild, expressing serious concern on a ruling of a rare nature that concerned a person from higher judiciary, rightly called it a "mockery" of the rule of law and an unwarranted intrusion on media freedom. The Delhi HC order, following a plea from retired Supreme Court judge and chairman of the National Green Tribunal justice Swatanter Kumar, restrained the media from covering the sexual harassment allegations made by a former law intern against him. The court ruling leaves one wondering why a person who held a responsible Constitutional post be given protective treatment when there is no bar on naming accused persons in cases of criminal misconduct. We have the recent examples of high profile cases of sexual harassment like that of journalist Tarun Tejpal or justice Kumar’s former colleague, justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, who were not treated differently. The latter, who stoutly asserted not guilty to charges of `unwelcome sexual behaviour’ made by another law intern, was forced to resign as chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission.

A debateable point in the case of justice Kumar is the issue of jurisdiction – should a high court pass such an order, as in the present case, when the Supreme Court is already seized of the matter? Certain other questions arise in the present case: Was there such a grave threat to national security that it called for a gag order? Would the informed readers conclude a person guilty just because there are some allegations? Would the judge be naïve enough to be swayed by those publications and give a wrong judgment? What about all the related publications, TV coverage and internet content which meant the issue was already in the public domain for long? Pertinent to recall here, Supreme Court had refused to intervene when Asaram Bapu sought restraint on media reports on him.

There is a danger of the high court order setting a bad precedent – it may lead to others seeking similar restraint orders in a variety of cases, including corruption. The interpretation made by the high court in the case is also liable to be misused. Ideally, such orders should be given only in exceptional cases so that they do not become a tool for the alleged wrong-doers to take advantage of the precedent.

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