B S Raghavan

Should apex court frame media guidelines?

B.S.RAGHAVAN | Updated on November 15, 2017 Published on April 10, 2012

Should the Supreme Court (SC) take upon itself the responsibility to frame guidelines for the media on the reporting of cases that are sub-judice and if so, what should be their ambit? A bunch of four petitions taken up for hearing by a five-member Constitution Bench, presided over by the Chief Justice, Mr S.H.Kapadia, has stirred up a nationwide debate on this question.

In general, they are against media resorting to speculation and sensationalism, while being opposed, in particular, to the graphic depiction of sexual abuse and violence, and publication of confessional statements of accused before police.

They have sought a wide range of judicial protection meant to guard the parties to cases, and especially the accused in criminal trials, including launching of contempt proceedings against journalists and making police liable for damages for tarnishing the reputation of an accused by releasing details of investigation into a case.

Apparently, the SC has been finding the media coverage one-sided and vitiating the balance to be maintained between media freedom on the one hand and, on the other, the right of the parties to a case to privacy and a fair trial.

This is the result of the media having to function in a highly competitive milieu and being subjected to constant pressure somehow to retain and expand their readership and ratings.

The Bench itself has crisply posed the issues involved thus: “What about the citizen's right to free trial? How does a court protect him if he files such a plea? Would filing of suit be the only remedy? How do we protect the witnesses and the Judge from scurrilous attacks in media? How does the court balance the rights? How to have checks and balances?

Can the right to life of an accused be made to wait till adjudication under contempt jurisdiction? Can the courts not prevent breach of Article 21 by devising a mechanism? If there is a legislative vacuum on this aspect, could the courts not lay down a guideline till the legislature enacted a law on this issue?”

DOGFIGHT

Without question, it is necessary to curb any tendency on the part of the media to overstep the boundaries of fairness, objectivity and professionalism, not only in respect of court cases but in their dealing with controversial public issues.

The debates in the media, in a large number of cases, seem coloured by preconceived notions. Instead of being reasoned expositions of issues at stake, they take on the complexion of a dogfight.

The choice of participants in the electronic media is also from within a narrow field both in terms of personalities and regions. The same faces are seen day after day regardless of the topic, and of them too, most are from Delhi and a few from Mumbai, and hardly any from the Southern and Eastern States.

Apart from these quirks, there is an ear-splitting shrillness when it comes to coverage of court cases, the cameras unrelentingly focusing on, and following the complainants and the accused.

The whole ‘trial by media' proceeds on the basis of selection of facts and arguments tailored to the presumption of guilt, and is interspersed by highly vituperative condemnations of whomsoever the media have chosen to castigate.

Hence, the situation certainly calls for measures to reverse these trends. But the question of questions is whether the SC itself should take the initiative to promulgate some sort of guidelines at this stage.

ONE SENTENCE GUIDELINE

Any code laid down by the SC, by virtue of the statutory connotations it is apt to assume, may open the floodgates for litigation by both public-spirited citizens and busybodies all the way from trial court to the SC against supposed violations.

The best way is for the SC to warn the media to conform to the self-regulatory code already in existence which covers the kind of contingencies the SC is worried about, and watch the effect for some time before imposing its own code.

After all, as the Bench itself has observed, the problem had arisen mainly because of one-sided reporting of events and arguments in court. “Put the views of both sides and none of these problems will arise.” That could be the one-sentence guideline for the present.

Published on April 10, 2012
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