Raghul Sudheesh, an associate editor with the Bar & Bench (www.barandbench.com) and a graduate of the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), Cochin, thinks that a Press Office at the Supreme Court would make legal reporting more accurate. He has filed an intervention application with the five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, constituted to frame guidelines for legal reporting.
Q: What role do you foresee for the “Press Office”?
For starters, it will bridge the information gap between the judiciary and the media. The Press Office could prepare “press summaries” on all judgments. This will make it easy for editors and correspondents to report on legal issues accurately.
Secondly, the SC Press Office could also hold seminars, workshops, and training programmes for legal correspondents to familiarise them with the complexities of court proceedings. Lastly, it could give accreditation to correspondents who cover Supreme Court proceedings.
Q: Are there precedents in other countries?
The UK Supreme Court’s Press Office provides a comprehensive set of services to media professionals. Every judgment delivered by the Supreme Court of UK is accompanied by a press summary. It gives background of the case, the court’s judgment and reasons besides notes to editors.
The Australian Supreme Court also provides summaries of judgments, while the Supreme Court of Canada has a separate wing to handle media called the “Media Relations Committee”. We could run a similar system in India and contribute to legal literacy among journalists.
Q: Since it takes years to settle cases in India, is it fair/desirable to expect reporters/editors to refrain from publishing any information on sensational cases that impact the interests of the larger society?
I am not in favour of postponing case disclosures to media professionals, unless a proceeding is very sensitive. Instead, we could emulate some of these information dissemination models rather than promulgating a blanket ban on journalists who don’t have a law degree or consider postponing reporting of sensitive cases to the media.
Q. "This matter is sub-judice" is the commonest refrain used to stonewall media queries. Since you straddle two roles of a journalist and a law expert, what has been your experience in this matter?
This is the Indian judiciary’s biggest shield against reporters. Journalists must have the freedom to report what has happened. There should be freer flow of information in a democracy. At times, this excuse may be a necessity but it’s very difficult to draw a line, and often it is used as an excuse to protect vested interests.
On the flip side, TV channels host talk shows, where they discuss court orders with people who may not know the complications of law and arrive at conclusions before the matter is closed in the court. All these problems can be sorted with the constitution of a “Press Office”.
Q. In the past, trial by media has had both its negative and its positive fall-outs. Had there been no “trail by media”, the accused in Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Matoo, Adarsh Housing scam, Godhra pogrom would never have been brought to book. What can be done to ensure that while the rights of the undertrial don't get trampled underfoot by a hyper-active media, the right to information and free speech also does not get traded off, especially in cases where media intervention is able to mount pressure on the judicial and political establishments of the day? What can be done to strike a fine balance between these two constitutional rights – right to defend and the right to attack (via speech)?
First and foremost, the duty of the media as well as the police establishments is to ensure that the identity of the person under trial is kept confidential. This will ensure that no one gets convicted by the media, before the court of law pronounces a verdict on their guilt. Sometimes, suspected terrorists are set free years after being pronounced “not guilty.”
In any kind of reporting, the media cannot be allowed to discuss the facts of the case. They can only report on the laws involved in the case. For e.g., in the porn case involving two Karnataka ministers, very few journalists discussed the legal scenario. Personal consumption of porn in India is not an offence. It’s the transmission that’s an offence. Media representatives should also maintain a check on the legal process involved to see if it’s being faulted. At this point, they should intervene and put pressure on the authorities to take appropriate action.
Q. Media representatives are near unanimous in their demand for self-regulation. The Chief Justice of India on the other hand favours setting a common minimum code of conduct for journalists covering legal beat. What's your take on this issue?
There is definitely a need for guidelines, but only in terms of certain minimum standards and not promulgate rules such as seven years of court reporting experience to be a Supreme Court-recognised correspondent (this was laid down by the Supreme Court earlier).
Recently the PTI reported that the Supreme Court Bar Association had passed a resolution against senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi for his alleged role in a CD scandal. It turned out later that the resolution was passed by the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association and not the Supreme Court Bar Association. It was clear that the correspondent could not differentiate between the two associations.
As pointed out in the I.A, the Supreme Court is empowered to issue guidelines, but it must do so with restraint. The Indian Supreme Court, in my opinion, is the world’s most powerful apex court and it is hard to change things once they finalise on something.
Q. It’s said that Cesar's wife must be above reproach. There have been plenty of transgressions and corruption cases involving senior members of the judiciary. Who is empowered to set guidelines for them?
This is an area where a lot can be done. Vide Judges Case II and Judges Case III, the judiciary has “snatched” the power to appoint judges. This is nothing but a “judicial amendment” of the Constitution. Earlier, the President used to appoint judges in consultation with the CJI. This consultation was made mandatory and binding through the two Cases. Presently we follow the collegium system. This is a secret “collegium” and its proceedings are not meant to be recorded. Nobody comes to know what really happens at the collegium meetings.
I am of the opinion that instead of setting up guidelines for the collegium, the whole system should be scrapped and we should have a judicial commission as in South Africa to appoint judges. There must be transparency in their appointment and the seniority norm should be done away with. A judge, who recently retired from the Supreme Court, had delivered only 12 judgments in four years! A judicial commission would be the right forum to appoint judges.
Q. In the much-publicised case of Sahara House, the CJI asked Fali S Nariman, the counsel for Sahara House, to file a complaint against a TV channel and constituted a Constitution Bench to look into the possibility of framing guidelines for the media. But isn't it important to find out how such "sensitive leaks" happen in the first place? In the past, the Radia tapes episode had pointed to a powerful politician-industrialist-PR-journalist nexus. Why should the media be the only entity that bears the brunt of such sensitive leaks?
I think it’s a very motivated campaign. The Supreme Court has deliberately chosen this one particular incident to tame the media. It’s not interested in looking into the “why” of the incident - why the leak happened. They just want to punish the media, and I can only say that they are doing this because they are “Supreme”!
Q. In your view, what sort of cases do require protection from inquisitive media?
This is something which needs to be decided on a case-to-case basis. A blanket ban would only protect vested interests. The excuse “this matter is sub judice” should be used sparingly; as an exception; not as a norm.