Aniruddha Bahal, Editor of Cobrapost, would spend his nights writing novels. That was before his famed ‘Operation Duryodhana' — an investigation which exposed the cash-for-questions scam. Mr. Bahal now spends his time reading affidavits. For the past few years, he has been visiting court at least once a week, thanks to the litany of cases against him, including under the Official Secrets Act.

Like Mr. Bahal, there are many journalists, especially from mofussil towns, fighting lone battles in defence of their fearless journalism, against a system which frequently takes recourse to the legal provisions on freedom of speech and expression, and contempt of court, to thwart them. This misuse of law as a tool of harassment of the media was widely discussed at a conference on ‘Media and the Law' organised by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), here on Saturday.

In the area of legal reporting, the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice A.P. Shah, called for a rethinking of the contempt law, applying only the filter of “rarest of the rare” to look at critical writings on the judiciary. “I don't think judges cannot be criticised. If the media honestly believe there is corruption in the judiciary, they must report it, provided it is backed by material. The media can also make appropriate comments about pending cases. We should take criticism in our stride, provided the criticism is not [scurrilous].” However, he cautioned against trial by the media.

“Sometimes the lawyer community tends to become a law unto itself. Some associations are intolerant of any criticism of the Bar. Petitions are filed. The judiciary is largely sympathetic towards lawyers.”

Media-judiciary nexus

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan endorsed the view of a journalist about the existence of a media-judiciary nexus. “There is a network of powerful people of different institutions, where members work for each other. The judiciary is also part of this power network. He called for deletion of a “problematic” part of the contempt Section, which speaks of “scandalising the court and lowering the authority of the judiciary.” The jailing of the Editor of Mid-Day in 2007 was a watershed event, which gave an impetus to the media to report on corruption in the judiciary, he said.

Siddharth Mokle, a young freelance journalist from Mumbai, who was at the receiving end of communal ire at an elocution event, asked why the laws, which prosecuted journalists, were not invoked against provocative material published by certain religious organisations.

On obscenity, Akhil Sibal, senior advocate of the Supreme Court, said the Criminal Procedure Code had become “an easy recourse and tool of harassment to persecute and not to prosecute.”

Jonathan Donnellan, a media lawyer based in the U.S., said that in prosecuting journalists India today stood where the U.S. stood in 1941. Both countries were influenced by the British legal position of silencing critics in a bid to prevent a lowering of the image of the judiciary.

“Post-World War II, the U.S. was able to be independent of the British position. Now, the possibility of criminal punishment for publishing reports has been eliminated in the U.S. law, [except when what is expressed poses] a clear and present danger.”

Kuldeep Singh Kaler of Ahmedabad narrated his experience of being beaten up, dragged by the hair and tortured by a mob of 500 while covering the Asaram ashram issue. “When you become the news, do you realise what news is? My body was blue from the beatings. But I feel fortunate to have had this experience,” he said, urging journalists not to let the ink in their veins dry up.

Increased threat

Sudipto Mandal of The Hindu, who has reported on the simmering communal activities in Mangalore, said an increased threat perception, caused by four attempted attacks on him, led him to keep an air pistol. He said the complicity of the local police with communal forces made the situation in Mangalore “dangerous.”

A similar connivance between the wrongdoers and the police was highlighted by Sudhakar Kamble of the Marathi channel IBN Lokmat. He said he felt demoralised when threatened by senior police officers, including the incumbent Mumbai Commissioner, D. Sivanandan.

The body of “victim” journalists, however, stressed the need to keep up the fight and for an association backing journalists in their fight against a crackdown.

Colin Gonsalves, senior advocate and HRLN founder, said his organisation was ready to take up cases in defence of journalists. “They [system] want to make an example of you. It is part and parcel of [journalistic] life. You can't be cowed down by the cases,” said Mr. Bahal.

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