Less than a week after taking over as head of the apex judiciary, Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam plunged straight into key debates on the changing nature of the Indian media and the policy framework that should govern it. In a speech here on Tuesday, the CJI, while praising the media, also pointed to its excesses but favoured ‘self-regulation.’
He was speaking at a ceremony to present the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards, which recognised journalists from across mediums and languages for quality work in 2010.
The CJI asserted that the freedom of speech and expression, enshrined in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, was the ‘mother of all rights’. He called freedom of the press the ‘Ark of the Covenant of democracy because public criticism is essential to the working of its institutions’. A free press was a press free from ‘fear or favour, a press, which remains upright in the face of coercion or corruptive allurements’.
Justice Sathasivam asserted that the media and the judiciary ‘need each other, and the public needs both’ to widen the reach of justice. This took various forms including the media’s role in ‘promoting legal awareness’, and publicising wrongs which allowed the judiciary to take suo motu cognisance of matters.
But, he said, all major legal systems recognised that expression of facts, ideas and opinions could not be ‘absolutely free’. Words could cause damage by ‘prejudicing trial or by inciting communal hatred’. Justice Sathasivam also pointed to the trend of ‘sensational’ headlines, without cross-checking facts, and blamed the media’s ‘negative coverage’ for helping to create a mood of ‘despair and helplessness’.
The CJI said ‘trial by media’ resulted in a real conflict because it involved two conflicting principles — ‘free press’ and ‘free trial’. He noted that courts had frowned on ‘the tendency to use media’ in sub judice cases. He added that no conduct should be permitted which could prevent a litigant from a free and fair trial.
If press was acting irresponsibly, Justice Sathasivam said, there must be a ‘machinery’ to deal with it. But he categorically added that while an ‘external regulatory authority’ to correct the media might seem a dominant urge, ‘this was not the answer’.
This could lead to a ‘perilous departure’ from the principle of free press. His ‘fairly straightforward’ prescription was ‘self-regulation’ by the profession itself, with the Press Council handling cases of violation of ethics as well as defending a free press.
The Chief Justice’s remarks assume significance at a time when the government has introduced the Leveson Committee report in a Consultative Committee of MPs to discuss its implications for India.