Stop press: On blanket gag order against the media

Courts must avoid omnibus orders against publication without actual risk of prejudice

Updated - September 17, 2020 12:40 am IST

Published - September 17, 2020 12:02 am IST

A blanket gag order against the media is often fraught with serious consequences for both free speech and the citizen’s right to receive information. Orders by different courts, restraining the media from reporting on particular cases or programmes from being telecast, have drawn attention this week to questions of prior restraint, media freedom and the right of people facing investigation to a fair trial. A quite unusual and legally questionable decision has been the interim order of the Andhra Pradesh High Court imposing a ban on the media, and even social media, from mentioning anything in relation to an FIR filed by the police against a former Advocate General of the State and others. It is unusual in the sense that there appears to be no material to justify such censorship other than an allegation by the petitioner that it is a “foisted” case. It is also accompanied by an order staying the investigation itself. It is indeed open to a High Court to grant a stay on investigation in extraordinary cases. When political vendetta is alleged against the government of the day, that too by someone who had served a previous regime as a law officer, the need for media coverage and public scrutiny is all the greater. How the petitioner would benefit from the complete absence of any reportage is unclear. It prevents legitimate comment even to the effect that there is no substance in the allegations.

Injunctions against publication can either be an order to prevent possible defamation or invasion of privacy, or one aimed at protecting the fairness of a trial or investigation. The Supreme Court did hold in Sahara vs. SEBI (2012) that the Court can grant preventive relief on a balancing of the right to free trial and a free press. However, it favoured such temporary restraint on publication “only in cases of real and substantial risk of prejudice” to the administration of justice or a fair trial. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, on the same day, passed a more important interim order stopping the telecast of the remaining episodes of a series on Sudarshan News on entirely different grounds. Holding that the programme — four episodes were aired — was nothing but vilification of Muslims, the Court found it necessary to interdict the telecast of more episodes. The Court seems to have made a distinction between freedom of expression and propagation of hate. In recent years, there have been quite a few instances, especially in Karnataka, of omnibus interim injunctions against all media houses obtained by some people solely to prevent any news reporting about themselves. While claiming to be defamed by one publication, they sue all media outlets and obtain open-ended stay on publications, including those that are hardly interested in writing about them. As a matter of principle, courts ought to avoid omnibus orders against publication. Such orders are often to the detriment of the right to know.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.