From the Court Reporter’s diary: A paradox for introspection

  • Thyagarajan Narendran
  • 01:18 PM, 07 Dec 2021

I had the good fortune of traveling with a Mr. Sriram Panchu, senior advocate. I am a big fan of his books and I have in the past turned up at his chambers in Madras High Court unannounced.

We went to meet his friends in the town and I was surprised when he introduced me as a ‘public educator’. I told him that I am a journalist and had nothing to do with educating people. He said, “You are the bridge between the courts and the public at large, for centuries now the general public has been struggling to know what is happening in the court, you are educating them.”

This struck a chord with me, I had to be a messenger of sorts, not someone who writes court gossip (even though I love it). As we were traveling back home, he asked me, “So, what have your team of knowledge gatherers come up with, to publish today?” Knowledge gatherers is certainly a good term to use for desk editors, I thought to myself.

While both the bar, the bench and the media have a very clear idea of what they want from each other, the media at large seems to be looking at pieces of information that will polarise the public as opposed to intrigue them.

I was for a very long time furious about the fact that a legendary lawyer like our Attorney General, KK Venugopal, was trolled about a statement he made while arguing Justice Puttusamy’s challenge to Aadhar. While media relayed the arguments of the AG on how the data is protected, a section of the media made it seem like a joke. A section of media took notice of AG’s statement about thick walls protecting data, while the AG submitted this in a completely different context, the articles written on this made it sound like a joke. This led to a lot of social media trolling and unwarranted comments. This was unwarranted for because the AG was arguing a case for his client, a legend such as himself made it clear when while arguing a case, he told his opponent, “I am not arguing here as an Attorney General, I am presenting my client’s case.”

In the recent times, the Supreme Court is more irked by the media sensationalising certain remarks made by judges during the course of a hearing. A hearing in the Supreme Court is usually a deliberation, a party seeking his relief presents his case to the judge and the judge explores various scenarios by posing questions to the lawyer. There have definitely been instances where the arguments have become heated, but things almost always cool down once the case is over.

There have been very few instances where a judge and the lawyer engage in an extremely heated argument. One most important things to be noted here is that the bar and bench are almost always pally, they don’t usually take their animosity outside of the courtroom. Certain sections of media however seem to be portraying the court proceedings akin to the proceedings in the parliament.

However, this seems to be on the rise in recent times. I am just going to writing of some recent tiffs between the media and the court, that should ideally have never happened. The very first instance of the Supreme Court taking note of a piece of misinformation by the media was during the hearing of the petition pertaining to Lakhimpur Kheri.

As the hearing was coming to a close, advocate Agnish Aditya brought a tweet by Times Now to the bench, the tweet claimed that the CJI visited the victims of the incident at Lucknow, however he was very much in Delhi holding his court. The judges sitting with the CJI expressed their displeasure over the tweet and hoped that the organisation will clarify this. A visibly upset bench also opined that the freedom of speech should not be used this way. The CJI said “When you are in public life you should be ready to receive flower bouquets and such remarks as well.

The second such instance happened on the 13th of October, where the CJI casually remarked if the government was attributing the increase in air pollution in Delhi to stubble burning. Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General, mentioned to the court that this statement if picked by the media will not go down well. The Chief Justice, immediately realised this and informed the SG that his line of thought was different when he said so, the conversation was steered towards how both the SGI and the CJ studied English only in Class 8. However, this was the first instance where both the bar and the bench had to constrain themselves from continuing a legitimate discussion as to how much stubble burning contributes to air pollution. It is apparent that this awareness among the stake holders in the judiciary is at times constraining them from presenting their opinions in the open court. Remember, this is the same court wherein lawyers and judges have deliberated at length about social issues, be it Saira Banoo, the State of internal emergency etc.

The second instance was an incident involving Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General of India. In the PIL pertaining to the alarming levels on air pollution in Delhi, the SG was reading from an affidavit on how much stubble burning contributes to pollution. Vikas Singh, Senior Advocate, disputed the numbers and presented his own statistics. The media picked this up and informed the public that the SG had misled the court on stubble burning. When the matter came up for hearing, a visibly upset SG told the court “There have been some nasty occurrences on TV to show that I have been misleading the court.” The court however made it clear that he did not mislead them, the CJI further said “These kinds of criticisms keep happening since we occupy a public office. Our conscience is clear, we work for the people.” Justice Chandrachud, while supporting the CJI informed Mr.Mehta that the order was clear that he had not mislead the court.

Chief Justice of India NV Ramana in his speech at the SCBA celebration of the constitution day on 26th November said “I cannot speak without paper unlike the SG. If I say anything offhand, my media friends here interpret it differently.” The CJI was clearly miffed with the fact that many of the statements he made during the course of the proceedings have not only been misconstrued but have also been taken out of context.

However, what clearly miffed the Supreme Court was when the case pertaining to air pollution in Delhi came up for hearing yesterday. A visibly furious CJI said “One thing I have observed, it seems some sections of the media project us as villains. It is all over today’s news papers.”  Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, supporting the CJI said “One newspaper has conveyed that your lordships is taking over aspects of the governance.”  Singhvi further said “The news paper portrays your tone in a very different way, who will explain to the press?”

Singhvi further said that the media chose to select one aspect from the hearing out of 10-20 constructive arguments and have created sensationalism around it. The CJI  remarked in a rather frustrated tone saying “We can’t take away the freedom of press, at the same time we cannot address the press directly. What do we do?”

Justice Chandrachud at this point recollected from his experience that one of his orders was construed to mean that the High Courts should go to the State governments with a begging bowl. An utterly flustered CJI at the point remarked “ After we started hearing cases on video hearings, we do not know who is hearing what or writing what.”

Dr. Singhvi at this point intervened and told the CJI that ignoring such irresponsible statements from the media will embolden them. However, in order to diffuse the situation, the SG intervened and said “All journalists are our friends, we don’t have anything against them.”

In the light of all these events that happened in the recent past, as a media professional, I am constrained to think whether I am stuck in a paradox. While the organisation I work for and I try our best to steer clear of writing sensational pieces of news, I am left wondering if I should introspect more as a reporter.

Like Mr. Panchu told me, my job is to create awareness and inform lawyers and other interested parties on the court proceedings, do I also have to think if the news I report influences the thought process of the judges and lawyers alike.

Having practiced law for about 7.5 years before becoming a journalist, I believe court rooms are safe spaces where lawyers and judges deliberate on an issue. If we as journalists pick up a statement out of context and publish them, are we being fair to the judges, who have gracefully permitted us to witness the court proceedings?

Another question that haunts the reporter in me is that, are the lawyers and judges holding themselves back because of the sensationalism that media is capable of creating? If it is true that they are holding back, then I wonder if it is time that us journalists give ample space to the bar & the bench to freely deliberate without compromising our duty for dissemination of relevant & credible information.

I spoke to some senior members of the bar to clarify whether the thought I have is  merely a paradox or it could stand ground.

Mr.Vikas Singh, Senior Advocate and President of Supreme Court Bar Association, says -

Yes, they do influence!

Balbir Singh, Additional Solicitor General of India says -

I don’t think media reporting of live matters is constraining lawyers and judges from speaking their mind. While arguing or debating any issue in court, we do not even factor statements in media. However, when it comes to assessing role of judiciary, general public forms it’s opinion based on media reporting, which may not give the true right picture so far as role of judiciary is concerned. This may be a concern in democracy.

Amit Desai, Senior Advocate says -

“ The impact of media on judging is a reality. Thats why the Supreme Court and High Courts have is a series of decisions dealt with “media trials" and even directed postponement of articles so that justice is not influenced by the media. This is the balance between the right to a free press and the right to unbiased justice. The  'public opinion’  propounded by media sometimes does make the judge look over his shoulder and get distracted by it. It may not be a frequent event but it does occur. But I doubt media glare ever restrains the lawyers from presenting their case! "

Gopal Shankarnarayan, Senior Advocate says -

While transparency in Court proceedings is excellent, I think the media needs to be more responsible about filing quotes based on what was said by lawyers or judges during the hearing. Eventually it is only the final order of the Court that is pronounced that really has any legal value.
Unfortunately, this recent propensity has led to 3 types of consequences:
1. Allowing judges to be targeted for what they say - at least one excellent judge from Kolkata has had his future prospects stymied because of his views being quoted in national headlines.
2. Inhibiting scrupulous lawyers from crafting oral arguments for fear that a phrase employed can get quoted the next day. 
3. Equally, it has made some judges and lawyers play to the gallery so that they can be quoted as making the right noises even though final relief may not be granted.

Devdatt Kamat, Senior Advocate says -

“Justice is not a cloistered virtue. Everything what judges and lawyers say especially on matters of public interest must be available for all to see and debate unless the issue has repercussions on the privacy of parties.”

N.L.Rajah, Senior Advocate says -

When sensitive cases are taken up by court, for instance, a much contested matrimonial proceedings, parties do request the court to hold proceedings in camera. Where a case is not entitled to such a facility, one presumes that both the court and advocates are aware that their observations may be reported in media and are careful about what they say in courts.

Being careful about what one says - I don’t think is a constraint on speech.. it is a natural consequence of living in an open society. It is only when media twists what is said or quotes it out of context that a court or advocate feels constrained.

R.Murari, Senior Advocate says 

It is a general principle that a court speaks through its orders. Judges often make comments or raise questions in court only for the purposes of a full understanding of the case. Likewise, lawyers sometimes in the heat of the moment, may make certain comments or raise submissions in the context of questions posed to them. If all of these are being reported very often, not in context, it certainly can be constraining -especially since very often, a social media debate may happen on the basis of such report. While media reportage is irrelevant in the context of  the ultimate outcome of a case Judges and lawyers being human may refrain from speaking their mind in court if all that they say is open for a public debate.

I also spoke to a senior who did not want to be named in the article, they said, “While presenting my case, I think of the law, the fact that someone from the media is listening to me barely crosses my mind. However, sometimes, there have been instances where things have been taken out of context. The media of the day relies on the proceedings rather than the outcome. This needs to change."

After all these conversations, I dialled Mr. Panchu to understand what exactly he meant when he called me a 'public educator'. His answer was simple -"Thyagarajan, what matters here is the written word, in my career I have had altercations with many lawyers in the court, ultimately what mattered to me was what was written in the order."

I asked, "Then sir, why is the Chief Justice consistently asking media to be responsible?" 

He said, "Thyagarajan, he is the Chief Justice of the nation! He has to oversee the judiciary of a billion people and to scrutinise him for every word he utters seems unfair to me. He must be allowed to speak his mind, he needs clarity in the issues he is deciding."

I asked, “Agreed sir, but many lawyers have been trolled in the social media for saying something?"

He said, " This discussion is for another day."

So in conclusion, while my duty as a court reporter is to educate people on the happenings of the court, I should also apprise them of deliberations in the court hall whether good or bad. But, with utmost respect to the parties involved. However..............

 

To be continued..

 

Thyagarajan Narendran is a Special Correspondent at Lawbeat. Views expressed are personal.