Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Gag the Media?

Recent events and developments highlight the vulnerability of the media in the face of multifarious onslaughts. Over the last few weeks, there have been several reports of the Supreme Court's recent concerted attempt to frame guidelines for court reporting in response to a growing anxiety within the judiciary about the power of the media to influence judicial proceedings. The argument that has been made by the Editors' Guild in court highlights the need to hold discussions instead of framing guidelines. There already exist several precedents and codes of conduct that govern court reporting. Any further injunctions and impediments in the path of free speech may make the media's role defunct. Access to information on current judicial proceedings is an important aspect of civic activism. If the judiciary is an arm of the government, which it explicit is, then it is incumbent on the judiciary to uphold the expected levels of transparency demanded of other gubernatorial institutions as well. Likewise, if the judiciary devises for itself an exclusive mechanism of public reticence, then it may provide legal incentive for the other arms of the government to follow suit. The two articles currently being discussed in the court are Article 19 (freedom of expression) and Article 21 (right to uphold life and personal liberty). The latter is, in a sense, being used as a reasonable restriction on the former (prejudicial reporting on cases under trial), which argument the Guild's counsel has debunked. A third article pertains to the power of the court to execute substantial justice (Article 132), which is not really relevant to the discussion since there is no specific appellate petition at hand. The argument of postponing the publication of reports is also detrimental to the freedom of the press, since belated reports are bound to become irrelevant and dispensable.

On the other hand, in West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee's government has issued a circular restricting the number of newspapers available in publicly-funded institutions. The explicit aim of the order is to remove those newspapers from public institutions that are critical of her government. She hasn't even attempted to obfuscate or veil her purported intent. At a press conference, she even unwittingly threatened more drastic action against critical newspapers, saying that she wasn't incapable of imposing further restrictions. Other than the legal nullity of such threats, it is evident that her despotic mentality is wreaking havoc in the state. Her desperate attempts to portray all criticisms as conspiracies are fast making her a politician unfit for the demands of democratic politics. Whilst there is something patently farcical about her media-gagging exercises, there is also something perceptibly dangerous implicit in the overall scheme of things.

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