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Court cautions against unwarranted criticism

Thursday 28 April 2005, by VENKATESAN*J.

Media has no licence to indulge in sensationalism, say judges

"Loss of confidence in the institution of judiciary would be the end of rule of law."

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court has warned the media against reporting unwarranted criticism of the judges and the judiciary. It said that freedom enjoyed by the media was no licence to indulge in sensationalism and a mechanism should be devised to check the criticism from crossing the limits.

A Bench, comprising Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice Tarun Chatterjee, pointed out that "wild allegation that judiciary has no guts, no honesty and is not powerful enough to punish wealthy people" would bring the administration of justice into ridicule and disrepute.

The Bench passed this order while sentencing Rajendra Sail, a close associate of slain trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi to seven days imprisonment for committing contempt of Court for criticising a judgment of the Madhya Pradesh High Court acquitting the accused in the murder case. The High Court had sentenced him to six months imprisonment.

However, the Bench accepted the apologies of the Editor, Printer and Publisher, Chief Sub-Editor, Desk in-charge and the Bureau Chief and Reporters of newspaper Hitavada, who were convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment by the High Court for reporting the remarks of Mr. Sail and set aside the order of conviction passed against them.

The Bench noted that the "speech that judgment is rubbish and deserves to be thrown into a dustbin cannot be said to be a fair criticism of the judgment. These comments have transgressed the limits of fair and bonafide criticism and have a clear tendency to affect the dignity and prestige of the judiciary."

The Judges further said "it has a tendency to create an apprehension in the minds of the people regarding the integrity, ability or fairness of the Judge and to deter actual and prospective litigants from placing complete reliance upon the court’s administration of justice, it is also likely to cause embarrassment in the mind of the Judge himself in the discharge of his judicial duties."

The Bench pointed out that the reach of the media in present times of 24 hours channels was to almost every nook and corner of the world. Further people believed as correct which appeared in the media. The confidence of the people in the institution of judiciary was necessary to be preserved at cost. "Loss of confidence in the institution of judiciary would be the end of Rule of Law," the Judges said and added "such tendency deserves to be firmly curbed."

`Internal mechanism’

Justice Sabharwal, writing the judgment for the Bench said "some mechanism may have to be devised to check the publication which has the tendency to undermine the institution of judiciary." Though the Press Council could go into such complaints, the Bench said "the media can consider having an internal mechanism to prevent these types of publications," considering the fact that the judiciary could not go public against any criticism against it.

"Judgments of the courts were public documents which could be criticised and commented upon in a fair and dignified manner," the Bench said. "At the same time, it is also necessary that freedom must be exercised with utmost responsibility. It must not be abused. It should not be treated as a licence to denigrate other institutions. Sensationalism is not unknown. Any attempt to make news out of nothing just for the sake of sensitisation has to be deprecated", the Bench observed.

While the media could, in public interest, resort to reasonable criticism of a judicial act or the judgment of a court for public good or report any such statements, it should refrain from casting scurrilous aspersions on, or impute motives or personal bias to the Judge, the court said.

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