Judge Bats for Media Freedom

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The Madras High Court’s stand on the case is a blessing for journalists in Tamil Nadu.
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Even as conspiracy theories swirled regarding this sensational case, a judge upheld the rights of the media and stood up for democratic norms      

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

IN a rare judgment, a judge of the Madras High Court has simultaneously granted relief to the Tamil Nadu police and also defended freedom of expression and media rights in reporting sensitive cases. In his 14-page crisp order on September 2, 2016, Justice PN Prakash clearly ruled that in a free state like ours, investigative journalism and media trials are inevitable and cannot and should not be curbed. He said this while dismissing a petition praying for a CBI enquiry into the sensational murder of 24-year-old, Infosys employee Swathi. He also observed that any unwarranted attempts to gag the media would be nothing but driving the last nail in the coffin for democracy.

Swathi was brutally murdered on June 24, 2016, while waiting in Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai to catch a train to go to her office. She was attacked with a sickle and instantly killed. The gruesome murder gained huge coverage both in the local and national media.

 (L-R) Swathi was killed in June 2016 at Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai;  Ramkumar, the alleged killer.
(L-R) Swathi was killed in June 2016 at Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai;  Ramkumar, the alleged killer.

The case was initially investigated by the Government Railway Police. After getting a rap from the Madras High Court which took suo motu cognizance of the murder, the case was shifted to the Chennai police. On July 2, the police arrested Ramkumar, a 24-year-old youth from Tirunelveli. At the time of his arrest, he attempted suicide by slitting his throat with a blade. Later, he was brought to Chennai, produced before a magistrate and remanded to judicial custody. The police claim that Ramkumar killed Swathi as she had refused his proposal.  

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

The story took a murky turn after a little-known fringe Brahmin outfit pasted posters at several places in Chennai demanding that “they want justice for the killing of a young Brahmin girl”. The next salvo was fired by Tamil actor YG Mahendran in a Facebook posting where he suggested that Swathi was killed by one Bilal Malik. But Malik, a member of a fringe Muslim outfit, was actually languishing in prison in connection with a different murder case. Immediately, a little-known Muslim outfit petitioned the Chennai police commissioner to take action against actor Mahendran for fanning communal tension. Mahendran then deleted his Facebook posting. However, the Hindutva brigade in the state, including a batch of frontline BJP leaders, continues to pursue the same line of attack as Mahendran’s.

This extraordinary power (issuing direction to the CBI to investigate a case) must be exercised sparingly, cautiously…. Otherwise CBI would be flooded with a large number of cases and with limited resources, may find it difficult to properly investigate even serious cases.”   

—Supreme Court

Meanwhile, Thol Thirumavalavan, a former MP and leader of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit outfit, charged that Swathi’s killing was actually an honor killing as she was about to get converted to Islam and for this, she was observing Ramzan fast at the time of her killing. This theory gained some momentum as Mohammed Bilal Siddique, a friend of Swathi’s, came into the limelight after the murder. Various Dalit groups in the state also started parroting this theory after it was known that Ram kumar was a Dalit. Even the principle opposition, the DMK, started demanding a CBI probe into Swathi’s murder.

The Chennai police believes that Ramkumar killed Swathi.
The Chennai police believes that Ramkumar killed Swathi.

Immediately after the murder, several theories were floated in the media too. Here is one: “The NIA is investigating the case as the killing has been linked to some sort of sleeper cell activities.” There are more—“honor killing as those close to Swathi did not like her getting married to a Muslim”, “the killing was done by the other side, i.e., the boy’s side, because the girl refused to convert”, “Ramkumar was only a hired killer, as the actual instigator was rejected by her”, so on and so forth.    

CBI PROBE

It was against this background that Pushpam, mother of Ramkumar, filed a petition in the Madras High Court praying that Swathi’s case be handed over to the CBI. Pushpam also enclosed a number of newspaper clippings in order to show that there were several loose ends in the investigations and therefore, the case deserves to be handed over to the CBI. 

In a free State like ours, investigative journalism and media trials are inevitable and  cannot be and should not be curbed. Any unwarranted attempts to gag the fourth estate will tantamount to  driving the last nail in the coffin  for democracy.   

—Justice PN Prakash of the Madras High Court

The Tamil Nadu government did not file any counter when the petition came up for admission in the court on August 30. Rather, the public prosecutor submitted to the Court that they were not going to file any counter and instead submitted the case diary and other related materials to the judge for his perusal. The prosecutor said: “If this court is not satisfied with the investigation, it can transfer the case to the CBI as prayed by the petitioner.”

Justice Prakash in his order said: “The petitioner’s allegation that Swathi had converted to Islam and married Bilal Siddique and ergo, she had been murdered, etc, are in the considered opinion of this court, her figment of imagination and as such, deserve no credence.” The judge also said that “this court is not discussing the other evidence, which the police have gathered as against Ramkumar, in as much as that would result in undue prejudice to the investigation”.

USE OF POWER

Then the judge quoted from a Supreme Court judgment, State of West Bengal vs The Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (2010) 3 SCC 571, which said: “This extraordinary power (issuing direction to the CBI to investigate a case) must be exercised sparingly, cautiously and in exceptional situations where it becomes necessary to provide credibility and instill confidence in investigations or the incident may have national and international ramifications or where such an order may be necessary for doing complete justice and enforcing the fundamental rights. Otherwise CBI would be flooded with a large number of cases and with limited resources, may find it difficult to properly investigate even serious cases and in the process lost its credibility and purpose with unsatisfactory investigations.”

The judge also reacted to various theories floated in newspapers about the killing and said: “In a free State like ours, investigative journalism and media trials are inevitable and cannot be and should not be curbed.  Any unwarranted attempts to gag the fourth estate will tantamount to driving the last nail in the coffin for democracy.

“It is true that in the guise of investigative journalism, some pressmen may exceed the Lakshman Rekha. However, like the proverbial swan, one should take the good from media coverage and learn to ignore the bad, however, hurting it might be. Over the years, the instrumentalities of the State like the judiciary and police have matured and learnt not to be swayed by subjective opinions of individuals expressed via press and social media. From a reading of the case diary, this court finds that though the Investigating Officer has his ears to the ground, yet, he has so far proceeded on the basis of objective materials obtained during the investigation”.

These words act as a solace to journalists in Tamil Nadu who have had numerous defamation cases filed against them by the state government. Recently, the Tamil Nadu government told the Supreme Court that 213 defamation cases were filed by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa against media persons and politicians. But then, Justice Prakash, a forward-looking judge, has always batted for media freedom. Recently, he stayed proceedings in 18 defamation cases filed by the Jayalalithaa government against Tamil political biweekly Nakkheeran.  

There is light at the end of the tunnel, after all. 

Lead picture: The Madras High Court’s stand on the case is a blessing for journalists in Tamil Nadu. 

 

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