Work came to stop in courts across Kerala as a confrontation between the press and the legal fraternity took an ugly turn. Finally, the Chief Justice of India had to step in
By Naveen Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
The media and the legal profession are known to march hand in hand. Last month this bonhomie was derailed as Kerala witnessed members of the fourth estate and lawyers openly clashing on the streets. What triggered this unusual confrontation was a report in the Kochi edition of Deccan Chronicle on January 19 about a division inside the Kerala High Court Advocates’ Association over supporting a state government pleader who had been caught in a sexual harassment case. The report alleged that a resolution supporting the government pleader was not passed due to opposing voices among lawyers. Though the daily published a rejoinder acknowledging its mistake, Rohit Raj, the reporter who filed the story, was attacked by lawyers inside the Kerala High Court premises in Kochi. He was abused and pushed down the stairs by a group of lawyers.
From then on, all hell broke loose as lawyers went on a well-planned rampage not just in Kochi but also in district courts across the state including the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Journalists out on reporting were attacked and various lawyers’ associations called for a boycott of the courts till a solution was reached. Work was derailed for two days. Finally, when the impasse hit unprecedented levels, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) TS Thakur had to step in. He directed Justice Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court to look into the matter and find a solution at the earliest. Perhaps it was for the first time in Independent India that a CJI had to step in to resolve a fist fight between journalists and lawyers.
While calling for utmost restraint Justice Thakur told mediapersons who met him in Delhi that “The judiciary will do everything possible to find a solution. The media and the court represent the integral pillars of the society.’’ Journalists had pleaded with the CJI that their “right to work” inside the Kerala courts had to be protected since lawyers were hell-bent on not allowing reporters to enter. The CJI promised the re-opening of the media room at the Kerala High Court which had been sealed by the lawyers at the earliest.
Trouble began brewing on July 14 evening when Dhanesh Mathew Manjooran, a government pleader was caught red handed by local residents in Kochi while he was molesting a 43-year-old woman. Based on her complaint and eyewitness accounts, Manjooran was booked under relevant sections and an FIR was registered. As the news spread, lawyers of the Kerala High Court made an all-out attempt to protect Manjooran by filing a petition where the victim claimed it was a case of mistaken identity. But the plan failed as the victim retracted her words and gave a statement under Section 164 of CrPC before the district court.
The media reported the case threadbare even when the lawyers wrote a letter to the Advocate General seeking his intervention to stop what the lawyers called “the high handedness of the police’’. A desperate Manjooran moved the High court to quash the case but the court rejected his plea. On July 19, unruly scenes unfolded at the High Court complex. First to face the ire of the lawyers was the Deccan Chronicle reporter.
Soon other reporters waiting in the media room at the High Court were pushed out and the room locked. The handful of reporters, including a physically challenged lady reporter, had to seek refuge at the registrar’s office as hundreds of lawyers prevented them from leaving the court premises.
“We did carry a report that there was difference of opinion inside the Advocates’ Association regarding Manjooran’s case. But after the Association told my reporter that it was not true, we even gave a rejoinder. Matters should have ended there. Instead the lawyers took law into their hands and our reporter was chased out of the Court and some even manhandled him,’’ says KJ Jacob, Executive Editor, Deccan Chronicle.
Meanwhile as the news spread about their colleagues being held inside the court complex, mediapersons from across Kochi gathered in front of the High Court with slogans. They sat down on the street in protest blocking the way of lawyers leaving the court.
The ensuing scuffle became a free for all between lawyers and mediapersons while the police remained mute spectators. At the same time, the media room inside the High Court was locked by the advocates association barring entry and exit of journalists.
What kicked off in Kochi had its repercussions across the state. While lawyers boycotted the courts in every district, media persons who went to report the boycott were attacked in several places. At the Thiruvanathapuram district court, posters calling the media “the fourth gender” were pasted across the premises as well as in the media room. When media persons rushed in with cameras to cover the incident, they were greeted with abuse and physical assaults.
Meanwhile, senior lawyers held their heads in shame lamenting on how their colleagues in black robes had stooped to the level of street goondas. Said senior advocate Sangeeta Lakshamana: “Not only is it unethical for the entire profession, legally too it is wrong for advocates to boycott courts. There is a Supreme Court directive of 2003 which clearly prohibits such actions on the part of the lawyer. I fail to understand where this is all going.’’ But those who dared to speak up against the high handedness of the lawyers soon faced the ire of the associations who ousted six senior lawyers. Meanwhile to cool tempers two judges of the High Court began reconciliatory talks with the media.
STATE A MUTE WITNESS
While the lawyers and the media fought it out, the LDF government remained a silent spectator. Perhaps the police inaction reflected the state government’s attitude towards the problem. Finally succumbing to opposition pressure in the assembly, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan called for a truce. However, not only was the peace talks a farce but the CM overlooked the demand of the media persons on ensuring security to reporters working in courts. “Media persons should avoid such situations where they get into a brawl with the lawyers. You should not go and create a problem and then get hit by the lawyers,’’ advised Vijayan.
Lawyers now say mediapersons need to show more restraint while reporting cases and even alleged that often half-truths were being published. “We have not received any direction from the chief justice to open the media room and we will strongly oppose any such move in the future too,” said advocate Dhanil Maravttikkal, treasurer, Kerala High Court Advocates’ Association.
The lawyers have gone back to work. But at the time of filing this report, no media person was allowed inside any courts across the state. A notice had also been issued by the High Court saying: “the chambers of the judges and the judges’ stenographers will now remain out of bounds for the media’’.
At the district court in Kochi where two terror accused were recently produced, reporters and camerapersons had to literally wait on the footpath outside as the city police commissioner, succumbing to the pressures of the lawyers, advised the media not to enter the court premises.
One can only hope that the common man’s right to information and news is not lost in this ugly circus.
Lead picture: Lawyers and journalists engage in fisticuffs at the Kerala High Court in Kochi