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Three incidents in the recent past highlight sections that refuse to climb down from sensationalising

~By Sujit Bhar

Three cases at two Delhi courts recently have highlighted the inherent restraint that most media houses maintain in reportage and what just a handful of media houses / publications have in the recent past have not bothered to.

In one, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s libel suit against Republic TV for maligning his reputation was taken up by the Delhi High Court.

This petition for restraining Republic TV was filed by the MP before his main defamation  suit of Rs 2 crore suit comes up for hearing on August 16. While not actually ordering a gag, the Delhi High Court’s Justice Manmohan on August 6 asked Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV to not go after Congress MP Sashi Tharoor in the case of the death of his wife Sunanda Pushkar and respect Tharoor’s right to silence.

The bench said: “You (Goswami and the channel) have to respect Tharoor’s right to silence.”

In the second case, not related to the first, a Delhi sessions court was hearing a petition by a share broker (not named) and member of a housing society, who had alleged that a magazine (not named) had published an article in December 2007, allegedly to tarnish his image and had used defamatory language.

The complaint was that when the man sent them a legal notice, the magazine, instead of using an apology, used more defamatory words.

The court’s observation to this was the media does not have the inherent right to tarnish a person’s or an organisation’s image just because of their position. Additional District Judge Raj Kapoor said: “… journalists are in no better position than any other person. The press does not enjoy any exclusive rights under our Constitution, apart from those enjoyed by a citizen as a concomitant of the freedom of speech and rights against unlawful deprivation of life and liberty guaranteed under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

“In fact the responsibilities of a journalist are higher. The common man has limited means and reach in which he acts,” observed the judge. “A journalist on the other hand has a wider reach and power to disseminate information and therefore such power has the potential to cause irreparable damage to a matter under enquiry in a court of law or in a given case has greater propensity to scandalise … the dignity, majesty or reputation of an individual or an institution.”

The court directed the editor of the magazine and another person to pay Rs 30,000 and Rs 20,000, respectively, to the complainant for “symbolic damages”.

Earlier, Delhi High Court’s Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal had set up a committee, headed by former Supreme Court Judge Ruma Pal, to look into framing guidelines for court reporters as to how to report court proceedings.

While insisting that that its “…exercise is not one to regulate or control the media,” the Delhi High Court has instituted a panel to frame guidelines as to how the media should report legal proceedings in a court. The panel will include judges, lawyers and a legal academic. It is not clear if the need was felt for the presence of a veteran journalist within the panel.

The plan is to also set up a training module for court reporters.

While all these are individual and unrelated incidents, there is a feeling among journalists as well as consumers of news (readers) that a section of the media is forgetting the inherent restraint that used to be within it, built to serve a larger social purpose, to ensure communal harmony and propagate unbiased and secular thoughts. There is a possibility that while they have not said it out loud, the courts are aware and using whatever powers they have to stop slander, hate and misreporting. In the last instance, the court has maintained that if sensationalising was the objective of a report, then the reportage is more often than not flawed.

The issue has been debated hotly in many forums, but every time a consensus is reached, it is either slander-mongering in social media or in a small section of mainline print or electronic media that shatters it. Edicts that erudite forums in controlled environments put forward have little meaning within a politically charged atmosphere.

The courts are acting pro-actively. However, the fear among journalists is that if this process of control is taken to an illogical conclusion by the government – and the government at the Centre has often shown its willingness for the same – then the entire objective would be subverted.

There is, no doubt, a new age of journalism on the horizon.

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