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Free press vital to keep citizens informed, duty of public intellectuals to expose State’s lies: Justice Chandrachud

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Supreme Court Justice Dr D.Y. Chandrachud on Saturday said that a press free of political and economic influence is vital to provide information to citizens in an unbiased manner.

Delivering the Justice M.C. Chagla Memorial Lecture titled Speaking Truth to Power: Citizens and the Law, Justice Chandrachud said echo chambers have come into being following the mushrooming and the sudden growth of Facebook and Twitter.

“Part of the problem is that these platforms allow users to create their own networks and communities, it also leads to homogeneity between those networks, creating an echo chamber,” he said. Justice Chandrachud said that as citizens of a democracy, we need to commit ourselves to the search for truth as a key aspiration of society.

Dwelling on the importance of truth in modern democracies, the Supreme Court judge said democracies have been described as spaces of reason since any decision in them must be backed by adequate reason. Any reason based on falsehood, would be no reason at all, he said.

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Justice Chandrachud recalled legendary jurist M.C. Chagla as someone who consistently upheld the rule of law and advocated civil liberties. He recounted Chagla’s heroic opposition against the imposition of the Emergency.

He said “Speaking truth to power” refers to an act by a speaker to use the truth to criticize someone more powerful. This act wields the power of truth against authority. It is important to consider why truth is so important to democracy, a form of governance adopted to avoid tyranny of the law and of the few, Justice Chandrachud said.

Justice Chandrachud cautioned against over-reliance on the government to provide social, political, economic, cultural and, in the current context, medical truths, as he highlighted the manipulation of Covid-19 data as an example.

“One cannot rely only on the State for truth. Totalitarian governments are known for their constant reliance on falsehoods to consolidate power… we see there is an increasing trend among countries to manipulate Covid-19 data,” Justice Chandrachud said.

Referring to the bonded labour abolition act of 1976, Justice Chandrachud said the state does not seek to rectify merely mischief grounded in scientific truths but also those grounded in moral truths.

The Supreme Court judge also spoke against fake news. “The phenomenon of fake news is on the rise. The WHO recognized this during the Covid pandemic… calling it ‘infodemic’. Human beings have a tendency to get attracted to sensational news which are often based on falsehoods,” Justice Chandrachud stated.

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Quoting Noam Chomsky, he said public intellectuals have a duty to expose the lies of the state. He reminded that in India since women, Dalits and others belonging to marginalised communities did not traditionally enjoy power, their opinions were not conferred the status of truth.

He  wondered if laws are even different from opinions in a plural society where there are varied lived experiences of different people. For instance, long before the decision of the Supreme Court in Navtej Singh Johar case, which decriminalised homosexuality and long before a minuscule population of our country normalised homosexuality, Denmark had legalised same sex marriage, Justice Chandrachud said.

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