June 5, 2011

No Interference of media report in probe: SC

Media report cannot interfere with the investigation matters.The Supreme Court on 8th 2010 August virtually slapped a ban on source-based news stories in matters under investigation, in an order which can alter the landscape of media coverage. The provocation for the order, already being seen as a gag order, was violation of the apex court’s two year old ruling asking newspapers and TV channels to exercise restraint in reporting the Aarushi murder probe.

The implications of the order go far beyond the unresolved, sensational murder of the Noida teenager, with the Apex ordering that no news story relating to any probe, not only to the Aarushi murder case but all cases, could be published if it had potential to interfere with the probe, tarnish the image of persons or prejudicially affect the accused in trial.

The order will crimp media’s maneuver space in the country where everything is reflexively tagged “classified and top secret” and where governments have used the culture of secrecy to cover their misdeeds. Media has tried to overcome the obstacle with the help of “sources” who, often at great risk to themselves, have helped expose wrongdoings which would have never seen the light of day.

It is only with the help of sources, who are forbidden from speaking to media, that newspapers and TV channels have been able to bring out details of investigation into corruption cases, even acts of terror. This order could also make it difficult to share with readers source-based information relating to scandals, like the one involving Commonwealth Games, in which several top functionaries have come under the scanner after media, acting in concert with "sources", have brought out irregularities.

The proceedings took place in a PIL filed by advocate Surat Singh, who had first moved the court in 2008 seeking some restraint in reporting in the wake of "wild allegations" levelled by Noida police, which first investigated the Aarushi murder case.

The Bench comprising Justices Altamas Kabir and A K Patnaik passed the order after the counsel for the parents of Aarushi pointed out to news reports and repeated telecasts casting aspersion on the character of everyone -- the victim, Talwars and their deceased servant.

Senior advocate Pinaki Mishra said the Talwars had cooperated in every kind of investigation, from narco-test to repeated questioning, yet the CBI kept leaking information that found its way into newspapers and TV channels in a much sensationalised manner. "It is virtually a trial by a voyeuristic media presenting an incident in an extremely malicious manner," he said.  

While questioning the CBI -- "who are these anonymous sources dishing out information to the press" -- the apex court also mulled whether it would be proper to gag the press as sought by the Talwars' counsel. It said, "Nobody wants to gag the press but someone can surely gag an irresponsible press. Have some restraint while reporting about a 14-year-old dead girl. Respect her honour."

While asking for all guidelines relating to media from Press Council of India, National Broadcasters Association and ministry of information and broadcasting, the Bench went on to pass a virtual gag order on reporting solely based on sources and which had the potential to interfere with the probe, tarnish the image of a person or prejudicially affect the accused.

"In the meantime, we not only reiterate our interim order of July 22, 2008, but also restrain the respondents from publishing material which has potential to interfere with the process of investigation of all cases," it said.

To leave no ambiguity, it clarified, "We, however clarify that this would not prohibit publication of information which will not interfere with investigation, damage reputation or prejudice the accused."

The Bench said, "The press is important in a democracy. But it must observe self-restraint. When it fails to self-regulate, what can be done. No one says do not report. But do it in a manner so that none of the parties' reputation is tarnished. What is involved here is a young girl's reputation. Have some sensibility while reporting."

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