The Supreme Court has ruled that if publishing news concerning a trial creates “a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice or to the fairness of trial”, the court could allow a postponement of its publication through an appropriate order. The order was passed on complaints that had alleged breach of confidentiality during the hearings of a dispute between the Sahara group and stock market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India, when some documents pertaining to the case were leaked to the media. The 56-page judgment, coming from a bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia, is likely to be interpreted in different ways.
That the apex court refrained from framing guidelines on how the media should report on court trials is welcome, since any such directive could have had an adverse impact on the freedom of the media. That the order allows an aggrieved or accused party to move a high court or the Supreme Court with a plea for restraining publication of news on a case under trial could be seen as only a reiteration of well-established principles of law and justice. Even earlier and in the normal course of things, anyone with a genuine grievance that publication of news on a trial could result in miscarriage of justice could move any court of law pleading for remedial measures. In spite of that, however, no significant court intervention so far has effectively put a blanket ban on the reportage of court cases under trial. But what Tuesday’s judgment has done is to tilt the balance in favour of litigants seeking court interventions — which might well result in the imposition of such gag orders on the media. To that extent, the apex court’s order is prone to misuse.
Indeed, the danger arising out of such misuse lies elsewhere. Of late, India has been witnessing the unravelling of a large number of corruption scandals that have shaken the people’s faith and confidence in the government’s ability to run a clean administration. The 2G spectrum scam case is already being heard in the courts and the ongoing coal block allocation scandal too will go the same way. A beleaguered government will be desperate to prevent further political embarrassment arising out of these corruption scandals and may be encouraged to use the Supreme Court order to seek a stay on the coverage of the daily court hearings on these cases. Similarly, companies accused of wrongdoing may be emboldened to seek relief from the courts. Even when such petitions are not granted, the legal process itself is certain to cast an adverse impact on the freedom of the media and undermine the people’s right to know about such cases before the court. Instead of paving the way for such curbs, it would perhaps make more sense if the courts took upon themselves the responsibility of allowing independent and comprehensive electronic coverage of court cases that both the people and the media can freely access for information or reportage. That would be a more effective way of ensuring that the coverage of court proceedings does not create the risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice or to the fairness of trials.