Former Judges, Journalists Condemn Media Gag in Sohrabuddin Trial

The CBI special court judge said considering the "sensational" nature of the case, he will not allow the "media to make publication of any of the proceeding during the trial".

New Delhi: The special CBI court in Mumbai that is hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh alleged fake encounter case on Tuesday told the media not to report the proceedings. Special judge S.J. Sharma said in his order:

Considering the sensitivity in the matter, likelihood of happening of any untoward incident and likelihood of effect on the trial of this matter, in case of day-to-day publication of evidence that may be brought on record, I am of the view not to allow media to make publication of any of the proceeding during the trial in the matter until further order. It may happen that the publication may create security problem for the accused persons, prosecution witnesses, the defence team and the prosecutor as well. I, therefore, find justification in the request of the defence team of lawyers.

…At the outset I must appreciate and compliment the media for the hard work and efforts to collect essential events and to publish them to make the public aware…and to throw light that such events are happening may be constructive or destructive. Even during collection of such events, number of incidents had happening the past where many media persons have to face assault and have to suffer serious injuries

However, in the proceedings…the popularly known case of the killing of Sohrabuddin, his wife, Kausarbi and their associate Tulsiram Prajapati….wherein the accused persons are none else but the police of Gujarat state, Rajasthan state and Andhra Pradesh and this case has been transferred to Mumbai court by the order of the Honourable Supreme Court. Number of witnesses have been examined by the state CID crime, Gujarat and CBI and the witnesses are police as well as private persons and in the past four years from the receipt of chargesheet, 15 accused who are the ministers of Gujarat and Rajasthan and high ranking police officers have been discharged, the matter appears sensational.

Sharma’s order came after defence advocates asked the court for a “complete ban on print, electronic and social media” reporting on the case, Indian Express reported. The defence wanted the media to not be present at all and asked the court to make the hearings in-camera, LiveLaw reported, but the judge held that journalists could watch the proceedings, but not report on them.

Lawyer Wahab Khan, representing Rajasthan policeman Abdul Rehman Khan, wanted a ban on the media because: “Every day, a new development is being reported. The case is already having a chequered history. We apprehend the security of witnesses, accused and even the defence lawyers”. Other defence advocates also supported Khan’s plea.

Reporters who were present in the courtroom made oral submissions against the plea, Indian Express reported, arguing that reporting on the case is in public interest.

This development comes in light of questions on the circumstances around the 2014 death of Judge B.H. Loya, who was the previous judge in the case. A report in the Caravan quoted Loya’s family members as saying they had doubts about the cause of his death. Other reports have emerged since, with claims and counter-claims around the judge’s death.

In 2005, Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi were allegedly picked up by the Gujarat police in Hyderabad, and then killed in a fake encounter. Sheikh’s aide Tulsiram Prajapati, who is said to have witnessed the killing, was also allegedly killed by the Gujarat police in 2006. The case was transferred to Maharashtra by the Supreme Court in 2012. In 2013, the apex court clubbed the Sheikh and Prajapati cases together.

The CBI had initially named 38 accused in the case, and the court framed charges against 22 of them. BJP president Amit Shah and Gujarat anti-terrorism squad chief D.G. Vanzara.

Condemnation of media gag

Both journalists and people in legal circles have spoken out against the court’s decision and questioned the logic behind it.

Former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee told the Indian Express, “I am against any curbs on media reporting unless there are compelling reasons of national security. And I see none in this.”

“This is unusual. What is the point of a public trial? That justice is done and seen to be done. This is not a good enough reason. He (judge) can give security or control the number of people given access to the court. The media cannot be kept out. The media is not a threat to anybody. This is very wrong. I have never seen anything like this…(proceedings) kept away from the media because it may embarrass someone. There is no right to challenge this because this is an administrative decision. But somebody may file a writ against the decision. In very rare cases is this interfered with but if it infringes on press freedom eventually people’s right to information is being taken away,” senior lawyer and former advocate general of Maharashtra Ravi Kadam told the newspaper.

Retired Bombay high court Justice Rajan Kochar told The Hindu, “The order is not good at all. How can the media be restricted from reporting? This is a bad trend in the judiciary. Media cannot be gagged in such a way. A reporter sitting in court and reporting should not be a problem. In this country, nowadays, which matter isn’t sensitive? Every mattter is.”

Several senior journalists also expressed their disappointment with the order.

Former editor of Economic and Political Weekly and public editor of Rammanohar Reddy told The Wire, “While it seems absurd, this is in line with things that have been happening. This is not the first time something of this kind has happened, and it is happening with increasing frequency. It’s something to be concerned about. The whole trend is towards restricting reporting. Like how the Supreme Court barred the media from reporting on [former Calcutta high court judge] Justice Karnan’s statements – extreme conditions were laid down. And the lower courts take their signals from the higher courts.”

Senior journalist and news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai and Mumbai Mirror editor-in-chief Meenal Baghel also tweeted their disagreement with the order.

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