Law

Backstory: When the Senior-Most Judges of India Speak out, Can the Media Afford to Be Left Behind?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Supreme Court Justice Jasti Chelameswar along with other judges addresses a press conference in New Delhi on Friday. Credit: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Supreme Court Justice Jasti Chelameswar along with other judges addresses a press conference in New Delhi on Friday. Credit: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

It was an extraordinary recognition of unique role of the media in this country as the crucial bridge to the people of India. When four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court took the route of a press conference on January 12 to express their “great anguish and concern” about the state of affairs within an institution that was the country’s last court of appeal, it was also an acknowledgement that the media, in a way, is also a court of last appeal.

But will the Indian media rise up to this acknowledgement by taking on the challenge of a story that calls into question not just the functioning of the Supreme Court but the resilience of Indian democracy? The fact that it was met in the electronic media with the usual clamour, sometimes extraordinarily unhinged clamour, designed solely to disrupt and divert, is profoundly disappointing. But it shouldn’t surprise us because this is not a made-for-television story. It demands the quietude, careful documentation, archival memory and reasoned assumptions that the print media is naturally best placed to provide. If ever there was an argument to be made for the vital role that the print media plays in the ecology of India’s democratic media, it is this news break about these four dissenting judges.

Indian democracy, it seems, is too fragile a thing to be left to the echo chambers of television studios.

So how is this wake up call to be handled in the days ahead? The first thing the media should watch out for are efforts to upend the narrative, for these will surely come considering the very powerful actors who could feel threatened by this development. Fake news and calumny are already following in the wake of this story, and the days ahead will only bring more bilge.

Keeping the eye on the ball will require a refusal to be distracted by such noise and a close reading of the detailed letter that the four honourable judges have written. The media would do particularly well to critically examine recent judicial orders that have emerged from the Supreme Court over the past months and engage with ongoing hearings as well, because linked to this concern about the lack of transparency in the selection of judges to decide cases, and misgivings over the CJI’s roster management, are a raft of cases that will impact the future in many known and unknown ways.

With the story breaking, The Wire was quick with its capacity for compelling video (‘Watch: Understanding the Implications of the Historic Press Conference by Four Rebel Judges’ , January 12, 2018). There was an effort to catch up with the action in close to real time by generating both news reports and opinion. The writers of the article, ‘Black Day for Judiciary: Legal Fraternity Weighs in on Unprecedented Move by Four SC Judges’ (January 12), for instance, were able to garner a fair share of informed comment from the legal community. They could, however, have avoided referring to one of their interviewees, Aman Lekhi, as being “known for his proximity to the ruling BJP”, since they had not specifically mentioned the political leanings of the others they had spoken to. Perhaps just mentioning that Lekhi was married to BJP MP and spokesperson, Meenakshi Lekhi, would have sufficed. Also the heading did not do justice to the piece. In fact, Kamini Jaiswal, from whose quote the headline was taken, had after expressing distress about the turn of events, had gone on to say that because the judges had spoken out, “at least now the people know what is happening”. Far from being a “black day”, I would say it was the reverse – some sunshine has finally been finally let into the dark chambers of the court.

Where The Wire appears to have done a more comprehensive job than most news media is in tackling what one commentator referred to as the “the elephant in the room – the Judge B.H. Loya case” (‘An Honourable Disagreement Within India’s Highest Court’, January 13). The case is important, he argued, because it “goes to the very core of the judiciary’s role in ensuring that we remain a country governed by the rule of law. When a judge looking into an extremely sensitive case dies in mysterious circumstances, every single judicial functionary is left to draw his/her fearful conclusions.” Ironically, many in the mainstream media appear too fearful to draw any conclusion, and the death of Judge Loya continues to be ignored by mainstream media – apart from some attempts to discredit reportage on it.

In such a scenario, it falls on a platform like The Wire to take a more holistic view of the whole issue. Apart from decent update of the case (‘Death of a Judge: What We Know, What We Don’t Know’, January 12), it also carried a timeline on the almost deliberately forgotten Sohrabuddin elimination, on which Justice Loya was to pronounce before his untimely death (‘Sohrabuddin Fake Encounter Case: A Timeline of Events’, January 12). There was also an important interview with one of the editors of The Caravan, the magazine that had broken the story on Justice Loya’s death (‘Watch: What Does the SC Judges’ Statement Mean for the Judge Loya Case?’), and who pulled no punches in accusing every institution, from the police to the media, for having failed this case.

All this recalls the words of another Supreme Court judge, H.R. Khanna, who too was tested in another era for daring to deliver a dissenting judgment on a politically fraught case – Additional District Magistrate of Jabalpur vs Shiv Kant Shukla – by being superseded for the post of chief justice of the Supreme Court. In his book, Making of India’s Constitution, Justice Khanna wrote, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and in the final analysis, its only keepers are the people. Imbecility of men, history teaches us, always invites the impudence of power.”

If the media is to perform its function as the main instrument for that eternal vigilance of the people, it will have to call out the “impudence of power” – and this story about four judges and a press conference is nothing if it is not about the impudence of power and the need to expose it.

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Liked one response to The Wire piece, ‘Ambani Scion is Out of Coverage Area as News Sites Take Down Published Stories’ (January 7), which had dealt on how successful Reliance has been in keeping negative media coverage of its affairs firmly under check, even when it concerned those media houses it did not directly own. It came from “ashok 759” who stated with an apparently straight face: “Thailand has strict laws on lese majeste.”

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