“The rights of the press are intrinsic with the constitutional right that guarantees freedom of expression. In reporting from an open trial, the press not only makes use of its own right, but serves the larger purpose of making such information available to the general public.” With these ringing words, Justice Revati Mohite-Dere of the Bombay high court has set aside the restrictions imposed by a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court on the media’s coverage of the proceedings in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case.
Apart from stressing the constitutional issue at stake, Justice Mohite-Dere also noted that the CBI special judge had overreached his powers by issuing the gag order. There is simply no provision in the Criminal Procedure Code for such an order, she pointed out.
Justice Mohite-Dere’s is a landmark judgment on press freedom that comes at a time when the media is under tremendous pressure. Defamation suits, often on very flimsy grounds, have become the order of the day. Even more worryingly, journalists doing their jobs face physical threats and violence. The nine journalists who filed the petition challenging the CBI court acted in their individual capacities – to uphold a principle – and the victory in the high court is a vindication of the fundamental values of the profession.
The Sohrabuddin case has had a chequered history. The Supreme Court’s order to investigate his killing in an extra-judicial ‘encounter’, along with that of 21 others, between 2003 and 2006 had led to the resignation and arrest of the then Gujarat home minister Amit Shah. Shah was discharged in December 2014 by the CBI court, but the questions raised by the family about the death of CBI judge, B.H. Loya, have brought the case back into the public limelight. Public interest has been heightened by the unprecedented press conference of four Supreme Court judges who indicated that the chief justice was assigning cases to specific judges without any rational basis, including the Loya one. The CBI’s refusal to appeal Shah’s discharge and its opposition to a PIL challenging its stand lend credence to the belief that justice has been subverted in the case.
Against this backdrop, the CBI judge’s order clearly compromised the public’s right to be informed about a matter it has an inherent interest in. In any case, press gags have no place in a democracy; in this particular instance it was gratuitous and akin to censorship. From now on, all the details of the hearings will be reported in detail, as it should be.
However, it is imperative that Justice Mohite-Dere’s assertion that the “press is the most powerful watchdog in Indian democracy” does not remain an empty platitude. The judiciary, the government, the law and order machinery and last but not the least media managements, must take it seriously. Threats to the press are not going to vanish – they come not just from the state, but also from the corporate sector and influential individuals – and must be resisted. The journalists who took on the CBI court for its illegal order have shown the way.