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Andhra Pradesh HC's Gag Order on Reporting 'Shady' Amaravati Land Deals Criticised

The media has been told not to reveal details of a recent FIR filed by the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

Vijayawada: The Andhra Pradesh high court’s gag order preventing the media from covering news relating to allegations of shady land deals in the designated state capital of Amaravati brings key issues on freedom of the press and an open and fair justice system into the spotlight.

The court’s stay on the inquiry and investigation by the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) on the FIR it has registered and the blanket ban on reporting the FIR’s contents by the media are arbitrary and an unwarranted intrusion on media freedom, legal experts believe.

The high court on September 15 told the ACB that “no coercive steps shall be taken in furtherance to the FIR” against any of the accused, and stayed the inquiry and investigation. It further directed that “the news in regard to registration of FIR or in the context of the said FIR shall not be made public in any electronic, print or social media to foist the office of a former Advocate General and also with regard to other alleged accused persons”.

The cabinet sub-committee appointed by the Jaganmohan Reddy government, in its report submitted to the high court on September 15, named Telugu Desam Party’s former chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and the several other former ministers in his cabinet as “tainted”. They were involved, the report said, in insider trading during the land transactions in Amaravati and in the multi-crore fibre grid project. The sub-committee in its affidavit alleged that more than 4,000 acres were purchased by a section of people allegedly close to the then TDP government, with prior information about the capital coming up in Amaravati for throwaway prices from farmers in Krishna and Guntur districts.

An unjustified gag

M. Sridhar Acharyulu, a legal expert and former central information commissioner, told The Wire that the high court orders are “against the rule of law, core text of freedom of expression under 19(1) and 19 (2)”. He said the courts have such powers according to a few past judgments, but facts on the ground do not justify the invocation of such extraordinary powers. “A pre-publication restriction like this is judicial censorship without there being a clear and present danger either to the administration of justice or to public order,” Acharyulu observed, appealing to the high court to take the orders back.

The Supreme Court in Sahara vs SEBI (2012) held that the court can grant preventive relief on balancing the right to free trial and a free press. Such temporary restraint was granted by the apex court in the Sahara case, perceiving a real and substantial risk or prejudice to the administration of justice or free trial. But the question of prejudicing the trial process will not arise in this particular issue, as the case is at the stage of an FIR, said K. Nageshwar, professor in the department of mass communication and journalism, Osmania University.

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Indian Journalists Union president K. Sreenivas Reddy and secretary general Balwinder Singh Jammu believe that the Andhra Pradesh high court’s blanket order was judicial overreach on the rights and privileges of the fourth estate, which is just as important as the other three estates.

The latest gag order has brought to the fore a couple of conflicting orders of similar nature given by courts in two different cases in the past. The plea of Asaram Bapu, facing trail in a rape case, for similar restraint orders was rejected by the Supreme Court. On the contrary, the Delhi high court granted gag orders against the coverage of news relating to sexual harassment of a law intern by a Supreme Court former judge, Swatanter Kumar.

Nageshwar said the judiciary’s selective approach in issuing gag orders may raise questions over fair trials and the administration of justice. At a time when the media trial of Rhea Chakraborty in the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case has been on for weeks without any court intervening, the Andhra Pradesh high court’s decision in a case involving individuals who either held important positions in the past or are related to powerful persons gives an impression that the high and mighty have a separate law, he observed.

Tussle

The orders drove a wedge between the legislature and judiciary in the state. The lawmakers of the YSR Congress staged protests in parliament, saying the judiciary crossed its limits and stepped into the legislature’s domain.

The party’s floor leader in the Lok Sabha, P.V. Midhun Reddy, alleged on the floor of the house that his party could not expect fair judgments in the state as some lawyers who once appeared for the TDP in courts have reached top positions in the judiciary now.

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Chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy claimed to have the people’s mandate to expose the alleged corrupt deals of the previous TDP government, including the alleged insider trading on land deals in Amaravati and the Rs 2,000 crore fibre grid project. YSRC leaders charged that their government’s attempts to bring the corrupt to book were being thwarted by a section of judges, allegedly under the influence of TDP’s Naidu.

Gag orders

This is the third gag order in a series issued by the high court in Andhra Pradesh. In March 2019, in the run up to the state and general elections, Jagan Reddy as leader of opposition asked the high court for relief by way of restraint orders from the then ruling TDP to gain political mileage out of the case of the killing of his uncle, Y.S. Vivekananda Reddy, and the court granted such orders.

In another case of alleged sexual harassment, the high court in September 2011 granted the plea of YSR Congress leader Ambati Ram Babu, an accused in the case, for gag orders restricting a private TV channel from telecasting related news.