It all started on 19 July this year. Journalists, some of them daily visitors to the court for the last two or three decades were attacked by advocates at the Kerala High Court premises over some trivial issue. It was repeated the very next day at the High Court and also at several lower courts.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan intervened, called meetings of the bar and media organisations, discussed issues and later announced that all differences have been sorted out. But nothing changed in the court premises.
Advocate associations proved that they cared neither a hoot for the decisions taken at the meeting called by the Chief Minister, nor about public opinion. And finally, last week they proved that they did not give a damn about the Chief Justice of the High Court too.
The decisions taken in the meeting called by the Chief Justice, the personal appeals made by him were not valued a bit. Eight journalists, including three women were rounded up, abused and threatened inside the High Court compound. They were virtually pushed out from the citadel of law, justice and peace.
Two and a half months have passed since the so-called open courts in Kerala have become closed courts. No journalist goes there to report court proceedings. Even court functions like seminars are not reported. Only judicial orders, of which short summaries are released online, reach media institutions.
The irony is that there are -at present- no pending disputes between advocates and journalists. Issues and differences that were discussed and disputed in the beginning have become obsolete or irrelevant as time passed.
Advocate-associations however keep raising new demands, as if they believe they are masters of the judiciary. They have started teaching the media on what to report, what not to report, how to report and who would report.
During the past three months, the state Advocate General, as decided in the presence of the Chief Minister, had called for three meetings of the media management representatives, the journalists’ union and the advocates’ association leaders.
The media had only one demand- that they be allowed to continue using the facilities that existed in the High Court to do their job. But, advocate-association leaders raised new demands, some of which goes to the extent of limiting the freedom of speech of the mediapersons and the right to information of the people.
In the first meeting called by the Advocate General in the first week of July, with several media owners present, Bar Association leaders waved a newspaper carrying a cartoon. What they wanted was an assurance from the media owners that they disallow cartoons and such other satirical content -even on TV channels- ridiculing advocates in any form.
Another office bearer of the association -in a letter published in a magazine- wanted a system to ‘screen’ all news about and from judicial institutions. Whether it was to be a sort of censorship, he alone knows. Yet another demand was that there must be a system, wherein the court be allowed to choose journalists who would report all court news.
Mediapersons, who had always sought and gained the support of the judiciary in upholding the constitutional right of the freedom of the press, were shocked to hear demands that blatantly questioned the freedom of the press, being raised by persons who are supposed to be experts in the law.
One thing is sure: nowhere in the democratic world would any legally trained, knowledgeable person nurse such undemocratic ideas, let alone raise these in public forums.
Only a few advocates, mostly youngsters with not much of a legal standing, behaved in such hawkish and violent forms in the beginning. But, soon they succeeded in creating the impression among the lawyer fraternity, that mediapersons were questioning the rights and privileges of the advocates and claiming equal rights in the court.
Egoistic eyebrows were raised when judges who sometimes refused to meet advocates in their chamber, were very liberal in allotting time to meet journalists who came to get clarifications.
The hate campaign was so successful that in the last meeting called by the new Chief Justice Mohan M. Shantanagoudar, one senior judge went to the extent of stating that the High Court was functioning very smoothly, since journalists had stopped coming to court for reporting.
The Chief Justice and other judges soon realized the gravity of the unconstitutional implication of the statement, and were quick in maintaining that it was made in a jocular spirit.
The Chief Justice went on to assure that henceforth no one will prevent mediapersons from coming to court. He pleaded with the advocate-leaders to forgive and forget and allow peace to prevail.
Not much of friendship and cordiality prevailed when they bid good bye, because the advocates insisted that five journalists who they named, should not be allowed to come to the court to report.
Since none were willing to comply, the Chief Justice left the matter hanging, with a last and final plea for good sense to prevail on both sides.
What happened the next day left everyone pondering on what exactly is brewing in the judicial system. A few people donned in robes approached the journalists, and asked them to leave the court immediately. “We will beat you if you don’t leave, and we mean it,” they threatened.
The journalists left, after submitting a complaint to the Registrar. Of course, the police offered them protection…not to do their duty, but to stop them doing their duty.
And that was the end of the wait of a hundred days and the outcome of appeals by former judges, senior leaders and other members of the civil society, for a peaceful settlement of the dispute that had seriously affected the cordial relations between members the third and fourth estates.
It was proved once again, that inside the High Court, there is no authority to maintain peace; there is no rule or law, and that what reigns is simple muscle power. Just imagine what would have been the outcry, if such a thing had happened at the Collectorate, Secretariat, police headquarters or even on a college campus!
It may be sheer coincidence, but the advocates’ agitation that erupted at the same time in the Chennai High Court premises, cannot be treated as unrelated. In both situations, it can be seen that the organized section of the advocates have been exerting their muscle power to ensure their writ runs in the judicial realms, so as to protect petty group interests.
Several thousand lawyers picketed the court campus to pressurize the court to withdraw its notification amending the Advocates’ Act that empowers debarring of erring lawyers. What would have been the hue and cry made, if some other group had done this to pressurize the court!
Advocates are part and parcel of the judiciary, but they are not the decision-makers in the legal set-up. They can only argue; they are not the ones to decide what is right and wrong. That power rests with the presiding judges. Judges are few in number, and the attempt was to take over their powers through numerical strength and organisation might.
There are around six thousand advocates in the High Court of Kerala and just two dozen judges. There were instances of groups of advocates stopping judges’ cars and heckling to humiliate them in the court compound.
It is high time the Bar Council of India and Press Council of India sit together and give shape to conventions and systems that ensure the right and duty of the fourth estate in covering the other estates of Indian democracy, especially the judiciary.
Freedom of the press cannot be left to the whims and fancies of individuals even if they are from the legal profession. Freedom of the press constitutes both the right to speak and also the citizen’s right to know.
They are the real makers of our Constitution and their basic rights should not -in any situation- be compromised just to satisfy the petty egos of organized groups, be they advocates or journalists.