The media in Kerala is yet to report on this. Newspaper readers or television viewers may not have noticed it yet, but the sad reality is that for the past few weeks, there is hardly any news from the courts.
One cannot differentiate between the visual or print media or even the language in this case. Even the fact that mediapersons are not being allowed to report on ‘court’ happenings has not made it to the news.
Since the lawyers have been physically stopping and even assaulting journalists, major legal stories have not been making headlines in recent days.
What happens in court usually goes beyond the gambit of news and is actually relevant to the masses in their everyday lives. It is through the media that the public, and at times even the advocates themselves, come to know of all those who have or who have not been found guilty before the law, about the various ways in which existing laws can be interpreted or even the formulation of new laws.
This essential process forms an integral part of how legally aware are the partakers of a democratic society, which has long recognized the Fourth Estate as one of the democratic pillars that comprise informed citizenship. This is what has now come to a standstill.
All this is a result of what apparently then seemed an incidental clash between two sets of workers a month ago. Normally, a conflict between a group of lawyers and journalists would have been resolved through talks.
One would have thought that especially after the Chief Minister called for a conciliatory meeting and made district-wise arrangements to deal with similar conflicts in future, all matters would have been resolved in this regard.
But what was seen the very next day were reports of journalists being stopped at the Kozhikode court by a sub-inspector who went on to arrest them and treat them like criminals.
No coincidence at all
Within minutes of the Chief Minister having termed the said incident as a tiff between the police and the journalists and that advocates had no role in it, advocates of the Kozhikode court proved him wrong.
The press note released by the Kerala Bar Association stating that the district judge had instructed the sub-inspector to do the same on the request of the lawyers themselves made this very evident.
It was also proof that the lawyers cared a hoot for the Chief Minister’s directives in the matter. One can only draw consolation in the fact that what happened at Kozhikode was nothing compared to the shocking incident played out at the Thiruvananthapuram court premises, where a group of lawyers had physically assaulted journalists without any provocation whatsoever.
No reporter now goes to Kerala courts to report from there. Whether this is based on an official decision by the media or journalist organizations is not known. They don’t go because they are scared of being beaten up. The police are not willing to ensure their safety within the court premises. Even if one percent of the lawyers present in the court indulge in ‘goondaism’, journalists will simply be unable to even set foot there.
Subsequent events prove that what happened at the Kerala High Court and the Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode district courts were all part of a well-thought out agenda to effectively black out the media.
The points that were raised during the journalists-lawyers’ meeting called by the Advocate General to sort out the issue would make anyone who believes in upholding media freedom and independence in journalism deeply concerned.
A Bar Association leader waved a copy of the first page of a leading Malayalam newspaper that carried a cartoon drawn by Kerala’s leading cartoonist, and demanded that the media must promise that such cartoons would not be published anymore.
Even a child knows about how our former Prime Minister the late Jawaharlal Nehru had asked one of our very own cartoonists to not spare even him!
Another demand was that the daily satirical programmes aired on regional channels should not make any sarcastic reference to lawyers. There were other similar demands too.
One should not have to consider dealing with such matters in the middle of a reconciliation talk, as these were not the reasons why the conflict happened in the first place. And the lawyers were not ready to talk about the actual reasons, as these had now become sub judice.
We should not forget that trouble had started with the media having reported on a sexual harassment case and the police action on the same.
Mediapersons and Media Owners
The Bar Association then wanted a separate meeting with media owners too present. The demands raised by the lawyers this time left all those who heard them unsure of whether to laugh or to cry.
One such demand was that it was the court which would choose the journalists who would report from the court premises. Nowhere in the world would any lawyer association belonging to any court make such a demand of the media.
That the lawyers had insisted on the presence of the media owners during the talks was downright insulting and one that questioned the self-respect of the journalists. Journalist organizations chose not to respond and simply gulped them down the humiliation, as they wanted the stalemate to end.
What exactly do the lawyers want to prove? That the media does not have the freedom to report and that it should toe their line? Is that the freedom of speech and independence of media -promised by the Indian Constitution- that the courts upheld all these years? Or was it to tell the media barons that even when journalists filed such stories, they ought to ensure that these never saw the light of the day?
The law clearly states that journalists and not media barons are responsible for the contents of a newspaper. The owners only have a say in the broader policies of their publication. Are the lawyers who have cleared their bar exams really not aware of the same?
The last page of most newspapers carries the name of the editor according to the Press and Registration of the Books Act. And this is not just a mere technicality. It is also a journalistic principle accepted by the democratic world.
Journalism is just like any other profession be it that of a lawyer, teacher, doctor or engineer. The very basis of the Fourth Estate is the professional autonomy that it enjoys.
What the Press Council says
This is what the Press Council of India that is headed by former judges of the Supreme Court and recognized by the Indian Parliament and functioning according to the law of the land has to say:
“Once the owner lays down the policy of the newspaper for general guidance, neither he nor anybody on his behalf can interfere with the day-to-day functioning of the editor and the journalistic staff working under him. It is well established that the freedom of the press is essentially the freedom of the people to be informed accurately and adequately on all issues, problems, events and developments. In discharge of the editorial functions, the editor is supreme and superior even to the owner. The independence of the newspaper is essentially the independence of the editor from all internal and external restrictions. Unless the editor enjoys this freedom, he will be unable to discharge his primary duty which is to the people, and without such freedom, he can be held responsible in law for all that appears in the newspaper.”
What becomes crystal clear here is the blatant misuse of power and miscarriage of justice by the advocates. That news from the courts does not make it to the papers will not have an effect on journalists, media owners, newspaper-vendors or even the salaries drawn by any of them.
But media freedom will definitely be impacted. This poses a challenge to the public’s right to know and seems to be consciously aimed at curbing it. It hence becomes a matter of concern for not just the media, but society as a whole.
Ministers need no longer be scared
It gradually dawns on one that this seems to be part of a game-plan by powerful vested interests tainted by corruption, violence, sexual abuse and other legal and ethical violations. A few lawyers consciously and a majority of them unconsciously are party to such manipulation.
The aim is not to just make journalists stay away from the courts. What is the need for reporters to come here to file their reports was a question posed by the lawyers. We will submit written reports for publication was their line of reasoning, which seemed to harbour the unsaid motive of letting the public know only what the men in black themselves deemed fit.
It is not the final judgement delivered by the courts, but the questions posed by the judges and their opinions that have shaped the course of many a political happening in the state. The resignations of former state finance minister KM Mani and many other ministers were all based on remarks made by the respected judiciary.
So obviously, when court happenings are not reported, politicians have nothing to fear. In this case too, the hate campaign against the media is part of protecting the culprits who flaunt their powerful connections to walk scot-free, despite being an accused in cases of corruption and sexual abuse.
Such people would definitely not extend their support for anything that guarantees media freedom. What makes the present situation even graver is the fact that these are the very people who offer legal advice to those in power.