While there has been ample criticism of the media the fraternity, there were several moments this year when the Indian judiciary also sat up and lashed out at sections of the fourth pillar of democracy.
Be it hate speech, “”, or criticism over , the Supreme Court fixed its gaze on the media over several issues, and even, at least once, asked for a “break” from attacks against judges. But were the court’s remarks binding, or did they border on judicial overreach? And was the media always jumping the gun?
This year was, after all, a mixed bag for the judiciary too with three CJIs – Justice NV Ramana, Justice UU Lalit and Justice DY Chandrachud – taking over. While former Madras High Court judge Justice K Chandru noted that the judiciary’s track record this year “did not show the due exercise of power which is required to keep the checks and balances”, there were progressive verdicts too, such as the in September. However, major concerns remained over alleged inaction in cases concerning constitutional liberties – the verdict on the money laundering law, for example, was as an infringement on individual liberty.
Meanwhile, the news media, especially television, remained under the scanner for hate speech. A titled ‘Religious Minorities in India’, by an NGO called the Council on Minority Rights in India, in November raised concerns about the portrayal of minorities on TV debates. For instance, of the 60 episodes concerning religious minorities on Aaj Tak senior executive editor Anjana Om Kashyap’s show Halla Bol, it said that 57 were negative in 2021. The anchor, this year, instead of questioning the legality of the demolitions in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, had infamously onto a bulldozer.
Months before, in April, a slew of were filed against News18 India anchor Aman Chopra for his alleging that a temple was razed down in Congress-government Rajasthan as “revenge” for the demolitions in Delhi. Besides, there were several instances of the objecting to television coverage and demanding that shows be taken down.
In August, while to Al Jazeera in a documentary on hate speech in India, Supreme Court lawyer Shahrukh Alam said, “This kind of dramatised TV seems to work because our very insecure down and out middle class likes to put a face to all its insecurities, to all its fear, all its anger, resentment and hate and these people gave them that face – the face of the Muslim.”
In September, hearing a batch of 11 petitions linked to hate speech, the court had criticised the visual media and also asked the Centre why it chose to be a mute spectator on the issue. Justice KM Joseph , “The role of the anchor is very important…There should be free debate no doubt about it but, you should also know where to draw the line.” It also sought a strong regulatory mechanism. The central government is yet to respond.
Delhi-based advocate Areeb Uddin Ahmed said the line between the media and judiciary should never be interlinked as both of them have a separate role but “we do need a regulatory body to filter such channels who are diverting the truth into a ‘spicy’ debate for the sake of TRPs, and such media houses should be made accountable”.
However, speaking to Newslaundry, former Madras High Court judge Justice K Chandru said, “You must remember what Justice Krishna Iyer said about the Supreme Court – ‘There is one Supreme Court building in Delhi but within it there are 34 Supreme Courts.’ If you go by off-the-cuff statements of judges made during various hearings, you may have got the wrong impression. Sometimes statements are made for public consumption and more often they may not be reflected in written orders.”
In one such order, refusing to quash cases against News18 anchor Amish Devgan for his remarks against Sufi mystic Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the court had in 2020 observed that “persons of influence, keeping in view their reach, impact and authority owe a duty and have to be more responsible”. Speaking to Newslaundry on the issue of TV debates being scrutinised by the courts, senior Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde to this case in which the “onus was placed on the anchor as well who was an equal participant in the debate”.
However, reportage on court proceedings shouldn’t call for any regulations even though the court’s criticism over media trials – such as the one endured by Disha Salian’s family following Sushant Singh Rajpoot’s death – may be valid.
Referring to then CJI NV Ramana’s remarks in July on the media “overstepping” its responsibility, advocate Areeb Uddin Ahmed said, “I believe the chief was speaking in the context of regulation of fake news and ill-informed regulation of news. There have been many instances where people have been calling out judges on social media and ultimately landing into contempt, but one should always remember that criticism should always be constructive and not just for the sake of criticism.”
According to Justice Chandru, it is “only healthy criticism” which keeps the judiciary “under some balance”. “It is not as if the comments made against judges even about their judicial orders do not bring any result,” he said, referring to a 2015 impeachment attempt against Justice Pardiwala over his alleged unconstitutional remarks on reservation.
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