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Bad journalism should not be reason for SC to step back from its role as protector of our freedoms
If India has a proudly unfettered media now, fundamental to its democracy, the credit goes to the courts. Without an explicit First Amendment-type protection built into our Constitution as in the United States, it is the court that has upheld and guarded press freedom with its consistent interpretation of Article 19(a), as part of a citizen's fundamental right to free speech and expression. It is this role of the court as the protector of freedom that will be tested as it reflects on the wisdom of "guidelines" for the media.
The court has been bothered, justifiably, by the occasional misinterpreting of legal matters in the media or coverage of a case that may be seen as interfering with a defendant's right to a free trial. But the court itself can tackle this case by case: whether the hearing should be in-camera or whether the evidence should remain in sealed cover, for example. The option of prior restraint via guidelines for reporting is the sledgehammer option. It will strike at the very heart of the freedoms the court has underlined and upheld. This will not only hurt the media, it will also damage the court — as many constitutional experts have now underlined. Senior jurist Fali Nariman, who himself brought the issue to court and suggested normative guidelines, was taken aback at the bench's eagerness to formulate "principles" for the media. As he pointed out, it may be straying into the legislature's domain by attempting to enact a law. Indeed, it can be argued that an attempt to abridge press freedom by mandating a code of behaviour violates the basic structure of the Constitution.
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